Getting along is important in most social situations, and nowhere more so than when trying to collaborate with others to achieve goals as happens in the workplace. Sounds simple, but in execution it can anything but. Human beings are prickly creatures, particularly when their ultimate success is involved. Enmities develop, grudges are carried, and everywhere interpersonal friction chafes – it’s almost like we’re living in a soap opera. Except in real life, your inability to cooperate is likely to get you fired rather than murdered.
What is meant by “working well with others.”
Like many Great Employee skills, the “cooperative touch” requires balance and finesse. Few bosses are looking for a “yes man,” a person who goes along to get along. Such an employee ends up offering precious little when it comes to input, honesty, or influence. If you’re agreeing with everything said by others as a way of avoiding conflict – particularly if done in an attempt to please the boss – you’ll never stand out from the crowd. “Conflict avoiding,” “Polly Anna-ish,” or “overly positive” are not labels you want your superiors attaching to you.
Conversely, it’s easy for employees to fall to the other extreme – being combative, either overtly or covertly. Consistently disagreeing, scheming for revenge, undermining peers, and hoarding information are all hallmarks of the employee that doesn’t work well with others. Over the years, I’ve noticed most organizational pugilists seem blissfully unaware of their own divisive behaviors. It’s a good idea for each employee to be on the lookout for signs of oppositional behavior in themselves, because you can bet that nobody else will have any difficulty recognizing it.
It may be a natural outgrowth of your aggressive personality.
Personality and predisposition play heavily into the ability of people to get along. That being said, almost every personality type can be accommodated in an organization, as long as those predispositions are not taken to an extreme. Below are a few of the predispositions that, when taken to an extreme, prevent otherwise good employees from being great.
We all know that person who responds negatively to everything new. Every innovation has a huge down side, every change is characterized as “too hard.” While there is wisdom in a cautious approach, if you find yourself negatively reacting to most new ideas, better curb the urge -- at least, to a degree. There is a fine line between preaching caution and being a systematic negaholic.
My father once related the story of a negaholic peer who could only see the risks and pitfalls in every suggested change. “We’ve tried that before” and “it won’t work because…” were this man’s constant watchwords. He consistently brought the group down and often tried to limit debate to a narrow window of issues that he was willing to address. Almost every time this dynamic played out, the negaholic ended his participation in the debate by saying, “...let the record show that Smith disagreed!”
A strong competitive urge can lead to difficulties with cooperation. Competitiveness is a great personal driver – at least until it slides into constantly worrying about looking better than Jane. If you find yourself thinking along the lines of, “I can’t help Fred with his project because he might get that next promotion,” then your competitive drive may be a out of control. When competitiveness gets in the way of cooperation, you’re on the wrong track.
Similarly, the inability to let go of past slights (real or imagined) will get you into trouble. There is nothing that will destroy teamwork quicker than grudge-holding or revenge-seeking. Sometimes it is tough to bear the insults, undermining, or scheming of others, but for the sake of being a Great Employee, you must put such injuries aside (or at least seek their redress in a way that is so subtle no one sees your hand in it).
In one group I managed, cooperation within the team was virtually impossible to maintain because of an internecine war raging behind the scenes. One particular employee seemed to inspire conflict with nearly all his peers. I believe this was the result of an overdeveloped competitive drive (which had him identifying all of peers as “the enemy”) and a seemingly uncontrollable need to engage in political gamesmanship, where he would attack, undermine, and embarrass his peers at every turn. A few of his peers simply shrugged their shoulders, releasing their resentments like water rolling off a duck’s back. They knew I was fully aware of the problem employee’s pitfalls and predilections (he was protected by my boss, or I would have fired him). A couple peers, however, couldn’t resist the urge to seek revenge. This led to untold amounts of dysfunctional conflict in the group and wasted enormous amounts of time. In the end, while I blamed the problem employee for most of the conflict, the reputations of those who fought with him also took a hit.
Wanting to be essential can send you down the wrong team play path. Many employees hoard knowledge (and sometimes for more puerile reasons than simply trying to protect their job), forcing bosses and peers to come begging for help. Not only is this uncooperative on the surface, it is essentially an illusion. An often quoted bit of managerial wisdom states that, “anyone can be replaced.” I can recall numerous occasions, in fact, where managers plotted the elimination of knowledge hoarders – both because of their uncooperative nature, and the risk of the hoarder abruptly departing and leaving the team in a lurch.
