As an executive coach, I get to work with leaders of all levels in organizations across the public and private sectors. I get to really know the issues they face and the successes they realize.
From working on leadership skills, self-perception, career trajectory, responsibilities, promotions through to ego, anxiety, stress, and perfection, I get to support leaders to become stronger and their organizations and teams to thrive.
Of all the issues I’ve heard, of all the challenges that I’ve helped people to navigate through, there is one that rises above the rest in terms of its potential to take people down: interpersonal relationships with colleagues.
Few things challenge us more than when a relationship with a colleague or a supervisor isn’t going well. It seems subtle, but struggling with a colleague or boss can have a huge impact on how happy we are at work and, in fact, how well we perform.
The dangers of confirmation bias in the workplace
Something I often pick up in conversations with my coaching clients is how much we all believe our own perspective – how embedded our own “reality” is for all of us. We often don’t see things from the other person’s perspective, even if we think we do.
That might mean we don’t realize how they’re seeing us, or we don’t realize how we’re being heard, and how that’s affecting the other person.
We get so wrapped up in what we think is right or good or how things should be and it damages our ability to make clear and objective decisions in the workplace. If we’re looking at things through our own lens without taking others into account, how can we see a situation from all sides?
Then, through our narrow view, we find ways to validate our perspective and stick with our vantage point. But, there’s a way around this.
Changing perspective: meet them where they are.
This is a concept that we use in coaching to help our clients consciously shift their perspective. By looking at the situation from the other person’s angle, we can broaden our view.
Let me explain this in a concrete way.
A client of ours, we’ll call him Jeff, is a Manager with a large financial institution. His colleague, we’ll call her Sarah, was recently promoted to Director, which means she’s now Jeff’s boss.
Jeff had noticed that his colleague, who used to be sociable, outgoing and encouraging of him had changed. She seemed to be unhappy with him, avoiding him at the leadership meetings, and almost snapping at him with her responses when they were in a group. Jeff was certain that the “power had gone to her head” and that Sarah was defensive in her new role and trying to assert her newfound authority by “acting like a boss.”
As we talked, Jeff even acknowledged he had started to complain to a couple of his peers and was looking for them to support his view. When one of his colleagues agreed, he felt vindicated.
As we talked I used coaching questions to probe with Jeff what Sarah’s point-of-view might be like. It was challenging for Jeff to step away from his own views and his own beliefs but eventually we got to a point where he started acknowledging where Sarah may be (meeting her where she is).
First, that stepping into the Director’s role would be difficult and that Sarah likely had a lot of pressure on her. Digging deeper he was able to reflect on what Sarah might need to rise to the occasion and feel successful in her new role — and was he providing the support she needed?
As we explored that a bit further, Jeff mentioned a sales report that Sarah had asked him to do. It was a tedious thing that Jeff felt took him away from his clients. He saw little value in the report and had put it to the side a few times. But, Sarah had pushed him for it more than once and he had started resenting that.
As we continued to try to see the world from Sarah’s point of view in her new role, Jeff had a bit of an “a-ha” moment. He realized that Sarah, in her new role, might rely on that report to “manage up.” In other words, that report was likely important for Sarah to demonstrate to the VP that she, and her team, were succeeding with her as Director.
While this wouldn’t explain why Sarah didn’t talk to Jeff about her concerns and explain the importance of the report, or her frustration with him, it nevertheless might explain the rift that was occurring.
While we couldn’t yet be sure this was the cause of the rift, Jeff was able to see it could, quite easily, be a key source. And, his resentment around it might have contributed to furthering the problem.
So while it would have been ideal for Sarah to have a courageous conversation with Jeff about her concerns, Jeff was prepared to start the conversation himself. In trying to look at the world from Sarah’s perspective Jeff viewed things from a different angle and even learned a few things about himself in the process.
If you’re facing a challenging relationship in the workplace, see if these steps help:
Shift your perspective.
Meet them where they are, looking at things entirely from their perspective. Yes, it can be tough. It means resetting every time your hear yourself thinking, “Yah, but…” because that means you’ve shifted back to your own view again.
Acknowledge, and try to accept, different styles.
Each person has their own behavioural style, their own way of looking at the world. They’re not necessarily trying to be difficult and rarely do people behave completely irrationally. When we think something is irrational, we’re probably seeing the world differently than the other person sees it. That’s a good cue to try to meet them where they are.
Think about how you’ve been seen and heard.
When a relationship seems to have shifted, think about exchanges you’ve had with them – email, in person, and phone calls. Is it possible some of your communication could have been misunderstood? Is it possible you’ve missed something in the communication from them?
Pushing back is a cue.
When you feel yourself getting resentful, or frustrated, and pushing back to someone (especially your new boss!), think about WHY you’re feeling that way. When did it start? What thing(s) generated your response? Try to reflect on those events from the other person’s point of view.
Think about the good times.
Was there a time when your relationship with this person seemed stronger? What was different? How were you showing up differently? How were they?
Start the process of fixing things.
That may mean getting the sales reports in on time. It likely also means, have a conversation where you acknowledge the tension or frustration and your desire to find solutions.
As Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, said:
“While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship or a life — any single conversation can.”
The Coach’s Question for this week: What relationship might benefit from a new perspective?