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9 Strategies for Improving Relationships With Difficult Colleagues at Work

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You are not always going to love your co-workers, but it’s to your advantage to at least get along.

I was always impressed by a few people at work who seemed to get along with everyone, and wondered what I was missing in talent or temperament. After years mentoring young aspiring entrepreneurs, I am now convinced that getting along and becoming more productive with other people is a skill that any professional can learn, or accomplish via a dedicated strategy.

For example, we all have experienced a few difficult relationships, perhaps including an insecure boss, the ultimate pessimist, a passive-aggressive peer, or the perennial victim. Sometimes you can simply avoid these, but more often you have to work in concert with them on a common project or career-risking decision. It is in these contexts that I am often asked for specific advice. 

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I was happy to find my own insights and recommendations confirmed in a new book, Getting Along: How to Work With Anyone, by Harvard Business Review workshop facilitator Amy Gallo. She offers a set of nine strategies that I will summarize here and you need to follow to more effectively navigate the complicated workplace dynamics and difficult co-workers that we all face:

1.    Focus on your own self-control and their views. 

Don’t waste time trying to convince a colleague to change. People change only to the degree they want to change. Focus instead on what you can do to match their interaction style and expectation. Look for patience and more subtle ways to influence their views and actions to meet your needs.

2.    Recognize that your perspective is just one view. 

There is rarely an objective truth that everyone sees and accepts. We all come to the workplace with different experiences and a different set of values. You don’t have to agree to get along. You only have to respect each other’s perspective enough to decide on a mutually agreeable way forward.

3.    Be aware that you have some prejudices as well.  

For example, recognize that theaffinity bias is the unconscious tendency to favor people who are like us. Confirmation bias is our likelihood to interpret events as confirmation of existing beliefs. Don’t hesitate to consult with someone you trust who is willing to push back to see the situation fairly.

4.    Don’t polarize things or make it “me against them.” 

Separate the people from the problem. No one wants a nemesis at work. Think about how to engage your colleague in problem-solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative. Never make it about who’s right and who’s wrong, but about a decision or plan you need to complete.

5.    Rely on empathy for others to see things differently. 

Always give your co-worker the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand the rationale for their prickly behavior and views. Start by giving yourself a dose of self-compassion for what you also are going through before you turn your attention to a colleague.Give yourself space before reacting.

6.    Be clear with yourself about goals for a relationship. 

Identifying your goal will help you avoid getting pulled into any drama and stay focused on constructive tactics. Don’t let any hidden agendas or ulterior motives, such as political strategy, throw you off course. Write down your key goals and refer to this list before any interaction with your colleague.

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7.    Resist the urge to talk behind your co-worker’s back.

Gossiping often reflects poorly on you the gossiper. You may get the immediate validation you are seeking, but you may also garner a reputation for being unprofessional, or end up labeled as the difficult one. When seeking help on an issue, seek out people who are constructive, and stay positive.

8.    Experiment with alternatives to find what works. 

Start by coming up with two or three ideas you want to test out on a difficult colleague. Often, small actions make real progress. Keep adjusting your approaches and be willing to abandon ones that aren’t working.Try something you haven’t tried before that others might not expect.

9.    Adopt a growth mindset and stay curious. 

Adopting a curious mindset helps to disrupt the stories we tell ourselves. Assume you have something to learn and believe that the negative dynamic can be turned around, both of which are elements of your own growth. Catch yourself in unproductive thought patterns, and step back to change the framing.

I’m confident that you will find that practicing these strategies will make your difficult relationships more productive, and improve your ability to get along with everyone. The result will be less work stress and more job satisfaction, as well as more positive movement in your career. We all need these in the changing work environment today.

Marty Zwilling

Marty Zwilling

CEO & Founder of Startup Professionals, Inc.; Advisory Board Member for multiple startups; Angels Selection Committee experience; Adjunct Professor at Embry-Riddle University

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