Three tips for working with a toxic colleague

Steve Kelman recommends an executive coach's advice for "creating productive relationships, even with individuals you find distasteful."

steve kelman

Although I am a professor, I try to find topics for this blog that are practical and not simply theoretical. So when I saw a link to a column by the executive coach Art Perry titled, "How to work with people you don't like," it sounded like a practical workplace problem worth checking out.

Perry reported at the beginning of his column that an issue in "nearly 100 percent" of his coaching and consulting assignments, there is an important relationship inside the organization "that is so dysfunctional and sometimes toxic it rises to the surface as an impediment to progress."

This is particularly visible at management levels, but Perry also notes that "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." This is probably even more the case in government organizations than private ones, since in the private sector it is easier to get rid of problems by firing or reassigning people in dysfunctional relationships.

Often, of course, we can deal with this kind of problem simply by avoiding the other person. But that's not always possible, especially when the toxic pair are both at leadership levels. And even at lower levels, situations regularly come up where people need to deal with distasteful others to get a larger purpose accomplished. Thus, Perry notes, " 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."

He recommends several approaches. The first has the enormous virtue of being straightforward rather than devious or wily, tactics that always run the risk of backfiring, but even more so when relationships are already hostile. "Attempt to reconcile," Perry urges. Try "the old-fashioned approach and sit down and propose a fresh restart," he writes. "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."

I am a real believer in the view that when there is a 900-pound gorilla in the room, it is better to acknowledge and openly deal with it than to keep it hidden, where it makes everybody nervous. Acknowledgement itself, in my experience, can be disarming.

Perry's second piece of advice is to seek to "partner with the adversary to navigate a crisis" as a way to repair a bad relationship. "History is replete," Perry writes, "with examples where adversaries have combined forces to defeat a common enemy." There is a very famous academic study, 75 years old but still read today, about an experiment where two randomly selected groups of boys attending a summer camp were encouraged, through a mix of cooperative activities within the group and competitive ones between the groups, to become extremely hostile to each other. The way the researcher succeeded in overcoming this hostility was to put the boys in a situation where they could not deal with a problem with only the people in one group, but work by both groups was necessary.

The third piece of advice is to engage a broker. "Particularly for situations involving warring… senior executives," Perry notes, "the temporary use of a broker or intermediary can facilitate progress on issues." While this method is ineffective, inefficient and even counterproductive over the long term, in the short term, "it may be the only way to gain any form of cooperation or agreement." Choose somebody respected by both parties, or at least viewed as objective, to serve in the role.

Finally, "create a state of indebtedness." Amazingly, one of the social phenomena that is most universal across diverse cultures is the norm to reciprocate acts of kindness, generosity or recognition from others. Leverage this power, Perry urges, "by providing support or doing unexpected favors for the adversary."

He notes that "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." My instinct is to agree with Perry that this is worth trying, not least because it is unexpected.

I had never heard of Perry before. But I liked this column enough that I'm going to be on the lookout for seeing his name again.

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