Have you ever been advised to go out for a cup of coffee with a “difficult” colleague in order to improve your relationship with that colleague?
This is very bad advice!
When people show challenging behavour in the workplace it is usually because there is a problem with how people are being required to interact to get the work done.
Workplaces frequently fail to pay attention to the way in which the work processes place obstacles in the way of effective cooperation and collaboration. It is much easier, but lazy, to see workplace problems as functions of individuals.
It is very unusual – but not unheard of – that behavioural problems stem from an individual’s sheer laziness, stubbornness, incompetence or malice.
If you have a colleague who you find difficult, you first need to understand the nature and source of the difficulty before you approach them directly. But the only way that you can find that out is if your workplace is a place in which people can safely share their experiences and struggles in doing the work. If your workplace is not a place like this, don't even try. Going off-site for a coffee is not going to help one iota!
If the person is comfortable speaking about her experiences and struggles in doing the work (i.e. is not going to fly into a rage or break down in unconsolable sobbing or some other unregulated behaviour), then you should reciprocate because only in that situation of sharing and mutual recognition will each of you gain the insight you need to understand what the behaviour is responding to, and then, together, find a workable solution.
When difficulties about doing the work are shared honestly, respectfully and routinely in the workplace, new ideas always emerge that improve working life. The real difficulty is creating a workplace environment in which people are able to do that; an environment where the whole team has the power, opportunity, and emotional and moral maturity to foster a healthy workplace culture.
If the difficulty is simply that this person is an outright racist or sexist or perhaps is extremely ambitious and doesn't mind whose toes she treads on, then taking her out for a coffee is not only going to be completely ineffectual, it presents the very real risk of, metaphorically, putting a big bullseye on your forehead if she senses that you have some issue with her.
When any individual in the workplace becomes difficult, whether they are a team member, or the manager, or stakeholder, it is rarely a function of that individual alone. It is usually because the person is trying to solve some practical problem related to the work that the workplace itself is blocking.
The responsibility for remediating difficult behaviour should not fall to any individual in the first instance, but should be dealt with through established processes where the whole team routinely and respectfully shares everyone’s practical intelligence and know-how about how the work is being done.
Not only does this solve problems and build psycho-social safety, it can stop most problems arising in the first place.
Additional thought: There is a truism in management that ‘you get what you report’. If you are not identifying and reporting an activity it won't attract any attention, it won't be seen as being of value, and consequently it won't attract resourcing and support. So, if you are not reporting good practice you are unlikely to get any of it.
Kim & Frances
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