Working Effectively with Challenging Colleagues – Part Two

  1. What often causes friction between talented colleagues?
  2. Recognizing what need can lay the groundwork for harmonious cooperation?
  3. How can you prevent friction before it starts?
  4. What’s the best way to blunt a personal attack?
  5. What can foster continuing good will within a group?

In Part One we considered the fact that groups often outperform the most intelligent and organized individual.  We also saw why friction seems to come naturally to the groups made up of experts from different fields needed to successfully bring new biotechnology products to market. 

But trying to run a group with friction between members is like trying to drive a car without ever changing the oil.  Attempting to move forward with a lot of friction consumes too much energy and slows down the vehicle.  Without some effective lubrication that car will eventually grind to a halt.  But you can prevent friction between group members before it begins.  How?

Recognizing a Key Factor

Understanding the psychology of group members is a good start.  One important principle to recognize is the fact that all people strive to maintain a positive self-image.  According to eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD and his coauthors, “During the past half-century social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image. In other words, we humans strive to maintain a relatively favorable view of ourselves.” 

This need to preserve our dignity and self-esteem is crucial. Noted psychologist Ervin Staub states, “Powerful self-protective motives then arise: the motive to defend the physical self (one’s life and safety) and the motive to defend the psychological self (one’s self-concept, values, and ways of life).” Research has found that just as we have a natural tendency to defend our person against physical assaults, we will also vigorously defend our self-image against real or perceived attacks.

Imagine how much a work group would accomplish if a team member walked into a meeting and punched a colleague in the nose.  An all-out brawl would be the likely result. In the same way, if one member of a group insults or deprecates another, the victim’s overriding natural response is to defend himself or retaliate.  This can slow down or completely disrupt the group’s progress.

Prevent Friction before it Starts

How can you avoid slowing down the group this way?  Don’t ever attack the value, credibility or integrity of any member.  If you disagree with a point they’ve made, commend them for their research, hard work or intelligence.  Then point out that their counsel, although good in general, may not apply in this particular instance.  Finally, assert a point that they may not have considered.  If trying to overturn an established policy or procedure, acknowledge where it’s worked in the past, but point out new circumstances that require a change.  Your comments will be taken as constructive suggestions rather than a personal attack on the author of the existing policy.

Gaining Cooperation

Researchers have found, time and again, that people will more readily cooperate with and accept the advice of those they like.  Further, we tend to automatically like those who like us.  Well known social psychologist and researcher David Myers, PhD stated, “Experiments confirm it:  Those told that certain others like or admire them usually feel a reciprocal affection.”

Dr. Robert Cialdini, who has advised corporate leaders, Prime Ministers and Presidents recommends that we do a little research on our team members.  Find something in them that you can admire or appreciate.  Then think of that when you’re speaking with them.  The natural liking you’ll feel will show on your face and in your voice.  That certainly would promote harmony.  But would it make you more persuasive?

Dr. Cialdini and Joe Girard testify that it would.  Girard is the only salesman ever inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.  At one point during his selling career his commissions were higher than the salary earned by the President of General Motors.  He averaged selling six new cars every day he worked. His secret?  Joe regularly sent his customers cards on their birthday and anniversary that included the message, “I like you.” They liked him so much in return that they would make appointments to see Girard rather than buy their next car from anyone else. This phenomenon may explain why famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow wrote, “The main work of a trial attorney is to make a jury like his client.”

A Vital Principle

No one is suggesting that biotechnology executives act like car salesmen.  Certainly what they may defend in a meeting is far different from the accused criminals Darrow defended.  But this principle holds in a myriad of situations: 

People tend to like and cooperate with those who like them. 

People particularly appreciate honest, sincere commendation.  We can give this to them directly, subtly, or by complimenting them to another person who will, in turn, pass it on.  Never miss an opportunity to give credit where it’s deserved. You’re making an investment in good relations that can pay dividends in the future.

Promoting cordial relationships within a team is both a science and an art.  Some may feel that such an effort is beneath them.  But lasting influence comes, not from dominating others but from enlisting their willing support.  As the old French proverb says, “More flies are caught with honey than with vinegar.”  Biotechnology teams whose members like and support one another will consistently outperform similar teams that don’t.  But if, despite this fact, a team member insults or verbally attacks you, what can you do?  A proven method can stop the attack and deter future aggression.  Stay tuned.


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