Just like family!

like_my_familyWhen someone says about the people they work with, “They’re just like family,” usually it’s meant in a positive way. They mean that they really care about their coworkers and feel personally close with them. Aw, that’s so nice, isn’t it?

But family isn’t all pink hearts and unicorns and BFF necklaces, as anyone who recently broke bread with blood relatives will quickly attest. Family also has black sheep, crazy aunts, creepy uncles, and secret skeletons in the closet. Turns out this is another way that your work “family” is like your real family. It can be as hard to get along with coworkers as it can be to spend Thanksgiving dinner with your loud, obnoxious cousin Bob whose political views are diametrically opposed to yours. You can’t pick your family and, unless you’re doing the hiring, you also can’t pick your colleagues. Your sister-in-law might be as annoying and inescapable as Adam from accounting, who refuses to take his blue tooth out of his ears and snaps his gum when he talks.

The difference is that with family, our only goals, really, are survival and relationship maintenance. But at work, we have to deal with these people and also succeed in our work! So how do we learn to manage people and personalities that are different from us? How do we get past the friction and not just cope with the crazies but find a way to thrive?

  • Befriend – Make your enemy your friend. If you really don’t like someone – or they don’t like you – just pretend that you do and eventually you will. Be friendly and cheerful. Look for ways to win them over. Your real life best friend has qualities that drive someone, somewhere, up the wall, but your overall positive feelings have made them unimportant to you. The more warmth you can sustain for another human, the more willing you will be to accept their idiosyncrasies.
  • Look within – much of the time when there is something about someone we really can’t tolerate, we need to look to ourselves. What is it their behavior or style speaks to in our own personality? I have a hard time accepting people who tend to be pessimistic, but the reason is that because I am working so hard on burying my own worries, that I resent having to share someone else’s burden. The truth is that Pessimistic Pam and I are a lot a like, we just handle our concerns differently. Knowing this helps me deal with Pam better. I can even honestly tell her that I’m having a hard time with a conversation and why.
  • Shift frames – when you dislike something about someone, you are judging it, putting a label on it. You believe Joan is pushy. What does Joan think about her behavior? She probably thinks she’s assertive. You think Dan is a ditherer, but he thinks he is thorough. Same behavior, different label. Watch what happens when you try to imagine how the other person perceives their own behavior, and apply a different label to it. It makes you more empathetic to their unique perspective and more tolerant of their approach.

The common thread in these three strategies is that they start with you changing the way you see. You can’t change other people, you can only change the way you perceive them and how you respond to them. Ultimately, the harder you are on people, the harder it is to get along with them. The most important thing you can do to improve your work (or family) relationships is to not be as quick to criticize. Being overly critical is a double-edged sword, really. If you are hard on other people, chances are you are pretty hard on yourself, too. But because you are constantly being assaulted by your own self-criticisms, you are paradoxically less open to critique yourself. Critical people also tend to be defensive, hypersensitive, and thin-skinned.

This is not a good basis for healthy relationships – criticizing and fearing criticism. And as we have talked about again and again, trust is the foundation of effective work groups. Lack of trust breeds interpersonal conflict, which gets in the way of healthy task-related conflict. When emotional energy is drained away by interpersonal conflict, we can’t muster the fortitude to persevere when things go wrong or we really need to dig deep. You can slump along at work while engaging in micro-battles here and there, but you probably won’t really flourish. To be spectacular in your work you have to find ways to deal with the interpersonal conflict that naturally arises when people who are different work closely together. You have to do the hard, human work of being open and compassionate with the people you work with.

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” –Marcus Aurelius


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