Office politics #4

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The Independent Online

Some people in the office are a dream to work with. Others seem to be on a different wavelength. It's almost as if they go out of their way to make your life difficult. It would be no skin off your nose, only you do have to work with them to get your job done. They've rebuffed all your efforts to co-operate, so now you concentrate on finding ways to work around them. But it's such a grind - and not very efficient.

How can you sort out these interpersonal niggles, and get yourself into a situation where you have productive relationships with all the people you need to work with?

Understand it ...

First you need to think about the nature of your gripe with the individual. Is it personal, or is there a real business issue involved? Write down what it is they do that you don't like. Be precise. Do they withhold information, undermine your authority, go over your head, or constantly fail to deliver what you need? Or perhaps it's more personal: you know they have been criticising you behind your back; or they really know how to wind you up - and they do it daily. If you can't quite put your finger on the problem, it could simply be chemistry: you just don't like them.

Surface it ...

Once you have articulated the problem to yourself, you have a choice. You can do nothing about it and hope that it'll get better of its own accord (but secretly know that it won't). Or, you can take the initiative and deal with the situation. Think about the frustration, the anger and perhaps even the sadness that this conflict is causing you. Surely it's worth a try to sort it out? But do it right, or you run the risk of making the position even worse.

Plan what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Make sure that your motivation is to solve the problem, not just to vent your anger. Business problems are perhaps the most easily dealt with, as you will be able to talk in fairly objective terms. Explain how the situation looks from your perspective and check that they agree there's a problem. A significant proportion of problems are solved at this stage: the other person wasn't even aware there was an issue and, of course, they'll do something about it. Have a couple of suggestions up your sleeve - things you can do to help, as well as things they can do - but be prepared to listen to their views.

Personal issues are more difficult to deal with, but the process is exactly the same. Be as objective and unemotional as you possibly can. Focus on specific, recent events, rather than launching into a generalised dump. Ask for their views - and really listen. Pause before responding, and think about why they are saying these things. Put yourself in their shoes.

Solve it ...

So the issues are at last on the table. You can see things from both perspectives. But how do you pull these two very different views together? First of all, keep the objective in mind: you are there to solve the problem. Throughout the meeting, emphasise your desire to make things work out. Offer your suggestions and build on their ideas. Summarise where you've got to. Remember, the process is one of negotiation and compromise. And never forget the golden rule of negotiation: neither side should feel that they've lost out. Other things being equal, almost everyone prefers to get on with those who share their work space. The trick is to make it easier for them to accept that other things are equal and that you share their preference for peaceful co-existencen

John Nicholson and Jane Clarke are directors of Nicholson McBride, the business psychology consultancy.