Stop Feeding Your Trolls

Posted 02.26.2020

We all know that there are trolls on social media. Twitter is full of real people and bots generating a constant stream of mean tweets.

What we sometimes forget is that trolls have been with us since long before Twitter was ever a thing and live on in three-dimensional form today. Trolls can show up on peer leadership teams, boards of directors and lots of other places where people need to work together to get things done. Chances are you’re dealing with some trolls in your work world right now.

Your trolls may not be sending literal mean tweets but they are likely disrupting and derailing productive conversations with their grousing, complaining and cheap shots. You never get constructive input from a true troll. Attacking and complaining, for trolls, are not means to an end; they’re ends in themselves.

In other words, trolls are gonna troll. It’s almost always a waste of time to try to figure out what motivates them or how you can help them see the light. Your energy is better spent on neutralizing their impact.

Here, then, are three ways to seize the initiative and stop feeding your trolls. 

First, establish and reinforce your narrative. In his classic book, Leading Minds, Harvard professor Howard Gardner made the point that the great leaders of history all had two things in common. First, they had a compelling story of change and, second, their lives embodied their stories. Take a lesson from Gardner’s work. Get really clear about the story of the outcomes you’re trying to create and why they matter to the people you’re serving. Then, be very intentional about acting in ways that are consistent with and reinforcing of your narrative. The strength of your story and how you’re leading and living in support of it will speak volumes to the people who matter most. And, in the process, you’ll reduce the credibility and impact of whatever junk the troll is spewing.

Second, recruit some troll containing allies. You need help when you’re under attack from a troll. Guaranteed, you’re not the only one who is annoyed by the troll and who sees the negative impact of the troll’s misdirection of time and attention. Ask your colleagues for help. Recruit some of them to serve as allies in containing the troll. Ask them to step up in meetings to help get things back on track when the troll is distracting everyone from the real work. Ask them to be particularly aware of not getting pulled into a back and forth with the troll. Ask them to have your back and speak the truth when you’re personally attacked by the troll. There’s strength in numbers. Increase yours.

Third, respond, don’t react. If you watch for the patterns, it’s not going to take you long to figure out what the troll is going to do and when they’re going to do it. It’s usually pretty predictable. That works to your advantage because it gives you the opportunity to step back and choose a productive response instead of just reacting with understandable frustration or anger (which just further feeds the troll). Respond with your narrative strategy and personal brand in mind. Choose the dignified response by focusing on what matters and the facts that support the goal. Don’t let the troll pull you and the rest of the group into a reactive ditch. Remember the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

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