Difficult Colleagues 1 – Paradigm Shifters

Last week we started discussing “Difficult Colleagues.” Somehow, we’ve already vowed to change these colleagues, or even get rid of them entirely (as in the email I received).

Instead, let’s look at some reasons why we may perceive people as “difficult.”


Possibility 1 – Paradigm Shifters

Sometimes a “difficult colleague” is really a “Paradigm Shifter.” Find out how to spot these priceless people later.


For this post, I want to introduce you to @Joel Barker, a Futurist who used his Paradigm expertise to help major organizations (IBM, 3M, & others) think and innovate differently.

His definition of a Paradigm: “A paradigm is a set of rules and regulations (written or unwritten) that does two things: (1) it establishes or defines boundaries; and (2) it tells us how to behave inside the boundaries to be successful.” (Barker, 1992, Future Edge/Paradigms, p. 32)

Shifting the current paradigm, then, refers to how the rules or boundaries are changed to form new kinds of success. Innovation demands Paradigm Shifters. We don’t usually recognize new paradigms unless we have Shifters point them out. But we label them “difficult” instead of understanding their brilliance.

Sadly, we’d rather label and dismiss these colleagues who don’t think the same way we do. This does two things:

  • it elevates us to “better, smarter, normal,” while it
  • devalues them as “not normal, emotional, challenging” – Difficult.

But this also creates other problems:

  • We fail to question other possibilities.
  • We vilify Shifters so that WE don’t appear to be Difficult.
  • We negate potentially great ideas because they came from a person we’ve dismissed as Difficult.


Humans resist paradigm shifts unless we see convergences in other areas at the same time. Later on, we might grudgingly acquiesce to the shift. Shifters, on the other hand, seek out disparate information constantly to pair with possibilities for something unusual; they inherently search for new paradigms.

Successful organizations understand their need for natural paradigm shifters: they are bleeding edge possibilities + risk reducers. Our failure to ‘see’ them magnifies our problems with them – therefore, they become “someone to fix.” Instead, they are invaluable resources, brilliant gems, and the best of innovators because they care about their organizations enough to try to change them.

How to spot natural Paradigm Shifters from Joel Barker’s book (pp. 55-70). Look for them in four scenarios:

  • An employee with any new degree,
  • A new employee coming aboard our ship,
  • Employees who have been on our ship for a while (years). (“Mavericks” work at the fringes of their normal departments, easily spotting new paradigms), or
  • An external person who has played around with a problem long enough to work it out, even if it has stumped others for years (a “Tinkerer”).

The next time you think of someone as a “Difficult Colleague,” ask yourself the question, “Are they really difficult or am I missing their genius?”