What’s the Big Deal About Liking My Co-workers?

Tom GibbonsOrganization DevelopmentLeave a Comment

Ok let’s be honest.  We’ve all had (or have) co-workers that we don’t like.  They walk toward us and we look for the nearest office to hide in.  They open their mouth in meetings and we disagree with everything they say even though we’re not even listening.  Their clothes are ugly, they tell boring jokes and we get sick every time a group goes out for lunch that includes them.  In short, we can’t stand them.

But after years of relentless promoting by our HR departments about how important it is to have good working relationships we now have this sense of guilt that possibly we are the problem.  Perhaps we are missing something important here and if we learned to like this despicable creature we would perform better, be happier, and heck, maybe even find deeper meaning in our work.  But after countless team building sessions, some even using that wonderful tool, the Team Management Profile, we still want to avoid them at any cost whenever they come into close proximity.

From awork effectiveness perspective there is really only one reason why it is important to like the people we work with.  It makes it easier to be open to their perspectives.  We need these diverse perspectives to increase our ability to adapt to the changes in our work environment and thus stay current and competitive.  However, if you can find alternative ways to be open to the perspectives of the people you work with then it’s quite acceptable to vehemently dislike the whole bunch of them. These alternative ways to be open won’t necessarily change the way you feel about these people … just possibly the way you work with them.

It’s hard to find those alternative ways though.  The physiology of dislike seems to originate in the neural networks associated with very old parts of our predominantly instinctive brain and these instincts are very hard to consciously overcome.   One of those instincts is to avoid the things you do not like.  Since being open to the perspectives of others assumes a social need to interact, even if at a distance, avoidance of such interaction seriously inhibits our access to this diversity.

It may be better to focus on accessing and making use of the diversity in others rather than to focus on trying to like them.  Even the most abominable specimens in our office can be a rich and fertile source of diversity. Finding ways to do this can be tough though.  Part of this difficulty stems from the lack of effective language we use to interact with diversity. And language is the cornerstone of interaction.

We often use descriptive language rather than instructive language.  Instructive language, that which teaches, that which builds understanding helps us be aware of, and then potentially use diversity.   Instructive language asks why, not what, allows for both/and rather than either/or and realizes that any statement only has meaning when responded to.  Even that common word ‘respect’, so often seen in organizational values only has meaning when people respond to what it means to them.

Perhaps the next time we encounter those people we just do not like in our offices, teams and organizations the best strategy we can use is to change the language we use when we interact with them, subtly but at its core.  To search for and understand the diversity we do not yet understand so we can make use of it.  We may just find, in these efforts to change our language that those intolerable people become just a little more approachable to further interaction, even if we never really do get to like them.

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