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July 10, 2013 / alipeles

8. Get along with your colleagues

  • Aggressive behavior in coworkers probably isn’t personal
  • The person who offends you may be equally frustrated
  • Even incompetent people are more effective when they’re on your side

 

Let me tell you a story about something I’m not proud of, followed by something I am proud of.

Five years ago, the bank I was working for shuttered an independent hedge fund and combined its assets and much of its staff into our ongoing business. Like many people, I suddenly found my previously crisp role overlapping with other people’s previously crisp roles. Boundaries and divisions of responsibility were unclear. Pressures increased as the financial crisis unfolded and, almost inevitably, conflict ensued. In one particular case, the tensions got so bad that one of my counterparts yelled at me and walked out of a meeting in anger.

I was so sure that I was in the right. 100%. I thought that he had been sneaky and that he had tried to undermine me and that, when it didn’t work out, he had been unprofessional, to boot. The interaction cost me plenty, too. I ended up having to defend myself to the CIO.

It took me a long time to admit that I had handled things poorly. I inflamed the situation when I could have been a true leader and built consensus. But, I’m happy to say that what I did realize very quickly was that I needed to get along with this guy. Our interests were sharply aligned. We supported the same business and together we needed to deliver a platform that would make that business successful.

So, I made it my mission to get along. I showed up for our regular catch-ups. I kept him informed of anything in my domain that might affect him. When he was less than responsive, I kept going. When word of the dispute inevitably hit the rumor mill, I refused to blame him (no matter how I felt). I even complimented him behind his back, when I got the chance. For four years afterwards, which was how long it took, I made it an official documented objective to build a strong partnership with his team.

Of course, I’ve come to see a lot of this in a different light. Now, I can see that he was trying to do his best for the business, that we were both under pressure, and that his actions made sense to him as surely as mine made sense to me.

As one of my managers once told me, “Assume positive intent. You might find out that you were wrong, but assume it anyway.” In that light, my more up to date and thoughtful take on the situation is that it wasn’t personal. Like me, he could have approached the situation differently. He could have been more open and collaborative. But, he expected me to be defensive and difficult. So, he built up defenses to protect his interests. Those defenses played into my concerns and I ended up confirming his negative expectations.

We take offence when we perceive that others disrespect us or are causing us trouble. But, as a general rule, what actual or perceived inconsiderateness really reflects is the fact that people are focusing on themselves, not us.

In this particular situation, I lost the opportunity to collaborate with someone bright and effective. But, often enough, the target of one’s disrespect isn’t so talented. One of the most frustrating aspects of corporate life is fixing problems caused by people who can’t or won’t do their own jobs correctly. Consider, though, that even if your colleague is only 30% effective, 30% is a contribution you can use. If you fight with the person, you may end up with 0% or even a negative contribution. Also, that ineffective person may grow more effective over time or may connect you with other people who are more effective, both benefits you lose if you allow the situation to sour.

Definitely be firm when it comes to defending your standards and pushing for the right solution. Avoiding conflict on substantive issues can really hurt you and those who depend on you.

But, when it comes to personal conflict in the workplace, grace and self-interest are perfectly aligned. The constructive path is to get what you can from relationships, work to improve where possible, and let the rest go. There is no percentage in holding grudges.

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