I don’t think there’s anything I’ve heard people complain more about than co-workers or managers or employees they don’t get along with. People tend to categorize their co-workers as pure good or evil, leading to toxic relationships. Sometimes, these perceptions start from a simple misunderstanding that goes unresolved and grows over time. Sometimes, work styles are just incompatible. Most workplace relationship advice I had heard previously focused on getting to know the “real” person. Friendship, it seemed, was the only key to working better with these people, and friendship could only be attained by learning about people’s families, their passions, etc. This always felt forced to me, and when people attempted it on me, it felt manipulative. Also, some of the most effective teams I’ve worked on did not have this friendship. If that process works for you, stick with it. But if it doesn’t, let me tell you a story about how I learned to build more effective relationships at work.
When we hired our VP of Marketing at GrubHub, it created two problems for me. The first was I had gotten used to not having an active manager and doing things my own way. The second was I had developed a very direct style from working closely with the founders and other members of the team for a long time. As I continued my normal working style, that created problems for my new manager. She didn’t appreciate the direct tone of my emails, interpreting them as harsh criticism of her and others. She didn’t like the way I evaluated ideas. She liked short bullet points for emails. I tended to write paragraphs that covered a lot of details. Things went on like this for a few months, until she basically told me I had to change. This is a moment every employee should understand. The manager has communicated some feedback, and you can either ignore it and likely get fired, or apply it and stick around. So, the rule for building effective relationships with managers is to adapt to their style. They don’t have to adapt as they can just hire for people that fit their style.
After I adapted, I began to build a better relationship with my manager. She really valued personal growth of her team. So, as part of her process, we examined all of the issues I was having at work on a quarterly basis (which I highly recommend). When I was having an issue with a certain junior person at work, I described how this person operated, where their shortcomings were, how they needed more direction, how they responded to my requests, etc. She gave me some advice that really resonated: “Assume that person won’t change. How can you change to work with this person most effectively?”
As members of the workplace, it’s easy for us to see the flaws in how other people work. We spend a lot of energy hoping that those people will improve their performance in these areas. This is wasteful energy. While you should give direct feedback whenever possible, you can’t assume it will be heeded. So, you have to think about what you could change in how you work with someone to be more effective as a combined team. Sometimes, very simple changes can make all the difference. The only way to do this is to try different approaches and see what works and what doesn’t. Many people do this with their managers, but it’s even more critical to do it with your other co-workers. Identify the issues, brainstorm other approaches, and test them.