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ARTICLE: How to Collaborate with People You Don't Like

Updated: May 1, 2020


I worked with Mark Nevins when he was at Booz Allen. He recently wrote a great article for Harvard Business Review about a simple but serious problem: collaborating with people you don’t like. Ultimately, while not particularly easy or comfortable, developing a handful of useful strategies are helpful, and it is possible to collaborate effectively with people you don’t like — but you have to take the lead. Here are some helpful tips:

  1. Reflect on the cause of tension and how you are responding to it. The first step is both acceptance and reflection. Remember: You won’t get along with everyone but there is potential value in every interaction with others. You can and should learn from almost everyone you meet, and the responsibility for making that happen lies with you even if the relationship is not an easy one. Take an honest look at what is causing the tension and what role you play in creating it. It may be that your reaction to the situation is at the core of the problem (and you can’t control anything other than your reaction). That person's “unlikability” may really be about you.

  2. Work harder to understand the other person’s perspective. Few people get out of bed in the morning with the goal of making your life miserable. Make time to think deliberately about the other person’s point of view, especially if that person is essential to your success. Ask yourself: Why is this person acting this way? What might be motivating them? How do they see me? What might they want and need from me? You may come to look at the person differently as you come to appreciate that your colleague has goals and motivations as valid as your own and that your goals are not inherently in conflict.

  3. Become a problem solver rather than a critic or competitor. To work better together, it’s important to shift from a competitive stance to a collaborative one. One tactic is to “give” the other person the problem. Rather than trying to work through or around the other person, engage them directly. Be open with the person: “I don’t feel like we are working together as effectively as we could. What do you think? Do you have any ideas for how we can work better together?” If you ask people to show you their cards, and demonstrate vulnerability in the process, they will often reveal a few of their own.

  4. Ask more questions. In tense situations, many of us try to “tell” our way through it. We might become overly assertive, which usually makes the situation worse. Instead, try asking questions — ideally open-ended ones intended to create conversation. Put aside your own agenda, ask good questions, and have the patience to truly listen to the other person’s answers.

  5. Enhance your awareness of your interpersonal style. It’s easy to chalk up conflicts to poor “chemistry” with another person but everyone has different styles and often being aware of those differences can help. Perhaps share your Myers-Briggs profiles with one another. Once you identify your differences, you may realize that your styles could be quite complementary if you adapt and accommodate your approaches.

  6. Ask for help. Asking for help can reboot a difficult relationship because it shows that you value the other person’s intelligence and experience. Ask for help — questions like: “What should I be doing more or less of? Am I missing anything or failing to connect with anyone I really should? What do you wish someone had told you when you first started working here?”

Read Mark Nevin's full article on HBR here.

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