Articles > Toxic chemistry at work? Here's a fix-it formula

Toxic chemistry at work? Here's a fix-it formula
Globe & Mail, August 17, 2012

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

A middle-manager client of mine was upset when her boss told her that he had hired a new team member. She had known he was looking for someone but had expected to be part of the interview process. "I have to work with this person, sit next to them in a cubicle, I should have had a say. What if I don't like her?" she wondered.

It turned out she didn't like the new employee; she found the woman stiff and humourless, and impossible to connect with. She disliked the newcomer so much that six months later, my client was looking for a new job.
Organizations try hard to keep out personal feelings about liking or disliking someone from hiring and promotion decisions, using tools such as behavioural interviewing, competency profiles and stern policies on everything from diversity to favouritism. But you can't legislate human nature or control personal predilections.

Obviously, most people would prefer to work with someone who is upbeat and interested in the welfare of others, rather than a colleague who is sour and self-absorbed.

But often, more subtle characteristics make us more or less predisposed to like someone. How we react to these attributes is highly subjective. A characteristic unnoticed by one person can drive another crazy, whether it's a high-pitched voice, a weak handshake, excessive ambition or self-satisfaction.

Several managers have confided to me that not only do they have difficulty working with someone because, say, the person is loud, but also they are embarrassed that something so petty could be a source of difficulty.

Personality characteristics and personal preferences also rule the roost when it comes to the boss-subordinate relationship. For example, most management experts say that a good boss delegates and promotes autonomy. That behaviour will be beneficial for an employee who can't stand being told what to do, but challenging for someone who prefers structure and clear direction.

Some people are more tolerant, and can work with almost anyone. I recently asked a friend if he likes the people he works with, and he looked at me as if I had asked whether his office has indoor plumbing. He said the thought of whether he likes someone never crossed his mind - all he cares about is whether they deliver.

Most of us are not so dispassionate. But although we may be less tolerant by nature, we can use self-awareness about our prejudices to prevent knee-jerk reactions.

One senior manager told me he ignored his gut reaction about a talented job applicant, which was "You won't be able to work with this person because she is fat and talks too much," and forced himself to hire her. She turned out to be a great addition to his staff and she is now his right-hand person. Overcoming his prejudices, he said, was an unexpected learning experience.

So what do you do if you think the chemistry is wrong between yourself and a colleague?

Put it into behavioural terms: Specifically determine what is bothering you, and then decide if you can live with it. So what if your colleague has an irritating voice; does it interfere with his performance, or yours? Does it hurt you? Whenever you start to feel irritated by this person, remind yourself of the triviality of your concerns.

If your style does not mesh with that of your boss, and you know yourself well enough to identify where the mismatch is, speak up. But don't slag his or her style - it might not be objectively awful, just a bad match for you.

One middle manager who felt her boss was a control freak sold him on changing his behaviour. She told him she understood that he was concerned about whether staffers were doing what they were supposed to, but that it undermined her own performance and confidence. She described two recent incidents of micromanagement and how dispiriting she found it. He changed how he delegated work to her - but not how he treated others.

By the same token, if you are the boss, try to understand your employees' preferred work style. Be cognizant when you are pushing hot buttons. If you know your employees need praise, and you tend to be tight-lipped, try to meet their needs some of the way, without denigrating them for those needs. They are different from you, not bad.

Sometimes you may find yourself in trickier territory, whether with a boss, a co-worker, or a subordinate. You and the other person simply rub each other the wrong way and there's no obvious reason why: You just don't like each other. Or your colleague doesn't like you for reasons you can't fathom.

You might have to just live with it. For example, an executive acquaintance has an extreme distaste for one of her staffers - she can't stand how long it takes him to get to the point, how loudly he talks to his wife on the phone, the cute pictures of his kids on his desk - even though she respects his work. But, as she wisely notes, "This isn't a marriage. These things drive me crazy, but it is irrational and I don't have the right to tell him to become a different person."

In other words, know what is changeable and what is not. And if you are the victim of bad chemistry, understand that it is impossible for everyone to like you even though that hurts.