The Conflict Avoider
By nature, I’m a conflict avoider. I want everyone to like me, and find it difficult to confront others. This predisposition has served me fairly well in the cooperation department, except when it led to the stifling of important disagreement or criticism that would have helped our group move forward. Quiet is okay, but you can’t be a total wallflower and also a Great Employee. I eventually began to force myself to offer critique, holding my tongue when the content fell on the low end of the importance scale and thus saving my moments for things that really mattered. It goes without saying that delivery counts when it comes to criticism. A well-reasoned and well-argued disagreement is much more likely to keep the discussion moving forward in a positive way. Personalizing criticism, on the other hand, is almost certain to lead you into a battle.
One of my bosses insisted on having regular staff meetings, even though they were often poorly planned affairs that dwelled on inconsequential details. Those meetings often turned into monologues, events where the main presenter spoke and everyone else sat passively listening. In order to enhance my value as a team player, I forced myself to raise the occasional perspective or issue – particularly where I thought the point might be missed by the rest of the group. I did this in spite of my natural inclination to clam up, and despite the fact that it would sometimes drag out an already painfully long meeting. That strategy served me well, as the boss commented positively on my contributions during the staff meetings when giving me my review.
The “Yes man”
A “yes man” is characterized by his or her slavish devotion to the ideas or publicly-expressed positions of a single person – almost always the boss. This behavior is not only annoying, but it often shuts off debate. We all understand that the “yes man’s” loyalty and devotion are (sometimes) admirable qualities, but not when they begin interfering with open cooperation of the team. I’ve known two “yes men” who attempted to act as an Oracle for the boss, presenting themselves as if they had a special insight into the boss’s will. When this is done effectively, it raises the employee’s standing among peers, and can also stroke the boss’s ego. But it tends to stifle open expression of ideas and debate. Of all the ways of failing to cooperate, this is the only one where the employee might get away with destructive behavior without injuring themselves.
Why bosses need your cooperation
The wisdom of a group, at least one that functions in a cooperative and progressive fashion, is almost always greater than the wisdom of any individual -- no matter how smart that person may be. When people work together, they consider aspects of decisions that the individual would have neglected or ignored, develop options that may not have been obvious, and more carefully weigh their conclusions. This automatically comes at a price – group-based decision making is much more time consuming and often the process can be messy – which is why we don’t normally cast every choice into the team’s arena. Normally, managers try to save group debate for only the most important decisions.
Managing a group decision-making process can be quite difficult for the boss. In addition to the added time drain, uncooperative behaviors can sap the boss’s energies, lead to scheming and retribution (big time productivity destroyers), and make the boss look bad to those further up the chain. And the effects of a few uncooperative employees often extend far beyond just the dynamics of group meetings, infecting every person in the department.
What should a Great Employee do?
First and foremost, the great employee avoids being the cause of intra-personal problems. Awareness of the cooperation pitfalls listed above is a start. The Great Employee studiously avoid exhibiting these pitfalls. And while this might, to some degree, go against your natural inclinations, rest assured that being a good teammate will benefit both you, your department, and your boss.
A great employee meets their peers more than halfway – covering as much as ninety percent of any confrontation. No boss expects you to be a punching bag, but when you can extend an olive branch to a peer – even if you feel doing so is unjustified – your boss will thank you. I personally had trouble doing this at times, particularly when I thought the offense committed by my peer represented some kind of betrayal or a political power play. In one instance, a peer launched a battle with me over inter-company pricing that included some highly insulting things written in an email. Feeling like I was on the side of “right” in this case, I escalated the conflict. In the end, despite my righteous rage, the boss, not being willing to dive into the tedious details involved in the the conflict, simply labeled us both as “children.” That battle (and, I’m sure, most like it) proved to be a lose-lose for both of us.
After mastering the above abilities, the Great Employee can work on her diplomatic skills. In most groups, the members rely on the leader to settle disputes, to negotiate differences in opinion, and to assuage frayed egos. That’s typical, but not required. Most bosses would thank a subordinate for working to keep the group on an even keel, including doing some behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to stop group members from coming to blows. Of course, this type of behavior has its own risks. Where the boss has the power of position behind her when dealing with conflict, peers must act with the lightest of touches or risk being swept up in the conflict, themselves.
Can you take cooperation too far?
As long as by “taking it too far” an employee doesn’t move into passivity or reflexive agreement to everything said, probably not. Most bosses depend on effective teamwork to succeed and anything a subordinate does to foster that will only count as points in his favor.
Working well with others is an essential skill that will not only enhance your value as a subordinate, it will help to prepare the you to someday manage others. The great employee strictly avoids the extreme behaviors that lead to group conflict, be they over-aggressiveness or excessive passivity. When subject to the aggression of others, great team players are tolerant and forgiving, often going above and beyond what most people would consider necessary to bridge gaps and eliminate conflict. The best employees go a step beyond these basics, working to reduce the friction between others on the team.