Unfortunately, many of us will eventually have to work with someone we don’t get along with. Most of us will believe this other person is incompetent (or rude or dishonest or unqualified or whatever it is that we have a problem with), so we’ll spend the better part of the relationship simply wishing the other person would simply move along. Once we eventually part ways, we’ll feel relieved that the experience is over.
But wouldn’t it be great if those miserable experiences came with some valuable learnings? As much as that would sooth the sting of these experiences, it rarely happens because we often blame the other person entirely for the problematic dynamic. Why do we focus on blame so much?
Well, I know that when I struggled with someone at work, I fully believed that he was incompetent. I could clearly see how his incompetence was contributing to the problems. And I knew my intentions were pure, so knew I couldn’t be the issue. What’s more, to admit I was part of the issue felt like abdicating him from responsibility, and that didn’t seem right. After all, he was incompetent! So I blamed him completely. I therefore spent all my energy hoping others would see that he was incompetent, leaving precisely zero energy for me to consider how I was contributing. In retrospect, there were three flaws in my approach to this issue:
Flaw 1: Assuming someone is only one thing
He might have been incompetent. But people are more than one thing. I’m highly competent at times… and highly incompetent. I’m a leader and a follower. I’m compassionate, insensitive, patient, impatient, generous and selfish. I’m a human being, made up of a bunch of characteristics. So was he. But I got locked in on one trait, and then blinded myself to only see that one trait over and over again, failing to see any good in him and getting more frustrated in the process. We all do this—we get locked into our perspectives and ignore any alternative data. We should fight this tendency. When you hear yourself reducing someone to one negative trait, recognize that there’s a strong chance you aren’t seeing the whole picture.
Flaw 2: Assuming there is only one person contributing to the problematic dynamic
One-hundred percent of difficult interactions involve more than one person. In almost all of them, both parties are contributing to the problem (except for extreme cases such as criminal activity). Yet we rarely see how we are contributing. We only know what we intend, but can’t necessarily know our impact. And there’s a difference between intentions and impact. I knew the impact this guy’s actions were having on our relationship, and it was negative. I knew the intentions I had for my actions, and they were positive. But I didn’t look into whether I was having an impact I didn’t intend, and therefore contributing to the problem.
Flaw 3: Assuming that if the other person is bad, and entirely to blame, then there’s no learning for me
That the other person has flaws is no excuse for your inability to work with him/her. There will be other colleagues you deem incompetent or rude or dishonest or unqualified. You still have to learn to be a productive colleague with these folks. You can’t succeed in business if you are only capable of working with perfect colleagues!
If you sense yourself committing any of these three flaws, you might consider adopting the following 2-step approach:
Step 1: Recognize you’re part of the problem, so that you can start being part of the solution
Stop playing the victim and recognize that you’re one of the people contributing to this bad dynamic. And you have a chance to break the behavioral patterns that keep getting reinforced with each interaction.
Step 2: Focus on what you can do differently, and less on what the other person can do
You can’t control the other person. But you can learn what to say or do differently to break the pattern and get better results. How? Ask! Ask him/her what impact you’re having, how he/she believes you’re contributing to the problem, and what he/she would want you to do differently to get better results. If you can approach him/her with genuine curiosity, and resist the urge to respond with defensiveness (which will shut off the flow of free information), you could be awash in valuable insights.
The tips above won’t make this person necessarily any easier to work with. But it might teach you something valuable. We’re all going to have to experience these difficult interactions… why not learn something along the way?
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!