A while back, I wrote a piece arguing that we should act like Allies instead of Critics with our colleagues. I know you may have been thinking, “But you don’t work with this one scumbag at our company. There’s no way he’d be an Ally. And if I act like an Ally with him, I’ll end up just being a Chump.”
No doubt, there are special cases where a particular colleague defies your attempts to be an Ally. They may not have it in their mental models that being an ally is even possible in a work setting. They may believe that work is a big reality TV show and that they have no real choice but to survive at your expense.
Even in this situation, you do have options besides reverting to being a jerk at work:
- Embrace the challenge. You can view this situation as a workout for your soul. We all know that we learn more from hardship than from comfort. Perhaps having this Critic in your life is a way for you to learn patience, the ability to unhook yourself from their critique, and the skill of not retaliating.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask your brain the question, “What might lead a reasonable person to act this way?” There are usually multiple possible explanations, not all of them sinister (see Hanlon’s Razor). Even if you’re not sure the other person is reasonable, this question forces your mind to soften. Soft minds have a better chance of making good calls than brittle minds.
- Ignore the hostility. It’s amazing what you can accomplish by doing nothing. You can defuse the Critic’s negative attempts to influence or at least be wise to their methods. William Ury, a master negotiator, tells a story about a time when a political leader spent the first hour of their meeting berating him and the other side for perceived wrongs of the past. Ury said, “I take your candor as a sign of friendship. Thank you for telling me what you think.” This immediately defused the situation because he sidestepped the leader’s attempt to control the tone of the meeting.
- Engage in supportive confrontation. Originally described by David Bradford and Allen Cohen, this is an approach where you try to help the other person see that what they’re doing won’t get them what they want – or at best, it will get them what they want at great personal cost. The key here is that you’re saying to them (and yourself) that the easy thing to do is to avoid this conversation but that you care too much about the work you have to do together to take the easy way out. Notice you don’t have to care about them personally, although it wouldn’t hurt.
- Enlist the power of the group. Critics lose their power when the rest of the group ignores or counterbalances their critique. Try creating an atmosphere where the silent majority is drawn out to balance the vocal critic. If you try this, attempt to provide the Critic with a bridge back to the group. Otherwise they’re bound to get more isolated and combative when they sense that the group is immune to their attempts to influence.
- Collaborate with influencers. You can escalate the issue to leaders who may be able to influence the other person or even remove them from the situation. Of course, you’re now raising the stakes. Be sure to attempt at least one of the approaches above before escalating the issue. Any savvy leader will ask you, “What did you try already to address this situation?” Have a solid answer or risk just looking like a whiner.
- Leave the room. If all else fails and a Critic is persistently affecting key parts of your work environment, you may be able to find ways to remove yourself from the situation. In extreme situations, this may mean quitting your job. More often, you may be able to limit or eliminate interaction with this person in your current role.
One last thing: I’m definitely not saying that anyone should put up with abusive colleagues or that a difficult person is the same as exploitive and abusive behavior. Let’s call those things what they are: completely unacceptable.
But if your colleague is temperamental or troublesome instead of exploitive or abusive, these may be strategies you can use to deal with them while becoming the person you were created to be. And that would make the hardship worth something.