Like many of us, I assumed that personality conflicts in the workplace were the result of having to deal with difficult people. What I know now is that most – if not all – workplace personality conflicts derive from deeper structural issues, even if the other person is not particularly somebody you’d want to hang out with on weekends for a variety of reasons having to do with individual style and taste. That is completely normal. But for serious personality conflicts at work, ask yourself if the difficult individual is:
- unclear about her or his job description?
- having to report to more than one person at a time?
- given more work to do than is humanly possible to complete during a normal work week?
- underpaid for the level and quality of work demanded?
- understaffed and under-resourced, making it difficult to complete quality work requested in a timely fashion?
- kept in the dark about larger organizational challenges, perspectives, and plans?
- rarely or never selected for further professional development?
Is the difficult relationship:
- the result of unclear lines of authority? Who’s actually zooming whom?
- the result of policy gaps, where neither really knows what he or she is supposed to do, by when, and for which policy, constituency, or audience?
- the result of unspoken conventions that have never been written down, but play out every day?
- the result of limited or non-existing professional development? Remember, “Deadwood” was once a live tree, curious to learn and excited to help!
- the result of pure exhaustion on the part of one or both of you? A little deep rest could go a long way towards resolution.
- the result of simple exclusion by either of you? “Tick, tock, the game is locked, and nobody else can play.”
- the result of mixed messages and poor leadership from above that has divided and conquered you, taking the attention away from where it really belongs: on poor leaders and mediocre leadership?
Take a few minutes to ask and answer these questions for your situation and organization, as well as for the person you are focusing on right now. Ask these questions not only about the difficult person you have to deal with, ask them about your own situation as well. Are any of those things listed above happening to you? Is someone else considering you the difficult person they are having to deal with? Are they thinking you are difficult for the very same structural reasons having to do with mixed messages and lack of clarity? Has someone else, a supervisor or third party, for example, placed you both in an untenable situation structurally?
Then ask yourself these questions intuitively:
- “What one action on my part, if any, could remedy this situation?”
- “Based on my location in the company or group right now, what can I do unilaterally if necessary from this position, even if I seem to have no official authority?”
- “What is the one clearly shared goal that both the difficult person and I have that we could build around and shift our situation from adversarial to collegial?” “Is there something we could do together that would be easy instead of so hard the way it is now, that could ‘reboot’ our relationship?”
Take the very first answer you get in seven seconds or less for each question and act on it. It is possible that this difficult person may not be difficult any more, that you in turn may not be perceived as difficult, and the situation may begin to be resolved with a little patience and probably a lot less time than you imagined!