Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Joining and working on a team – Part 5: working with difficult people, working with people

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on December 21, 2010

This is my fifth posting in a series on joining and working on a team (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 125 through 128 in the main listing) and my 139th in the guide as a whole when counting supplemental postings. And I deal here with one of the most fundamental sets of issues that we all face in our on-the-job experience and in building a career.

The title of this posting focuses on working with difficult people, but this is in fact about working with people in general, and in that friendships can create as much of a challenge as adversaries. And I start here by stating a basic principle that will run through the posting as a whole.

When we work and interact with others in a professional context, we work with colleagues, and with people who we relate to as peers. We work with people who we supervise, either directly and formally or on a less formal basis. We work with people who supervise or manage us in some way. We work with clients and stakeholders, and both in-house and from outside of our employer organization. We work with suppliers and a range of others in the organization’s larger supply and value chains. We may come to like some of these people and get to know them. We may take lunch breaks with them, and chat with them over coffee. But these relationships are with rare exception primarily business relationships. We may find ourselves in conflict with some of the people we have to deal with, and for differences in personality as well as from more business-related issues (e.g. issues involving who should have access to which bottleneck limiting resources when and for how long.) But once again these are with only the occasional and rare exceptions just business relationships too.

• We have friends and value friendship, but in general and as a matter of basic principle our work colleagues and other workplace acquaintances are not our friends.
• We may occasionally find ourselves in conflict and disagreement with others and they may even be approaching up with hostility and acrimony but we need to recognize and acknowledge the professional distance between us and them for this too.

The core message here is very important. We work with colleagues and should strive to work with them and with others we meet with professionally and on a professional basis. Work is not a place to mix in emotional involvement as a core element to the relationships we develop with others.

Yes, with time a colleague may become a true friend and that can be really wonderful. I have developed real friendships in this way. But that is the exception and for both full time, long term in-house employees and for contract workers and consultants. This same principle of professional distance applies when dealing with people who we find difficult and even objectionable. This is business, and certainly for the later of these groups that is a very important distinction to make.

Let them behave according to their emotions and let them deal with the consequences of their behavior, where you have conflict with a colleague or with some other professional-context acquaintance. Think things through and act accordingly. Be polite and courteous, and be prepared to document everything. Be a professional even when others cannot be.

I said above that friendship, or at least the presumption of friendship in the workplace can create problems too. One problem that this can and does create comes from expectations, and both in what your “office friend” does, and in how they would set their priorities. Their goals and priorities will not always align with your own, and it is unrealistic and unfair to presume otherwise. So veer if you will in the direction of friendship by giving them the benefit of the doubt and the expected and needed latitude to meet their needs and priorities by affording them that professional distance. Be their colleague first and foremost when you are working with them.

I am adding this to a series in the Guide on working on a team, but in a real sense I will be continuing on this tomorrow in a new posting on social media and on friends, friendship and Facebook friends. There are some fundamental issues involved here where our professional and social networking experiences can and do overlap with our workplace experience, and both for professionally oriented social networking and for social networking in general (see Social Networking and Business and Web 2.0 Marketing.)

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