I remember the day I fell out with my coworker, the leader of our team. We were in the same team, working on a series of programmes. I had told my teammate about exploring a different programme for a project we were planning to organise in a month’s time.
Later that afternoon, I received an email from the team leader, copying the rest of our team. He specifically pointed out that I should consult him in future if I had any plans. He ended off the email by saying ‘There is no ‘I’ in team.’ Following this incident, I felt shamed and small. I felt that I had been openly humiliated for suggesting ideas. I stopped suggesting ideas, in fear of triggering the same response from my team leader.
In hindsight, that experience taught me a lot about how to get along with coworkers. Furthermore, it wasn’t simply about getting along with them, but about getting along with them so that work got done.
Hopefully you haven’t experienced something like that. But you’re probably here today because you find it difficult to get along with your coworkers. Some may be toxic. Others may be incompetent bosses. You wonder if there are any hacks and tricks to get along more easily with your coworkers. I don’t have many.
What this article aims to share with you are the principles behind effective work relationships with your colleagues, so that you can make the work happen.
But more importantly, this article is the advice I wish I had when I was going through that lonely period of time at work.
I felt frozen out. Worse still, no one had practical handles about how to view relationships at work. The advice they gave seemed like platitudes – nice-sounding, but impractical.
One supervisor said,
Everywhere you go, there are going to be people like this.
Um… okay? Was I supposed to be comforted by that? Was I supposed to accept this behavior as something everyone did?
Why is it so difficult?
Before that, let’s ask ourselves why it’s so difficult to get along with colleagues. After all, aren’t all of you in the same company? Shouldn’t there be a shared sense of mission and purpose, and therefore a corresponding camaraderie that comes from fighting the same battles?
Not really. Here’s why.
Coworkers may feel threatened
If you’re young, inventive, and assertive, people may feel threatened by your presence. In hindsight, that’s what my coworker felt.
Who did I think I was? Coming in to suggest new ideas without even bothering to understand what was happening and what was being done?
That’s when you start seeing people play politics. They may start forming alliances behind your back, blocking your initiatives. They may collectively sound concern about the actions you’re taking, bringing up examples of your misdemeanours to bosses.
Before you think this sounds nightmarish, it does happen in certain workplaces. After all, people are people. And people play politics, trying to do what they can to gain that edge over you.
When someone new comes into the organisation, people may feel that they are being phased out. They may even feel that they may be phased out. That’s why they may be eager to prove to their bosses that they are still worth something.
It’s not about authority
I wish someone told me these things when I first came into the organisation. It would have made working with coworkers a lot easier.
I thought that as an entry level staff, I had little say over how the organisation moved. I ended up trying to ‘bid’ for authority. I would speak up at meetings, sharing my thoughts and ideas. But I realised that this only made coworkers even less keen to work with me because they thought I had ideas of my own and was unwilling to listen to them.
Even though you may not be the head of the organisation, you can still have significant leverage over the way the organisation moves, if you have one thing.
Influence, not authority. As Michael Watkins shares in his book ‘Master Your Next Move’, he talks about how influence is about your ability to build coalitions of support, whilst authority is your place in the hierarchy.
As an entry level executive, you would naturally not have the authority in the organisation to push through on the ideas you want done. But you can build on your ability to practice corporate diplomacy. How?
Understand people’s agendas
Do you know what your coworkers care about, or are interested in?
In ‘Getting to Yes’, the seminal book on negotiating agreements, Fisher and Ury talk about how we should negotiate from interests, rather than positions. Knowing what the other party is interested in makes it easier to move things forward. But when you only look at positions, you end up looking at something inflexible.
For example, you may think that your colleague is deliberately blocking your initiative because of his position. But if you peel beneath the position, and see what he’s really interested in, it may look somewhat different. You may discover a shared interest in stability, and ensuring that things run smoothly.
It may be that both of you have different ideas of what that stability looks like.
One way is to ask,
What is the fundamental reason that stops you from agreeing to this?
That way, you begin understanding the other party’s interests, rather than position.
One at a time
Form alliances, one at a time. Start from your limited sphere of influence, and build it outwards. Leverage on the networks within your sphere of influence to slowly grow it outwards. Depend on second and third-degree connections to widen your sphere.
