The 6 keys to working with colleagues you can't stand

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 4, 2020.

It's impossible to get along with everyone, but, when it comes to work, conflicts can compromise your professional success. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Mark Nevins, a consultant with Nevins Consulting who advises senior executives, shares how you can work effectively with the colleagues you don't always get along with.

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A successful executive faces an all-too-common challenges

It's pretty common to butt heads with a colleague at work—even at the executive level, Nevin writes. For example, Nevin writes that a former client was having problems with another executive and expressed concern that those problems "could "possibly derail her career at the company."

While the other executive was perfectly competent, accomplished, and well-liked, Nevin's client said their opposing working styles prevented them from getting along. To address those professional concerns, Nevin has come up with six tips for working better with colleagues you don't always see eye to eye with.

How to work well with anyone

  1. Identify what's causing the tension and how you respond to it. "Acceptance and reflection," are the first steps to working with someone you don't like, Nevins writes. According to Nevins, "You can and should learn from almost everyone you meet," even if you don't get along with them, and making that happen is your responsibility. Reflect on the role you play in the tension between yourself and your colleague. Your reaction to your colleague is "the core of the problem (and you can't control anything other than your reaction)," Nevins writes.

  2. Try to understand the other person's perspective. Odds are, your colleague isn't intentionally making you uncomfortable, Nevins points out. To see the other person's point of view, ask yourself, "Why is this person acting this way? ... How do they see me? What might they want and need from me?" Nevin writes that professional relationships can improve with this base level of understanding—and you may even unearth common goals.

  3. Be a problem solver. In order to work well with others, it's crucial that you change your perspective from competitive to collaborative. Instead of trying to work around them, be vulnerable and engage your colleague by telling them that you'd like to work better together, Nevins writes.

  4. Ask questions. Instead of becoming aggressive in the face of conflict, ask open-ended questions that can initiate a problem-solving conversation. Once you ask, make sure that you "truly listen to the other person's answers," Nevins said.

  5. Be self-aware. Being aware of your own work and communication style can make it easier to collaborate with people who are different than you. For example, some people have opposing personalities and work styles. But recognizing these differences, can better enable you to work well together because you are aware of and can accommodate the other person's style.

  6. Ask them for help. Asking your colleague for their assistance on a project will show them that you respect them as an employee and value their opinion and expertise—even if you aren't compatible as friends. For example, Nevin writes, you can ask questions like, "What should I be doing more or less of? Am I missing anything or failing to connect with anyone I really should? What do you wish someone had told you when you first started working here."

After taking initiative and employing these strategies, Nevin's former client saw her professional relation improve. With these six steps "it is possible to collaborate effectively with people you don't like, but you have to take the lead," Nevins writes (Nevins, Harvard Business Review, 12/4/18).

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