It's often been said workplaces are much like families and, in fact, most organizations work hard to create what they call a "family atmosphere." By this we mean a harmonistic family where everyone gets along and works well together.
Yet, a workplace where everyone consistently gets along is indeed difficult to achieve. That's because at some point, someone will cause friction through their words or behaviour. For instance, one person might display a condescending attitude while another might engage in activities or comments that plainly show lack of respect. As well, envy and jealousy among workers can often arise. Any of these incidents starts a chain of events that can lead to outright war between employees.
Let's face it; it's not unusual for workers to get frustrated with each other once in awhile. For instance, a recent survey of business leaders identified the most frequent frustration with colleagues was due to sloppy work and a lack of attention to detail while gossiping and office politics came a close second. Dealing with colleagues who were perpetually late and individuals who constantly stole credit for someone else's work was next on the list of pet peeves.
Some people get so frustrated they simply give up and move on to another job. I agree, resigning is one option to solving the problem, but you need to keep in mind tigers and sharks are lurking in every workplace. The result is you might just be running away only to find you've simply moved from the proverbial "frying pan to the fire." That's because no matter where you go, it's likely you'll encounter at least one fellow employee with whom you cannot establish a satisfactory working relationship and/or whom you will perceive as a tiger or shark biting at your shins.
I admit this workplace scenario can be stressful, but there are relationship building strategies you should try before giving up or feeling a need to turn to the boss for help.
First of all, understand and accept that you don't actually have to like someone in order to work with them. Yes, it's stressful but the first and best strategy is to make every effort to find a solution to your collegial relationship before you complain to the boss, start looking for another job or simply jumping ship.
The following tips will provide some guidance as you work toward improving relationships.
Examine your own reactions -- Most of us learned how to cope with conflict and anger from our childhood upbringing. Take a moment and examine what approach was taught in your home. For instance, do you see conflict from a competitive win/lose point of view? Next, determine if you're continuing to use your learned conflict-management style. Review this and identify whether or not it's working for you. It's surprising how much old baggage we drag along with us.
Keep collegial behaviour in perspective -- When you get upset, more than likely you are interpreting your colleague's behaviour as a personal slap in the face. In fact, you might lose your temper and flare out at the other person. Be calm. Review the colleague's standard responses and look for patterns in their behaviour. This helps you to understand where the individual is coming from and remember, their behaviour might also have been learned in childhood!
Listen and ask questions -- Listen for and try to interpret the underlying reasons behind a person's comments. Look for evidence of hurt or fear. Gently ask questions for clarification in such a way that won't cause defensiveness. Demonstrate understanding, even if you don't agree with them. Acknowledge their comments but let them know your own thoughts on the issue. Speak in an objective, calm voice with a quiet low tone.
Assess the true consequences -- Sometimes people make a "mountain out of a molehill" by becoming overly emotional, which in turn changes the issue from an occurrence to a crisis. Ask yourself if the behaviour really interferes with your work, whether the behaviour will ruin your promotional opportunities and/or create such a terrible situation you'll be terminated. If not, then maybe you are blowing the issue out of proportion. Bring it back into perspective.
State your own needs -- Let the person know where you are coming from and what your own personal needs are. For instance, if you find your colleague plays the radio too loudly and is distracting, then propose a win/win solution that will enable the individual to listen while your perceived "noise" is reduced. Help the colleague to understand your position without making them defensive.
Responding to an attack -- One of the most challenging workplace scenarios is responding to a verbal attack. While a first response might be shock or rebuke, the best strategy is to hold back on any response and take a breath so you can take action rather than simply react. Be silent for awhile... let the other person speak. Consciously separate the person from the problem, pay attention to what might be the real issue and then carefully reframe the issue in response. If you have time, write down your strategy and practise prior to responding.
Make an effort to know the colleague -- In my view, good workplace relationships require just as much effort as a personal family relationship. Get to know your colleague, identify strengths you admire and be sure to praise them for this. Build rapport by learning what makes them tick, what they like, how they spend their free time and their avenues of pride. When people show respect by making an effort to connect, it's appreciated and creates a better foundation for a working relationships. Remember, no one wants to co-operate with someone who appears to be against them.
No matter where you work, no matter what job you hold, there will always be a colleague who presents a relationship challenge. The solution is to develop a positive relationship as quickly as you can, because when you have trust, problems can be resolved. When there is distrust, fear or disrespect, collegial relationships go by the wayside and conflict results. However, no matter what your role, my advice is to take personal responsibility to build a harmonistic workplace. After all, this is what leaders do!
Source: Sloppy Work Most Annoying Behaviour, Canadian HR Reporter, June 20, 2011. Managing Assertively, How to Improve Your People skills: A Self Teaching Guide, Madelyn Burley-Allen, 1995, John Wiley and Sons.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, M.Ed., CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org