10x Difficult Coworkers
Practical strategies for working effectively with difficult people
“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own -- not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.” — Marcus Aurelius
Leadership is not a popularity contest; it's about making tough decisions and taking responsibility for the outcomes, even if those decisions are not popular with everyone. As a leader, you need to be prepared to face doubts and criticism from others, and to stand by your decisions, even when they are not well received. This requires a strong sense of conviction and self-confidence, as well as a willingness to listen to different perspectives and consider alternative options. It also requires a commitment to acting in the best interests of the organization and its stakeholders, rather than trying to please everyone or avoid confrontation. Let’s unpack the first element viz. empathetic listening
Listen with Empathy
In 10x Empathy, I discussed the importance of empathy in decision making as a manager. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the thoughts and feelings of others, and is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence. I argue that empathy is essential for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately, and can help managers make better decisions that align with the perspectives of others. Empathy can also help prevent the perpetuation of biases and lead to more successful outcomes in various aspects of a manager's job, such as hiring, performance management, and conflict resolution. In 10x Listening, I discussed the importance of listening skills in leadership and offered four psychological approaches to becoming a better listener. The first approach is listening to respond, where the listener is primarily focused on preparing their response rather than truly listening to the speaker. The second approach is listening to corroborate one's own views, where the listener only pays attention to information that aligns with their existing beliefs and biases. The third approach is listening to judge, where the listener evaluates the speaker and their message based on their own criteria. The fourth and final approach is listening to understand, where the listener actively engages with the speaker and tries to understand their perspective and feelings. Listening with empathy involves actively engaging with the speaker and trying to understand their perspective and feelings. This approach to listening involves putting aside one's own biases and judgments and truly attempting to see the world from the speaker's point of view. By listening with empathy, a person can build trust, improve communication, and discover common ground.
Find Common Ground
One of the simplest ways to find common ground is to listen empathetically to the other person and try to understand their perspective. You can approach the conversation with open-ended inquiry and try to see things from their point of view. This can help you identify areas where you may have more in common than you initially realized. Practicing presence and mindfulness can also help you more clearly see the situation at hand. Instead of getting caught up in past conflicts or differences, try to focus on what you can agree on and work together to find a solution. This can help you build a stronger foundation for communication and collaboration. Once you reach a workable solution that works for you, it’s imperative to document this alignment (a good practice to follow in general, but especially important in face of conflict).
Operating in a Low Trust, High Friction Environment
The documentation is your best (only?) friend not only to capture the alignment, but also to arrive at it. In a low trust, high friction environment, documentation and written followups are the only way to make steady progress. It helps you identify the main points of each document, look for points mentioned in both, and use evidence to support your arguments. Documentation also has a psychological benefit of depersonalizing the arguments. You can then followup with the other party to discuss your findings and reach an agreement. This may involve further negotiation and compromise, but ultimately the goal is to find a solution that works for both parties. As necessary, turn by turn progress should be shared with your leadership as visibility also forces accountability. One of the strategies that works effectively in most environments is to support your arguments and hypothesis with data, while arguing for better customer experience (vs. making it rooted in opinions and personal agendas).
Protect Your Mindspace
Dealing with a difficult coworker especially in an environment where you don’t have an adequate support system can feel emotionally draining. To avoid letting difficult coworkers monopolize your mindspace, you shouldn’t hesitate from setting boundaries with the difficult coworker and focus on your work. While you may feel like working through the conflicts is your core responsibility, you should balance it out with self-care, even if that means avoiding getting drawn into conflicts and seeking support from your manager or HR department if necessary. Always remember that you have the power to choose how you react to difficult coworkers. You can choose to focus on the positive aspects of your job and the people you work with, rather than letting difficult coworkers control your thoughts or emotions.
I’ll conclude this essay with a quote that I have come to appreciate after sustaining several battle scars.
"Difficult people are like sandpaper. They may rub and scratch, but in the end, they can leave us polished and refined." - Chris Colfer