One of the issues I come across in my consultations for our Department is employees who are not getting along. There are many reasons why this occurs, but a common theme I’ve seen recently is people being upset about a co-worker not being friendly enough, not wanting to be friends or not being social. In an agency as large as ours and with the amount of time we dedicate to our careers, it’s common for us to meet others with whom we start long-lasting friendships. But it also seems that many believe we need to be friends with our co-workers and colleagues. Nothing can be further from the truth. And unfortunately, some of the folks with that expectation react negatively to their desire for friendship being rebuffed or rejected. What seems to eventually follow is some problem in the function of a work group that draws the attention of a supervisor.
We all have different styles of social interaction, and these styles impact the way we work and the way we communicate at work. They range from someone who prefers to do many things in groups, is very outgoing and seems to have many friends at work to the individual who is more reserved, prefers to work alone and has only a few friends at work. Neither style is better than the other. They’re just different. However, it can be challenging at times for these different types to get along and work together. It can be difficult to do and sometimes easy to forget that when we communicate, the best way to get your message across is to package it in a way that the listener will understand. Very outgoing people might unintentionally overwhelm the quieter person if they start talking as soon as the other is close enough. The more reserved person might unintentionally insult the more outgoing person by not acknowledging them quickly enough or at all. Each needs to adjust from their style to maximize their work productivity with each other. It can also be helpful to let others know what your style is, so no one is guessing (or diagnosing) what your behavior means. Sometimes, a person’s less social behavior isn’t related to their interpersonal style but rather means that the person isn’t looking for friends in the workplace. Finding a friend at work can certainly make our work go faster, be more enjoyable and allow us an opportunity to have outside-of-work relationships. But when a friendship is not on the table or a fellow employee is not as social as we are, we must maintain our professional demeanor.
I’m often called when professionalism and productivity are affected. Frequently these consultations start as a request from supervisors for a “mediation.” Outcomes from these “mediations” are usually twofold — that is, I can provide something for the employees and the supervisor. I often begin by talking with the supervisor to learn more about the perceived problem and then I meet with the affected work group, first individually and then as a group. We discuss individual social style and needs, the different personal experiences in the group and perceived issues. In the group meeting, themes and specific topics are discussed to try to reach understanding between members so that any conflict can be resolved. Although these meetings aren’t about “making friends,” we often discuss how to help each other so more positive connections can be made. This leads us to talk honestly about what we want out of work and whether or not friendships are a part of it. From our discussion, we set clear and unambiguous rules for engagement that are agreed upon by everyone in the group. These are then shared with the supervisor. Finally, we review the need to remain professional at all times, regardless of whether or not we like each other or even respect each other. There is never an excuse for unprofessional behavior.
Many supervisors facing these issues are first-time supervisors and often take a fear-based approach to changing the group’s behavior. They usually find out quickly that it doesn’t work. What I can often offer the supervisor is an opportunity to translate and enhance many skills they already have and learn to apply them in this new situation. We often discuss how expectations are communicated and whether they are clear and unambiguous. We discuss approaches for supporting and coaching employees to meet these expectations (yes, even these “soft” interpersonal ones). We also discuss how to keep employees accountable. Keep in mind that an organization’s most valuable resource is its employees. We also discuss how the supervisor embodies what they expect from employees and models the attitudes and behavior. Nothing will shut down an employee faster than a supervisor who takes a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach.
If you have any questions about this topic, or want a confidential consultation or a counseling appointment, contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500.