A few weeks ago I had a textbook frustrating experience at work. I was put on a new project and the primary person that I was supposed to work with did not want to work with me.
This was not the result of some bystander psychoanalysis that I did, but instead an observable fact. It started with brief and incomplete responses to my questions, grew up into no replies to my instant messages (we work in different cities), and most recently, before I left the office to go on vacation, ended with withholding information and trying to publicly embarrass me via an e-mail chain with a long list of names in the “Cc” field. The first day this project began, his behavior really bothered me because I have been the object of someone’s insubordination before and I was hoping that after going to business school, I wouldn’t have to deal with pettiness so soon after graduation. I no longer think that – in fact, I think that I am vulnerable to more pettiness now than pre-business school because I’m perceived as much more of a threat.
I asked myself on a hurried walk to a yoga class, why am I practically on the verge of tears? Why does his cooperation matter so much to me? From that point on, through some cat/cow and warrior poses in class, I realized that my feelings embodied my expectations, and his actions were just a stimulus. I expect others to recognize how motivated and hard working I am, and so if someone antagonizes me, it runs counter to how I envision my life. But, and this is critical, the bad apple is very likely experiencing the situation analogous to me. As ironic as it is, he and I are probably feeling the exact same thing. Where he and I will differ, I tell myself, is how we choose to act on our feelings.
Modern day workplaces are effectively giant experiments in sharing that test your focus, agreeableness, and less often than expected, your competency. The primary challenge in working with someone difficult is figuring out what it is the absolute minimum contribution that you need from that person to deliver your work with integrity, and then be laser focused on that minimum. How you choose to act on your feelings is what distinguishes productive self-reflection from rumination. But, remaining focused on that bare minimum (if you are able to define it) is not easy because:
- You have plausible reason to worry about this coworker sabotaging you (so you check all information shared 2x, 3x over and this takes up time)
- You don’t trust what your colleague says (so you write your e-mails and chats as if they will be read in a deposition in court one day, ha)
- There is palpable negativity around your co-worker and with your project (so you try to contain it by not asking for help from your manager or colleagues)
And so, you get frustrated and lose focus. I felt angry. One of my favorite thinkers, a brilliant contemporary philosopher named Martha Nussbaum, wrote on anger:
“If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life…A wronged person who is really angry, seeking to strike back, soon arrives, I claim, at a fork in the road. Three paths lie before her. …Path three: if she is rational, after exploring and rejecting these two roads, she will notice that a third path is open to her, which is the best of all: she can turn to the future and focus on doing whatever would make sense, in the situation, and be really helpful.”
Admittedly, another one of the feelings that came up in this experience was disappointment. I am disappointed with this colleague.
This chance to work together was an opportunity: to build a reputation, to achieve something valuable together, and to learn from each other without any risks (because of the nature of this project). But instead, he had turned this experience into a performance of his emotional struggles, projecting his insecurities onto my involvement. He wanted to run the project, though that was not possible, was not willing to adapt and so decided to make this as difficult as possible to complete so that we, or someone in a position of authority, would recognize and reward his value. Of course, that is not how this story will unfold as this project mattered too much to me and to the other people supporting it, to let it fail.
His behavior leads me to believe one thing: that great leadership is not alchemy. The measure of great leadership is how well you empower those that are willing to be empowered to achieve and make the best of the resources (people, talent, positioning) that one has to take your people to a better place in the future. When you encounter a bad apple, your job as a leader is to consolidate your allies down the third path that Martha describes: the productive path that is helpful.