Whether it’s problem-solving or communication, people are at the centre of your professional life. This isn’t said often enough. Face it. If not from Day 1, certainly as your career progresses, you will increasingly need the support of others and your teams to deliver against expectations. Unless you are some genius who can afford to create magic alone, your ability to work with people—or not—will have a disproportionate impact on your career. Indeed, it will be the difference between potential and success.
But this doesn’t happen easily. Steering through personal insecurities and ego tussles, striking productive work relationships will often test you more than the core task at hand. Run-ins with colleagues, supervisors and external clients, managing difficult relationships, or transforming a testy work dynamic into equations that work are likely to be some of the biggest challenges you face.
How can you prepare for this? How do you ensure that the people part of the matrix is not holding you back? Or, in fact, that you aren’t becoming somebody others find difficult to work with? What can you do to build productive, efficient relationships? What does the magic recipe look like?
Here are a few suggestions that might help.
First, learn to anticipate conflict. Don’t be surprised when it rears its head. More often than not, tensions tend to build up gradually. Poor relationships, too, have a trajectory. If relationships are important to you, read the early signs and don’t wish them away. It’s easier to solve a little bit of tear than to stitch back a worn, ruptured rapport. Have that awkward conversation, exchange feedback, and get it out of the way.
Learn to treat conflict as a problem-solving challenge that needs to be resolved, rather than winning an argument or one-upmanship. The key to solving an interpersonal conflict is to try and manage the work part of the conflict without spoiling your personal relationship. For example, pull up someone for their patchy work, yet make them feel like you are doing it with their best interest in mind, and giving them your full support.
In fact, moments of conflict are ripe opportunities to build deeper relationships—sadly, most people allow such situations to ruin relationships. We fear confrontation so much that we let things simmer till they become situations nobody can control. Again, resolve the conflict but build the relationship.
Second, some old-fashioned moral fables hold true, even though we forget them often. Treat people the way you would like them to treat you. If you don’t like being screamed at, don’t scream at others. If you appreciate your privacy, make sure you protect the privacy of others. If you value punctuality, discipline and process, ensure that you walk the talk on it.
This holds true for senior and young professionals. Disrespect, or seeming disrespect, is the new fault line on whether to stick to a boss (and, by default, the company) or not. Many people will find themselves on the wrong side of the respect fault line. High-pressure environments are no longer a valid excuse for short tempers and poor leadership. Tolerance for bad behaviour in the workplace is decreasing sharply. Anybody leading even a small team, or running a large conglomerate, must understand that the benevolent dictatorship model doesn’t fly any more. People are okay with a demanding boss but not with a “cranky patriarch".
Third, learn to give and receive feedback in timely fashion and objectively. This is a major source of problems: We are either too aggressive in giving feedback or too defensive in receiving it. If you missed it, do read our last column on this subject to help you get started.
How you work with others will have a greater impact on your career than you ever considered. Let people become your strength, not your limitation.
This is the fifth in the eight-part Art of Work series on building a fulfilling career. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is a business author who now works in higher education. Read the first four columns in the series at Livemint.com/ArtofWork.