How to work well in a team when you don’t get along with everyone

By Cath Bishop, PhD, senior performance consultant and keynote speaker,

delegation, manager, managing a teamIt’s a common life experience we all recognise, within families, the school playground and then in the workplace – there is always someone you don’t get along with, someone who rubs you up the wrong way.

That is unlikely to change, but what can change is how you respond to that situation. Abraham Lincoln’s famous comment is a helpful one for shifting our mindsets when thinking through how to manage this challenge: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

It’s our expectations and our rush to judgement that is deeply unhelpful here. We would do better looking at ourselves in the mirror and thinking about what’s driving our dislike, than wishing that our irritating colleague would change or leave us alone. We need to examine our attitudes, consider our biases and challenge our assumptions if we want to move this situation forward, rather than remain stuck in an often silent, resentful battle that simmers away underneath the surface, slowly contaminating the spirit and atmosphere of a team.

It’s really worth investing time and mental effort in the process of understanding what’s different about a colleague and why you find it difficult to work with them. It’s ok to go to that dark place in your mind, you’ll find some biases and unpleasant thoughts, but try and go beyond those. Curiosity is your most helpful ally here – go out of your way to understand what drives them, what gets them up in the morning, what do they really care about. Think about how their different perspective on the world is not just equally valid as yours, but how can you start to see things through their lens a little more? This is a simple but not easy skill, one that requires practice – stepping into someone else’s shoes – and an essential element in developing inclusive places to work. This way of thinking broadens our own view of the world and enriches our own thought processes, which then can be channelled into more effective conversations and decision-making.

Perhaps this is hard because you have you got stuck in not being able to see any view other than your own, and that human but deeply unhelpful trap of thinking that your view is the only right one? ‘Stuckness’ is not helpful within individuals or teams, it’s what keeps us rooted in the past, continuing to do things we’ve always done in the way we’ve always done them.

Fixed thinking prevents us from learning and developing in pace with the world that is changing around us. It gets in the way of the potentially engaging and collaborative process of exploring alternatives, creating value in new ways, and working with people we would normally never work with to achieve improved collective performance.

So rather than focus on how to change or get rid of someone, set yourself a challenge to see how much you can learn from them, how you can work together to draw on your different perspectives to try something in a way that’s not been tried before, and consciously draw on the difference.

Think about adjusting the way you set up meetings and conversations, be explicit with colleagues that you want to listen to and understand different viewpoints, that you want to be challenged, and create the space for that to happen.

But be warned and be prepared, this is not going to feel comfortable, it will take you out of your comfort zone, and you will change as a result – but that is the greatest reward. You have a great opportunity to learn and grow that’s sitting waiting in the workplace, without need for time away on an expensive training programme.

Be clear about why it’s worth investing time and effort in taking on this challenge. Be honest about what you want to achieve – the goal is not comfort or unbroken harmony, the goal is performance!

Cath BishopAbout the author

In her rowing career, Cath competed at three Olympic Games, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, with highlights including winning the World Championships in 2003 and an Olympic silver medal in 2004.

As a diplomat specialising in conflict issues, Cath was posted to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Basra, Iraq, as well as leading in Whitehall on the UK civilian contribution to conflicts around the world.

Cath is now a senior performance consultant and keynote speaker at Will It Make the Boat Go Faster, a performance and leadership consultancy specialising in high performing senior teams. She leads seminars on topics including resilience, leadership, high performing teams, peak performance and dealing with pressure, and has worked with clients such as Rolls Royce, Coca Cola, Microsoft and many others.

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