Have you ever had to work closely with someone you really didn’t like? Or where you've struggled to overcome repeated friction?
There may be some of you out there who’ve genuinely never been in this situation, but for the rest of us, I’m sure some memories spring to mind, either past or present!
Earlier in our careers, when facing challenging relationships at work it can be tempting to address the problem through avoidance. We may have the chance to move to a different team or minimize the amount of interaction we have with the person. This can be great if we have the option, and can allow us to spend our precious energy elsewhere. However, if we can stick it out, it can also be a good opportunity to practice skills that set us up well more generally.
In more senior or specialized roles it’s not always possible to pick your team.
It’s not always easy to avoid working closely with folks you struggle to get on with. Maybe you’re the only frontend person in a small startup, an engineering manager assigned to a particular team, or you’ve joined a leadership or executive group. You could have a difficult relationship with your manager in a limited org structure, you may not be able to move teams because of business needs or headcount, or you could have been put on a particular project because you’re the only person with specialist skills.
In these situations, having to work day in, day out with someone you don’t gel with can lead to a lot of frustration, and upset, and make it harder to get work done effectively!
Also, it’s not just about convenience. Learning how to work with people with different work styles can be a really valuable skill, ultimately helping you become a more effective communicator and influencer, and be open to a range of perspectives on different topics.
But that’s not to say you should always stick it out.
Knowing when and how much energy to put into building bridges is also part of this work. Some situations may genuinely be better to walk away from if you’re in a position to do so. However, this in itself can take courage and conviction, and so it can be good to consider what a ‘normal’ challenging situation looks like against one that’s less redeemable.
With these kinds of goals in mind, here are a few things that may help to think through if you ever find yourself working with someone you aren’t keen on.
Understand yourself and the trends in your frustrations.
It’s very easy to pin everything on someone else; to see colleagues as the flawed ones rather than being open to confronting our own issues, or complications on both sides. The bad news is you should probably start by looking inwards first.
When you’re in the midst of a disagreement it can also be hard to reflect rationally – you may be in fight or flight mode. Because of this, putting in proactive groundwork even before coming up against any issues can stand you in good stead.
It can be useful to think through generalizations for situations or types of people you typically find easier or harder to work with and start to identify what tends to bother you and why. That’s not always easy, but it’s worth challenging yourself to see if difficulties may be rooted in your own past experiences, bias, preconceptions, or jealousy. Did you have a horrible first manager and have struggled to connect with any since? Were you skipped over for a promotion, and finding it hard to work with those who weren’t?
For some, using personality tests like Insights Discovery or Myers-Briggs can give pointers about where rapport and understanding come naturally, and where you may have potential friction with different traits. Your views on the helpfulness or reliability of these tests may vary. But if nothing else, it can be worth looking at the language they use to understand some commonly used terms or help articulate concepts you’re feeling.
Having a strong support network outside of your day job can be great in this context (and is very valuable generally). How would your trusted peers describe working with you? Is there anything they’d recommend, or challenge you on?
And finally, in case worst comes to worst and friction does rear its head, it’s worth thinking about how you take responsibility for your reactions. What does this tend to look like for you, and is there anything you can put in place to set you up well for next time?
See people as individuals and understand their perspectives.
Hopefully, your newfound introspection will mean you’re well placed to head off some potential conflict, but other times you’ll end up stuck with someone you just really don’t get on with.
If something's happened, or especially if nothing has happened but you’re finding it tough to work with someone, it can be really hard to call it out. However, it’s often worth pushing through personal discomfort and voicing your feelings. You might feel up to doing this directly, or you could consider a mediated session with a trusted neutral facilitator.
Despite your frustration, I’d recommend trying to stay curious. Is the other person aware? Are they feeling frustrated too? Very often you’ll find they may be relieved and keen to find a better way forward too, and suddenly you have something in common!
The last couple of years have been exceptionally tough on people for all kinds of reasons, but even outside of COVID you’ll usually not have visibility of everything going on in someone’s life. What you see as issues in a working relationship may actually be the byproduct of dealing with death, childcare, financial worries, relationship breakdowns, or any number of other topics. Again, staying curious and trying to communicate non-judgmentally can open doors, but be aware that not everyone will want to share private context.
This also goes for issues like misunderstanding how neurodiverse traits can play out, especially in a non-diverse workplace. Bringing up these kinds of issues can put a burden on someone to ‘out’ themselves with an explanation they’re not comfortable sharing, or when they themselves may not have a diagnosis or total awareness of their situation.
As before, looking to gain understanding can be done proactively as well as reactively. For example, you may want to broach this topic when joining a new team or company, or as part of a new manager relationship. Some examples of the kind of questions you may want to ask include:
- If we were going to have friction, how do you think it’d be most likely to happen? How can we proactively avoid that?
- What are the biggest risks of us working together?
- What does it look like when you’re not in a great place, and what do you need when that happens?
- How does your energy typically change throughout the day/week?
- How do you make decisions?
- What do you expect from others when you ask them for something?
- How do you like feedback?
- How do you like to move past problems?
Work together on a way forward.
Hopefully, you and your colleague will both be up for moving forward together. Key to this will be putting a new plan in place, keeping regular communication going, and giving feedback on what is and isn’t working.
A common cause of friction is a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities or mismatched expectations. To overcome these types of issues you may initially need to put some structure in place, for example using decision-making frameworks, being explicit about deliverables and deadlines, or having rigid communication processes until trust builds.
Here are some real examples I’ve experienced:
- An engineering manager, product manager, and senior engineer working to identify responsibilities and potential overlaps in roles.
- Two developers with different work patterns looking to overcome feelings of ‘slacking off’ when finishing earlier or taking long breaks.
- Unclear decision-making from leadership leading to feelings of undermining and frustration.
You may find changing the way you communicate (even temporarily) helps, for example speaking in person rather than through writing (or vice versa!) if you’re frequently misunderstanding each other. This comes back to understanding and discussing what can set you both up for success given your default working styles.
As you try to explore new ways of working I’d really recommend checking in regularly. This can be both individually or together and can be as simple as being honest about what you feel has gone well, and what you could do differently next week.
Finally, if possible, try to spend some time with the person in a different setting. This is about trying to add some variety into typical interaction patterns, having opportunities to understand them better as a person, and building trust more generally. You don’t have to become friends, it’s more about making sure you’re not closing off chances to build the relationship. Options can include a ten-minute ‘no work’ tea break, going for a walk (or walking phone call), or just asking how someone’s day went.
Think about your limits.
I’ve talked a lot about ways you can hopefully build bridges, but I also want to be realistic that it isn’t always natural or feasible to get on with absolutely everyone all the time!
Despite your best intentions, your bridge-building may not work. You may find there are folks you’re just not able to work with effectively, or you could be facing more toxic situations, such as bullying, discrimination, or harassment.
My final piece of advice is to know when enough is enough. Think about how you can keep an eye on the friction and make sure it doesn’t unconsciously go on too long. What are your limits? How long are you prepared to try to build bridges for? Where are the ‘red lines’ you won’t cross? What are your options if things don’t end up going to plan? By having a clear sense of these too, you can hopefully minimize the impact on your wellbeing, and ultimately end up in a better place.