People spend a lot of time and money on education to gain knowledge and skills in a specific area. We take these skills into the work force and use them to perform well on the job. However, a large part of our performance at work has nothing to do with our ability to do the job well – it is based on our ability to get along with coworkers. Few people seek out training on how to get along with others at work. It may seem that we should acquire these skills through life experience, but time and time again managers report that the ability to get along with coworkers is a difficult skill to find in an employee.
Why? There are two main reasons: (1) When people get emotional, whether it’s anger, humiliation, jealousy, frustration, etc., they resort to instinctive behaviors. Some people get defensive and treat coworkers with disrespect; others avoid conflict rather than dealing with the issue. Neither approach is productive. (2) While these behaviors may have been accepted by others in our personal lives, they are not tolerated in the work place. Family members and close friends re-enforce negative behaviors by tolerating them, and thus people have not been challenged to use self-control in emotional situations. In our personal lives, if we don’t like others, we simply don’t hang out with them or minimize our interactions. This is not an option at work. We are required to work closely with all varieties of personalities, and we are expected to be respectful and resolve differences.
Everyone knows this, but many still struggle with how to control themselves or confront others in the heat of the moment. There are numerous resources devoted to advising people on this issue, including articles, seminars, coaching sessions, and quizzes to help you determine your ability to work well with others. I have found one simple trick that can work well, if you implement it at the right time: pretend that your boss or your HR rep is standing beside you. How would you speak to your coworkers if you knew that your boss or HR would hear everything you say and the tone of voice you use, as well as see that smirk on your face. The reality is that other coworkers may hear or see your interactions, and anything you say may very well get back to HR. Therefore, make sure you are able to stand behind all your words and actions at work if you have to explain yourself.
Keep in mind that “interactions” extend beyond face-to-face encounters. Emails and gossip can spread rapidly, and these can also reflect poorly on your ability to get along with coworkers. We all know those people who complain about others or talk behind people’s backs. I naturally assume that those people speak the same way about me when I’m not around. It can be tempting to “vent” about things that annoy or frustrate you, but at least try to wait until you get home. Or better yet, confront the issue to resolve it, while pretending that your boss and HR are standing beside you, of course.
This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.