I can recall having to work with someone, very early in my career, that I did not like. She was rude and abrasive. She literally would look down her nose at me when she spoke. I can recall the frustration I felt as if it were yesterday. And the worst part was that there was nothing to be done. We had to work together in our roles. We couldn’t reassign duties, change departments or work for a different team, unless one of us wanted to change career paths. And certainly, I was not going to change for her!
And yet, what I had to do was not only work with her, but collaborate. Seriously? I struggled so much to be my normal ray of sunshine (no comments, please). This was not ideal, but it was necessary.
Collaborating with difficult people is, well, difficult. The personality and perspective differences can be palpable in a room where brainstorming and teamwork happen. Those observing the two relationally-challenged individuals sit in awkwardness and embarrassment. It’s a really good time for all.
So, what’s the trick to collaborating with a difficult person? First, understand that you don’t know everything that is driving the individual to behave as he/she does. So often, there are stressors at play that have nothing to do with you. You may not know what’s going on at home, with other relationships, with health issues or financial strain. There are factors influencing this person and you may just be the ripe recipient of the difficult personality manifestation.
Understand, too, that you are not so fabulous every minute of the day. I’ve seen you. I know you fall apart in the afternoon and need a nap. Your crankiness manifests itself in those moments. Or perhaps your Type A persona struggles with being right often. You cannot relent to someone else. Or maybe you have allowed stressors in your life to creep into how you behave as well. The mirror has two faces. Look deep and hard at yourself. Ask trusted people to keep you in line and point out your inconsistencies in a way that will get you to deal with them instead of transferring the emotion to a particularly difficult person.
Focus on the work instead of the person. I know that is tough, but someone must do this. An approach that capitalizes upon the project to be completed rather than treating the difficult person as the project to be completed is most beneficial. And the focus on the work often leads to better understanding on both sides of the difficulty. Each other’s strengths unfold more clearly during while completing the work. Without the angst being the focus, the real reason that each of you were actually hired – competencies, aptitudes, critical thought – becomes apparent.
In the Marvel Universe, this paradigm is explored in the relationship between Thor and Loki. They were raised as brothers (and family dynamics is another difficulty in and of itself) but had a falling out. Each found the other one beyond difficult to take (pepper in some superhero powers and now you have a blockbuster movie). To the chagrin of each, they needed the expertise and skills of the other at times. When they join forces against a common enemy, their tension for each other relents. Each supports the other in the job to get done.
It’s not that you have to become best friends, or even just regular friends, with this difficult person, but it is in the best interest of the organization that you collaborate with all team members. In HR, we hear from our staff when they’ve had enough of a certain person. We listen to stories of stress and frustration. And so, this encouragement to approach interacting with a difficult person isn’t done blindly.
The power that we give away to another in these situations is unnecessary. Why am I obsessing over this person? He/She is consuming energy and time of mine…and I am giving it away. Keep what is yours to control.
And while this summer movie calendar may not feature your greatest battles with whomever that difficult person is for you, it just might be the summer that collaboration for the good of the work happens. And find an outlet to deal with any lingering frustration. Set up your punching bag with that difficult person’s face on it at home and unleash your super powers there.