How to Work With People You Don’t Like

Five approaches for navigating difficult relationships.

Nearly 100 percent of the time, my coaching and consulting assignments bump up against the relationship issue as an obstacle. Not my relationship with the client, but rather somewhere in the client environment, an important relationship that is so dysfunctional and sometimes toxic it rises to the surface as an impediment to progress.

  • Functional executives square off in diametric opposition to each other.
  • Executives and senior managers refuse to collaborate with those they believe have slighted them.
  • A bit lower in the ranks, long-time squabbles over promotions, resources and power create embittered workplace foes who would rather walk across the street than share a sidewalk with each other.

Adding fuel to the fire, we have results from the recently announced Australian study suggesting that one in five senior executives displays psychopathic traits—approximately equivalent to that of a prison population.

Great, just great.

Work would be easy if it weren’t for the people. Unfortunately, or fortunately, there’s no getting around dealing with others. To succeed, you’ve got to work at creating productive relationships, even with individuals you find distasteful. The key is to have a strategy for navigating the situation when you cannot avoid working together on an issue. And no, there are no guarantees that you can make every relationship work, but your effort to broker a détente in the organization’s best interests places you clearly on the side of goodness. And after all, your ability to influence positive outcomes is an essential component of growing your power.

5 Strategies for Navigating Difficult Relationships:

1. Attempt to reconcile.

In more than a few fractious and fractured relationships, the primary characters (often with outside help) managed to create a new starting point based on cooperation for the greater good. Like many family feuds, the origin of the rift is lost to history and all that remains is perpetual animosity. While the most complicated of these involving co-founders or business partners required professional help to resolve, the effort and expense proved worthwhile for the broader business. In a few cases, the principals rediscovered the chemistry that worked earlier for them. In other cases, the momentary thaw was followed by an eventual return to a cold war.

If you fall outside the range of eligibility for professional help in your organization, try the old fashioned approach and sit down and propose a fresh restart. Bring your humility and focus on describing why a thaw is best for the team and firm. Once a détente is agreed upon, make certain to find ample opportunities to display good faith. The reduction in hostility will reduce personal and organizational stress.

2. Partner with the adversary to navigate a crisis.

History is replete with examples where adversaries have combined forces to defeat a common enemy. While trust is always an issue, the ability to mass force against an issue is powerful.

Many years ago, I worked in a Global 50 firm where the head of development and I were constantly at loggerheads. We truly never agreed on anything. However, when faced with a directional decision that both of us opposed, we agreed to stand together in opposition to what we felt was a near fatal choice. We went so far as to draft a joint note to the corporate headquarters team in Japan indicating our shared perspective. We also indicated we would be in their offices in two days.

As we arrived and went through the motions in the meetings, I sensed something was off. Finally, after a few hours I probed as to what was going on. Following a momentary pause, our counterpart smiled and offered, “Art-san, we decided before you arrived that the fact that the two of you were in agreement and that both of you sacrificed to fly here that we would support your recommended direction.”

Lesson learned.

So, when the situation merits cohabiting with the enemy, so be it. It might help if you both fly to Tokyo together as well.

3. Engage a broker.

Particularly for situations involving warring partners or senior executives, the temporary use of a broker or intermediary can facilitate progress on issues. I emphasize temporary use because this method is wholly ineffective, inefficient and counterproductive over the long-term. In the short term, it may be the only way to gain any form of cooperation or agreement. Choose an individual who is either respected by both parties or at least viewed as objective to serve as the broker.

4. Create a state of indebtedness.

As Cialdini points out in the classic book, “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion,” the power of reciprocation is deeply rooted in human society and behavior. Leverage this power by providing support or doing unexpected favors for the adversary. You are taking a risk that the gesture will be viewed as a sign of weakness, but it is worth a little experimenting to see if it can actually generate eventual reciprocal support.

5. Suggest that mutual assured destruction is On the Table. (Caution: This idea may be harmful to your situation.)

The operative word is “suggest.” In a number of disagreements with adversaries, I have thrown out the equivalent of, “It appears that we are not on the same page. I am prepared to bring our difference of opinion to the board/executive meeting and as poor as it may be to argue it out in that forum, so be it.” While the suggestion may sound foolhardy, it was mostly a bluff. I had cultivated a reputation as a bulldog on issues I believed in and someone always up for a good knock-down debate. My adversaries had no reason to believe I would not carry through on it and in all cases they capitulated to working through things together.

In reality, organizational life in many cases is a fight for survival. I’ve written a few million words on the idea of effective, values-based leadership and the right behaviors, and I stand behind them. I also advocate being pragmatically political when it comes to dealing with the real world. Power and politics are present in every place humans gather and if you choose to ignore them you will be marginalized at best and eliminated at worst. Finding ways to work with those individuals you hold in low regard is an unpleasant necessity of survival and success.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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