When work relationships go south, it’s easy to start pointing fingers. Things get uncomfortable in the office, and the lists of coworkers’ misdeeds practically write themselves. However, just like good relationships, bad relationships require two parties to create and continue. As tempting as it is to believe it, the problem can’t only be our coworkers. We play a part in it too. Owning up to the part we play in workplace dysfunction is such a struggle. But, it’s a necessary struggle we have to face if we want to find common ground and improve the situation.

The Key to Tough Work Relationships

The key to navigating tough work relationships is recognizing our role in the messiness.

It would be nice to say, I have no experience with difficult work relationships. Unfortunately, I’d be lying. I’ve been involved in a few doozies throughout my career. The one constant in all of them? Me. That leads me to believe I have to be part of the problem. Admitting that is the first step toward improvement, but it isn’t the last step.

Once we realize we’re part of the problem, we’re compelled to do something to fix it.

Admit You Don’t Know the Whole Story

A deadline is looming. Your hands are tied because your teammate has failed to deliver what will enable you to execute your part of the project. Why? You all agreed on the timeline. She said she had everything she needed. She hasn’t asked for assistance or reached out to let you know about a roadblock she’s encountered. So what’s going on?

It’s easy to believe we know exactly why someone is behaving or failing to behave in a certain way. In the workplace, it’s tempting to simplify our co-workers’ motivations to laziness, ignorance, or selfishness. Well, it is for me anyway. Please tell me I’m not the only one who attributes those characteristics to others.

Before jumping to the worst conclusion (that your coworker is lazy or indifferent to deadlines), it’s time to admit you don’t know the whole story. Perhaps other fires ignited on her desk keeping her from focusing on your project. Perhaps her part of the project turned out to be much more complicated than expected.

Take the time to reach out and see what is delaying her before jumping to conclusions. Communication, while it seems like a simple suggestion, can be a stumbling block for many of us. We get focused on our stuff and forget to check in. Give her a chance to explain. Give her a chance to ask for help. Give her the benefit of the doubt.

Evaluate Your Expectations

I have a friend who has been working with a client on and off for years. She loves the experience she’s able to add to her resume with each project, but it is never an easy working environment. The culture of the company is tough for her to handle. It’s chaotic. Communication is practically non-existent. There isn’t a lot of preparation or lead time before big deadlines. And everything seems to be an emergency.

Recently she prepared a proposal when they came to her in a bind — they claimed to be desperate for help. After she sent the pitch, it went unanswered for several weeks. They didn’t acknowledge receiving the proposal and didn’t accept or deny her offer. Nearly three weeks later they sent a counter offer asking her to do more than she initially offered on a significantly compressed timeline. As we were chatting about it, she admitted to being surprised by their behavior.

However, as we continued to talk, she had a realization. Poor communication and last-minute rushed work was pretty typical for this company. She also admitted that while many employees of the organization thrive on the excitement of a last minute cramming session, she does not. She finds it stressful. She figured out it was silly to expect them to handle this project differently than every other project they’d worked on together. She realized that when she sent them her proposal, she’d set an unrealistic expectation. She’d expected things to be different this time. She knew she had to adjust that expectation. Knowing who she was negotiating with, she had a choice to make. She could choose to accept the company’s culture and get busy or turn down the work.

Remember Change is Difficult and Sometimes Unlikely

My friend decided to turn down the work. She politely explained why she was turning down the job and thanked them for reaching out to her. She knew it wasn’t reasonable to expect that things would be different or to believe that the culture had changed. If she wasn’t willing to work within the culture, she knew she needed to turn the job down. That bit of wisdom from Maya Angelou, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time” can be true of companies too. She decided that this time, the high-stress culture wasn’t something she wanted to subject herself to.

Change is difficult and occasionally impossible. If there are changes we can make in our behavior to improve a relationship, we must try to make them. But remember, both parties have to change and grow to fix a difficult relationship. And waiting around for others to change, who haven’t agreed to change, is futile.

In my friend’s case, her client was not going to change. Either they didn’t believe a change was needed or they didn’t have the tools to make the change. She’d tried to adjust her working style in the past to fit in with this client’s culture and usually ended up feeling exhausted and stressed out. So she realized what was best for her was to say no to the job this time. She sacrificed the paycheck to protect her sanity and made peace with her choice. She knew this “no” would leave her open for a “yes” that was a better fit. We can’t make others change just because we want them to.

It’s Time to Recognize Your Role in Tough Work Relationships

Of course, if you aren’t doing freelance work, turning down projects or choosing not to work with incompatible co-workers isn’t quite so cut and dried. But take heart, we’re rarely completely stuck; doomed to work in misery until retirement.

Taking ownership of our part of the struggle and listening carefully to understand the other person’s point of view is the place to start. If you can find a common desire to fix things, you’re halfway there. Remember though; it’s going to take both parties to fix what’s broken. Put in the time and figure out if the tough relationship is truly fixable or if you’re expecting a miracle. Is there common ground to be found where both parties can benefit? Or are your work styles incompatible? If you find that you’re incompatible, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, just the end of the work. Sometimes taking ownership means like finding a work culture that’s a better fit!

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
When we're embroiled in difficult work relationships, it can be easy to point fingers at others. However, the key to navigating these challenging situations is to recognize your role in the messiness.