How to work with jerks

It's better to have task & relationship conflict with a colleague.. If you have to work with someone who rubs you the wrong way, focus on what new perspective that person can add.

"If you do nothing, nothing will happen." This is just one of the lessons I'm instilling in my kids via backhand comments. Mostly I say this when they want something ridiculous, small and trivial while I’m working and they’re sitting on the couch doing — from my perspective — nothing too important. The message is clear: If you want to have something, you need to get it yourself.

But there is also another way of "doing nothing" that gets you "nothing." It's avoiding conflict. Yes, I know. Conflict isn't nice, it's ugly. Most people don't enjoy hurting other people, physically or mentally. But conflict is like a huge rock blocking an entrance. There is no way around it. Of course, you can just wait. Nature takes care of everything, even big huge rocks blocking your way. The wind and rain will slowly but steadily chip away at the rock until it's fragile enough for you to blow it away with a dismissive movement of your hand. But this takes time. In case you are wondering (I did), out in the wild, after 50 years, stones barely show signs of weathering.

So, needless to say, sitting and waiting is not the most efficient approach. But still, most of us do it sometimes. We sit and wait, hoping the conflict will evaporate: The other party leaves, or something miraculously changes.

I purposefully used the word miraculously. How can you expect a person to change their behavior if you don't spell out what the problem is? Some of you might think, "They should just know." That is another human fallacy — believing that people see the world as you do and have access to the same information. They don't. They aren't you, and they can't read your mind (and neither do you want them to).

"While many people recoil from conflict because they fear it will endanger their relationships, the paradox is that honest conflict — during the hard work together — makes social connectedness grow. When we avoid the argument, nothing happens. Only when we both engage in debate is our capacity to see each other’s perspectives realized." — Margaret Heffernan

Most often, conflict is either work-related (task conflict) or more personal (relationship conflict). This difference is important. When two people don't get along because they often see a task from different perspectives, and they need to have hour-long meetings before deciding on how to position a feature, this is task conflict. This isn't that damaging. Most people welcome this type of conflict. Maybe not with open arms, but they know that continuously engaging with the other person is beneficial. They may even ask one another for advice.

The story is different if the conflict is at a relational level. In these cases, there will be no advice-seeking — even if it would benefit the team. Not too surprising. Why ask someone for advice when you can't stand working with them?

Given relationship conflict's negative impact on collaboration, conflict like this shouldn't be allowed to linger for too long. Unfortunately, it's the harder one to address in a team. It's personal.

There might be a glimmer of hope. The combination of relationship and task conflict between two people has a less severe impact on collaboration patterns than a solely relationship-based conflict. It's like some people are able to do some weird mental gymnastics when they have personal issues with someone (relationship conflict) and that same person approaches every discussion from a different angle (task conflict). By putting the personal issue to the side and focus on the task conflict, they are able to collaborate even with those “complicated colleagues”.

We should all strive to push personal issues to the side and focus on the benefits: getting to hear someone else’s point of view. Of course, don’t follow this advice blindly. Some personal issues should never be pushed aside (e.g., any form of harassment or abuse). If you are unsure where to start, begin with a Manual of Me, a personal handbook that describes how you work and communicate.


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