Professional relationships are fundamentally different from personal relationships. You get to choose the people you engage with on a personal level. Many people choose not to engage with the closest people in their personal lives (parents, siblings, spouses—even children). However, you don’t get to choose the people you engage with on a professional level. You are paid to engage with them, plain and simple.
Some folks avoid engaging with co-workers they dislike. That’s not only wrong—it hurts you, them, your team, customers, partners, and the organization. If your work inherently requires you to work with someone, you are required to do it. No excuses. No side-eye. No passive-aggressive behavior. You need to be and remain professional.
“But what about jerks? Harassment? Misconduct?” If your work is compromised by harassment or misconduct, you must report it immediately. That’s part of being a professional. If your co-workers’ behavior falls short of harassment or misconduct but is still undesirable, you should use your professional relationship to better understand and perhaps even improve their behavior. It’s not easy, but you are getting paid. Let’s discuss how to engage effectively with folks who you find disagreeable.
There are quick and confidential methods to report harassment and misconduct. You can find them online within the internal sites for human resources and legal. Ignoring or avoiding engaging these issues enables them to persist, continuing to harm you and your co-workers. Please report them right away.
If nothing is done to correct the situation after you report it, you should work elsewhere at the company or at another company. Doing so is called “voting with your feet”—one of the most effective ways to draw attention to persistent bad behavior while also removing yourself from it.
Do the right thing
You probably don’t like all your co-workers. They don’t all like you either. Get over it. Or even better, as I suggest in You’re no bargain either, embrace the uniqueness of your co-workers and appreciate what makes them (and you) valuable. Either way, you need to respect each other’s needs in order to collaborate effectively.
There’s a straightforward, three-step approach to keep work relationships professional.
- Understand and acknowledge what the other person needs from you.
- Understand and acknowledge what you need from the other person.
- Ask, “How can we move forward in a way that meets all of our needs?”
What’ll you have?
As I mention in Evil assumptions, it’s tempting to assume others are out to get you, but that’s rarely the case. Instead, co-workers generally try to be successful in their jobs. You need to understand what they believe is necessary for their success and why. This approach is called “Leading with empathy,” and it works.
However, it’s insufficient to simply understand what your co-workers need. You also must acknowledge those needs back to them. That way, they know you know. Taking this step is a sign of respect and appreciation that’s necessary to build trust and collaborate effectively. No judgment. No arguing. Just seek to understand and acknowledge your co-workers’ needs. You can work out compromises later.
How do you find out what your co-workers need to be successful? Ask them. “What does success [in this situation] mean to you? What might prevent that success?” Ask them interactively, not through email or chat, so that you can discuss and follow up, avoiding further misunderstandings.
Sometimes co-workers aren’t clear about their needs. They may not have thought about them or realized them. You can often discern people’s needs from the questions they ask. What concerns do they raise as you describe the situation? What information do they seek? What approval do they require?
As you figure out what co-workers need, repeat it back to them as acknowledgment and to test your hypotheses. Take visible notes so they can correct any assumptions and appreciate your diligence. If conflicts arise with multiple people, you can go around the room (virtual or in person), one at a time, and visibly collect and acknowledge everyone’s needs.
I have needs
The second step to collaborating effectively with co-workers you may find disagreeable is to clearly articulate your needs to them. Many people start with articulating their needs before acknowledging their co-workers’ needs. That’s disrespectful and antagonistic unless your co-workers ask you first. Remember, lead with empathy.
If you’re unsure about your own needs, consider the same questions you’d ask your co-workers: “What does success [in this situation] mean to me? What might prevent that success?” Let your co-workers know the answers to these questions, and respond thoughtfully to their follow-up questions.
Just like your co-workers, you can’t collaborate effectively if your needs aren’t acknowledged and met. Once again, leave out judgment and complaints—those invite arguments. Stick to what’s not debatable: What you need to be successful.
If your co-workers are speaking to you or about you disrespectfully, express your need to be treated with respect. Give examples of disrespectful language and provide alternatives that address you as you’d prefer. Sometimes people don’t realize the impact of their words and actions. If their words or actions rise to the level of harassment, report it immediately.
Make it so
Once you’ve acknowledged your co-workers’ needs and your own, thus defining your shared success, you can work together toward a solution without defensiveness or misunderstanding. Ask, “How can we move forward in a way that meets all of our needs?”
If your co-workers get defensive at any point, stop and try to understand and acknowledge their unspoken needs. If there’s no reasonable way to meet everyone’s needs, escalate the issue to your shared management, articulating why no solution is possible (now that you know). If the situation changes and you need to alter your plan, consult with co-workers to ensure you’re aligned and no new needs arise.
It’s extra work to engage and consult with co-workers. It takes more time and may seem thankless, especially if your co-workers aren’t your favorites. However, everyone benefits from your shared success, which sure beats the alternative.
If you’re a manager seeking advice on handling escalations, read the “I’m stuck in this pit” section of A manager’s manager.
An unfortunate example of working with a disagreeable co-worker is when you disagree with or dislike your manager. Let’s go through the three steps.
- Understand and acknowledge what your manager needs from you. You should ask your manager about particulars, but managers have common needs. They need you to be productive and finish work. They need you to provide status on your efforts. And they need you to learn and grow. Ideally, they’d also like you to be diplomatic and aligned with teammates, as well as make your manager look good.
- Understand and acknowledge what you need from your manager. Again, you may have particular needs, but in general, you need clarity around team goals, plans, priorities, and expectations; feedback on your performance; and, ideally, career guidance, support, and decent work-life balance.
- Ask, “How can we move forward in a way that meets your needs and mine?” This question may seem to have a simple answer: Be a good manager and employee since both your needs are straightforward. However, different people need information in different ways. How does your manager like to receive status updates? Do you have the clarity and feedback you need? What would help?
You can have a productive conversation with your manager, even if you don’t always agree. By making your needs clear and understanding and acknowledging your manager’s needs (without judgment), you’re on your way toward working better together.
It’s hard to be empathetic with a manager who doesn’t respect or appreciate you. However, it’s worth trying to understand each other before abandoning hope and switching teams.
You don’t have to like all your co-workers, but you do need to work effectively with them. Lead with empathy. In an interactive conversation, understand and acknowledge your co-workers’ needs without judgment before addressing your own. Then clearly describe what you need without commentary or complaint. The goal is to make your shared success transparent to everyone so you can move forward together. When things change, consult with your co-workers before deciding on a new course of action.
It may not be fun to work with folks you don’t like, but that’s why you’re a paid professional. If you take the time to understand the needs of your co-workers, you can build trust, respect, and shared success that leads to camaraderie, mutual appreciation, and, occasionally, friendship. It sure beats the alternative of distrust, disrespect, and failure. Let’s keep it professional.
Special thanks to Bob Zasio for providing valuable feedback on the first draft of this month’s column.
Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.