How to Collaborate with People You Don’t Like

Oct 24, 2018 by Monalisa Salib Comments (0)

This blog post was written by Monalisa Salib, Deputy Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN contract.

Real talk: Collaboration can be hard. Sometimes it’s hard because you don’t like the people you have to work with, and more often than not, you don’t have the power to choose who you work with. But I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to “like” the people you work with in order to work with them effectively. Yes, it can make it less fun, for sure, but “liking” your colleagues is really an added bonus. So if you find yourself annoyed that you have to work with someone (let’s just call him James) on your next project, what can you do to collaborate with James more effectively?

Spoiler alert: it’s more about changing your own mindset and behavior, not theirs.

Identify what you appreciate about James: Researchers consistently find that gratitude is strongly associated with happiness and positive relationships. Extrapolating that to how we collaborate with each other, identify one thing you like about James. And yes, you can come up with something. If it’s not immediately coming to mind, try harder. Perhaps you appreciate his taste in colorful socks or that he served in the Peace Corps.

Once you figure out what that something is - it could be as simple as “he always comes to meetings on time” - tell James what you appreciate about him and why. You may find this difficult if you’ve had recent tension, but this simple gesture will go a long way. You will feel better about James by acknowledging his positive traits or behaviors, and he will also feel appreciated. Always be specific about what you appreciate - saying “good job” about something is generally not helpful because it doesn’t describe what was “good.”

Put effort into becoming more self-aware: Sometimes we don’t like our colleagues because our styles are quite different and this plays out in how we work together. For example, you may be quick to decide and James may need more time to process options. Or perhaps James tends to be a big picture thinker and you’re more in the details. These are preferences - neither is good or bad; they’re just different. Becoming aware of your preferences may help you realize why there is friction.

There are tools - such as Insights ®, DISC ®, Myers-Briggs ®, Kolb learning style inventory, etc. - that can help you determine these differences, and many organizations, including USAID, use them with the help of experts and trained facilitators to help teams gain greater self- and group- awareness. The bottom line with all of these tools is that teams composed of members with the same tendencies may be at a disadvantage. For example, if everyone on a team tends to make quick decisions, then the team may not end up making the best decisions because they fail to consider all the implications. Diversity is key, which is why becoming aware of differences may actually help you appreciate your colleagues more. Instead of “James is always slowing us down,” consider: “if James doesn’t ask these important questions, we may make the wrong call.”

Don’t assume James has bad intentions. One trap we tend to fall into is assuming bad intentions: “James keeps interrupting me because he doesn’t care about what I have to say.” James could honestly be a really terrible listener and not be very aware of it. Or he could have really bad hearing. You really never know. When we assume the worst of intentions, we tend to reinforce our disdain for James and we also get too tied to the story in our head about what could be motivating his behavior. So if you are going to assume intentions, try to assume - or at least consider - positive ones. In addition to making you feel better, it will keep you open to the possibility that it’s not personal, that there are solutions to improve the relationship, and it will also make it easier for you to give feedback (see below) without sounding accusatory.

Give and be open to receiving feedback. With greater self-awareness, you can figure out what is really bothering you about your colleague and why, and put effort into addressing that issue. This is where giving really specific feedback can help. One such model that could be helpful is the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) approach. Essentially, you clearly state the day, time, and specific situation you were in, the behavior James exhibited (again, always be specific), and what impact that behavior had on you. An example would be: “Yesterday when we were talking about our work plan, I was saying that I thought we should focus on a new activity, but when I was speaking, you were looking at your phone. I felt like I wasn’t being heard.”

Remember that the feedback you give is as much about you (and your preferences, feelings, and perceptions) as it is about James. Also, it’s important to note that research has found an ideal praise-to-criticism ratio of 5:1, meaning that James will be more likely to respond constructively to your critical feedback if he has heard five instances of praise or appreciation.

But in giving feedback you also have to be open to receiving feedback. It’s a two-way street.

Don’t talk about James with colleagues who reinforce your opinions. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Why? Because we want to know that we’re “not the problem.” So essentially we end up finding people who agree with us and then gossiping about James all day. And we all want to feel like we belong - sometimes a juicy tidbit is the quickest way to get a circle of people to listen to you. Suffice it to say, that’s really counter-productive.

Instead, go out of your way to find someone you trust who works well with James. Ask them how they made that happen and perhaps what they have noticed about your interactions with James (this is an opportunity for you to receive feedback). This will help you come up with more effective strategies to collaborate with James. Another approach is to find an objective colleague who has the ability to “see the other side of the story.” They can help you see the situation from a fresh perspective instead of reinforcing your narrative about James.

Ask yourself the tough questions. When I find myself in a difficult relationship, I often ask myself two questions:

  • How would I treat the person if they had power over me (i.e., were my supervisor or a client)? Chances are you’re treating people who have power over you a little bit better than others; that’s really sad but not too surprising. So how would your treatment of James be different if he wielded some kind of power that could negatively affect you?
  • How do I need to treat this person so I don’t end up with a guilty conscience? Everyone has their lines; go past them and you can’t sleep at night because you feel bad about something you said or did. Let’s not let it get there.

Always stay focused on the overall goal. What are you trying to achieve in working with James? Sometimes refocusing on our overarching goal can help us work through challenging relationships. Ultimately, we are all working in service of others in international development - whether that’s getting more girls in school or supporting anti-corruption efforts. Refocusing our attention at the goal level can help us realize how relatively minor this frustrating relationship is by putting it in perspective. It can also serve as a starting point for a difficult conversation with James: “I know we both want this activity to succeed, so how can we make our working relationship more effective?”

It’s worth noting that this post is written assuming a relatively equal power balance with your colleague. If that’s not the case, much of what is written here is still helpful, though you may just need a bit more courage to apply some of these suggestions.

How have you dealt with challenging relationships in the workplace? What other approaches have you used to collaborate more effectively with colleagues? What habits could you change in order to handle these situations in a more constructive way?