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Difficult Coworker? One Quick Way To Turn The Relationship Around

Post by Sabina Nawaz

February 25th, 2015

Do you fight at work? Fist fights are rare but toe-to-toe yelling matches, stonewalling, passive resistance

and backbiting are all too common in the workplace. Do you think that if so-and-so weren’t so stubborn or political, your job would be much easier?

If so, you aren’t alone. Nearly one-third of executives and employees argue with a co-worker at least once a month, according to a survey of 1,000 workers by Fierce Inc., a Seattle leadership development and training company specializing in workplace communication. Work warfare, even in the form of passive resistance, wastes energy, lowers morale and reduces productivity. You can be a high performer individually but adversarial relationships with your co-workers can cause loss of trust up and down the management chain, and damage your products and customer relationships.

As an executive coach, I’m privy to many of my clients’ struggles with their colleagues. My inbox contains “evidence” of why their COO is impossible to work with. I see them bicker with colleagues in meetings. I’ve discovered that one of the most effective ways to move beyond these battles is both simple and disarming: Ask your adversary for help.

Several years ago Dennis and Tim (not their real names) were locked in an adversarial relationship neither seemed able to break. The two managers head up engineering teams that need to collaborate to produce software. Dennis’s team develops the software program that Tim and his team then test before it’s ready for release to customers. Dennis has to complete his work in order for Tim to start his. And until Tim provides his stamp of approval, the software keeps going back to Dennis to fix the defects. Both Dennis and Tim are strong performers with deep technical knowledge. Two years ago, conflicts between the two seriously threatened an important software release. They wasted hours of meeting time on turf battles. Their teams were confused about priorities. Their manager’s manager eventually needed to intervene, and the software release was delayed by three months — causing it to go over budget.

At the end of the project, Tim received a below-average performance review. He directed his anger and frustration at Dennis, blaming Dennis’s ego and stubbornness.

Tim’s manager wanted to invest in his development and help him work more effectively with his colleagues. Tim was motivated to improve his performance. The company hired me as Tim’s coach.

During our work together, I posed a challenge to Tim: Find a way to ask Dennis for help.

This challenge touches on research by Wharton management professor Adam Grant on workplace altruism. Grant believes the greatest untapped human motivation is a sense of service to others — that giving, in effect, is the secret to getting ahead. In my work with Tim, I reversed Grant’s concept, considering the value, not of giving aid, but of requesting aid. What would happen if we asked others to help us? If giving motivates human beings, then how will a request to give affect an adversarial relationship?

In other words, if giving is the secret to getting ahead, then asking is the secret to getting along .

Tim’s response to my challenge surprised me. It seemed like he had a flash of understanding. He looked both excited and scared at the same time. “Sounds like I need to walk to Canossa,” he said. The phrase was new to me, but between Tim’s explanation and some research of my own, I came to understand his comment and to see “walking to Canossa” as a useful metaphor for this challenge.

First, some history: In 1075, Henry IV, King of the Germans, entered into a power struggle with Pope Gregory VII. King Henry and Pope Gregory each wanted to control how bishops and clergymen were appointed. During this struggle, Henry declared that the pope should be unseated; and Gregory excommunicated Henry from the Church.

Either man could have taken the first step toward resolving the conflict, but Henry, faced with mounting dissatisfaction from his people and aware that he needed the pope’s support to survive on the throne, had a strong incentive to resolve the conflict. Pope Gregory set a deadline by threatening that Henry’s excommunication would become irrevocable in a year’s time.

As the story goes, Henry undertook to walk to the Canossa castle in northern Italy, where the pope was seeking protection. Some say Henry wore a hair shirt, crossed the Alps barefoot in the January winter and waited for three days in the snow before the pope allowed him access into the building and forgave him. After this demonstration of humility, both men remained in power and Henry later became the Holy Roman Emperor.

Tim’s first step in his “walk to Canossa” was to set aside his ego and ask Dennis if they could meet weekly to discuss issues one-on-one, before they met with their teams. Dennis, however, refused this initial overture, telling Tim that he didn’t need to discuss anything privately. Furthermore, he had no time to add additional meetings to his calendar. This response confirmed Tim’s stance. In our next meeting, he said, “See what I mean? He’s only out to help himself and doesn’t care about others.” I reminded Tim that King Henry didn’t just wear the hair shirt — he also walked barefoot and stood for three days in the snow outside the castle.

Tim swallowed his inclination to insist he was right and tried a different tack. He respected Dennis’s technical skills, so the next time one of his projects ran into technical challenges, Tim approached Dennis for help. He walked down to Dennis’s office and asked him, “What do you think we should do here? I’d like your help in thinking through this.” Tim made a specific request of Dennis that recognized one of Dennis’s strengths. This time, Dennis did not refuse. He gave Tim useful advice that Tim then implemented. The request became a first step in turning around their professional relationship.

Tim’s “walk to Canossa” is one example of how to move from conflict to collaboration. Here are four steps to consider when asking a favor of a colleague:

  • Be proactive. Make a resolution to walk to Canossa before you ask for help. Identify where you need help and be willing to admit it.
  • Be overt and clear about your motives. Explicitly state, “I’d like your help with something.”
  • Be honest. What do you genuinely appreciate about your colleague? How can his or her strengths be helpful to your work? Target your requested favor to align with that strength.
  • Be brief. Ask for something that will take only a small amount of effort and time. Don’t ask for solutions to a big existential crisis on your team. Instead ask for something limited such as an opinion on an email draft to your manager.

Last month I ran into Tim’s manager’s manager. He said that he had just approved a strong performance review for Tim this year and that Tim was thriving in his partnerships with his peers. Dennis and Tim were making decisions together without escalating issues to him. Their current project was on schedule.

The next time you find yourself amassing evidence for your boss’ inbox about why your peer is a dolt, step back and turn your irritation into an opportunity. Ask yourself what your peer does well and then ask for his or her help. The walk to Canossa starts with you: By deciding that you want to get along with your colleague, you take a step towards Canossa and success. If you do this proactively, overtly, honestly and briefly, pretty soon you can even dispense with the hair shirt.

This article is a re-post.  The original post appeared on Forbes.com.

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