Whenever I look back at my time forming productive alliances, it was formed one person at a time, by mapping out key influence networks. Watkins gives an example of this network.
When you draw out this network, you begin to realise where you can work in order to build the critical mass of support you need for your initiative to pass through.
Coffee and conversation
Looking back, it was the times I spent with people over conversation that determined their support for my ideas. I haven’t seen a better way of moving things forward in organisations beyond taking the time to understand someone’s point of view. Simply taking the time to understand why they think the way they do can be a vital way towards getting them on your side.
Remember, the point isn’t to convince them of the merits of your arguments. Rather, it’s to comfort them about how the ideas you’re proposing aren’t as scary as they sound.
Most people’s resistance to change starts from a deep innate fear that the change will portend more work or fuss for them. After all, there aren’t many who enjoy change. If something has worked well for years, why bother changing?
You don’t need everyone’s support
You don’t have to be a dictator, ensuring that everyone is in line with your plan. I’m joking about the dictator. But you get the idea.
You only need a critical mass of support. Think of it like the British parliamentary system, where it’s about the first person past the post. It’s about getting your initiative off the fence, and implemented. If you want that to happen, you need to figure out where you need to work in order to garner the support you need.
It’s the key people that need to be influenced, not everybody.
Don’t just build relationships
Relationships are great for making work fun. But if you want to make work work, don’t focus on relationships.
Focus on alliances.
Alliances, as Watkins describes, are
‘explicit or implicit agreements between two or more parties to jointly pursue specific agendas’.
This differs from relationships because relationships do not involve an agreement towards a certain goal.
Some questions that may be useful to ask yourself are:
- Do you understand the other party’s agenda?
- Do you see any potential alignments?
Think about the shared goal
You may not like someone you work with. But to get along with your coworker, place the common, shared goal, above how you feel about the relationship.
That way, you get to find the fulfilment of working towards a shared goal.
Don’t just understand what needs to be done
You know what needs to be done. Great.
That’s not the most important thing though.
You need to understand how it’s done. When I first entered my organisation, my mistake was thinking that as long as I had an idea about what needed to be done, and went ahead to do it, I would be appreciated and valued.
There was also a certain way things had to be done.
If you’re struggling today, take time to take stock. How are ideas moved through your organisation? Is it a process where it’s topdown, needing formal management approval before something is done? Or is it a case where teams are given liberty to decide what they want to do? Then in teams, how are decisions made? How are the opinions of the younger ones in the hierarchy taken? Are they given significant leverage? Or are they perhaps discounted, because of their youth?
Understanding how things get done help you to see where you may need to focus on. It may not necessarily be on making the idea as beautiful as possible, but it may simply be about making the idea as palatable as possible.
How you get along with co workers is never an easy question to answer. But there are useful principles to frame the work you do together with them, especially when there are times when you dislike your coworkers, if they are toxic, and not particularly helpful to the change you want to see in the world.
But whenever I look back at my time working in the organisation, I always remember a colleague. I will call her Cate 1. She was always smiling in the organisation. But she also had the ability to move things through the organisation.
Later she revealed to me that she didn’t like many she worked with in the organisation. But she still did so, because she believed there was good in them.
She tried to look for the good in each colleague she saw.
It reminded me of the time when I had a disagreement with my manager. After the disagreement, I apologised to her. But I still harboured bitterness in my heart, thinking that she had been nasty to me.
At that time, I could see that she was also slowly being frozen out of relationships with many other colleagues due to the differences in working style.
But everytime I went out for lunch, I would notice her still in the office, working. One moment changed my perception towards her. It had been a particularly lonely day. I saw my colleagues laughing as they went to the room next-door to share lunch. I wasn’t invited to be part of their exclusive group.
Somehow she noticed. She asked,
John, aren’t you going for lunch?
That moment changed my perception of her. Because she didn’t have to do that. Our conflict in the past could have prompted her to stay silent, to stop caring about me, and to look out for her own interests.
But she asked. And cared enough to see that we were in similar positions, frozen out of our respective teams.
It reminded me that however bad coworkers could be, there could still be good within them.
You may not get along with your coworker. But next time, rather than looking for the bad in them, maybe try looking for the good. You may be surprised at what you find.
- Names have been changed to protect confidentiality. ↩