No matter where you work there’s always going to be someone who makes life more difficult than it needs to be. It might be a colleague who doesn’t support your project, or a client who’s trying to squeeze more from you than time allows. Or, you may be unlucky enough to work with one of those people who get ahead by treating people badly.
Managing difficult colleagues and challenging stakeholders can be super tricky, and whether they are in your department or from a different company. Especially when there’s a power difference between you, it can be hard to balance being respectful and being assertive. I’ve learned that it’s best to intervene as early as you possibly can, or you risk postponing the issue until it becomes way more traumatic later. Which is why you need to look out for relationship red flags and do something about them as soon as you can.
As anyone who’ve ever been in therapy will know, if you can deal with interpersonal conflict constructively, you can have a stronger, better relationships with people, although I still have to make a conscious effort to speak up early in a situation that feels wrong, unfair or disrespectful.
The good news is, when a relationship at work starts off badly, we are given the opportunity to transform something uncomfortable into something far better.
So what are your red flags at work? They could be when the person you are working with doesn’t respect your time or boundaries, constantly interrupts you, is late or doesn’t turn up to meetings, or doesn’t complete the actions they promised. Your red flags could be when your stakeholder has wildly unrealistic expectations on timing, delivery or level of quality for the budget you’ve agreed. Increasingly my red flags are when I meet people who have very little experience in the decision they are about to take but are too afraid to ask for help.
No matter what your red flags are (and they will be unique to you and your work), look out for them, and – here’s the big secret – say something, early on. Having an uncomfortable conversation is not easy. We know everyone is under increased pressure on time and resources, and there’s a lack of investment in training people in how to work well together in teams. Every workplace has been struggling through crisis after crisis, and this year is no exception.
Problems very often start with a miscommunication or misunderstanding, like sending an email with the wrong tone. If the person on the receiving end doesn’t say something immediately to clarify or question it and bring the issue out into the open, the situation can fester. When you see a red flag and need to intervene, do it gently and respectfully.
Communication tips for difficult situations
When it comes to dealing with a red flag, express concern and ask for advice in a way that seeks to understand and solve the issue, rather than blame the other person. For example:
- Use I feel (not you always). “I feel like you are getting frustrated with the project timings, and I worry you think I am slowing this down deliberately; shall we talk about that?”
- Talk about our, us and we (not you, your, my, mine). “We seem to be missing the actions that we agreed for our project to move forward, shall we go through them and clarify who does what, when so we know we will be on track?”
- Suggest a solution. “I notice we always begin the meetings 10 minutes late, should we book our meetings to start at quarter past the hour to give you time to get here from your last meeting, so we can make sure start on time?”
- Explain the impact. “I worry that if we promise to deliver on this date, we will both be very stressed, we might not meet the deadline, and your boss will be let down in front of her stakeholders. I think we need to avoid over-promising – what do you think?”
- Ask for advice. “I’ve noticed you don’t respond to emails, can you help me understand how best to communicate with you when I need a reply. Shall I text you instead when something is urgent?”
What about the really serious red flags? If a work colleague is racist, sexist, bullying, assaulting, or doing something illegal, those are huge red flags that need to be immediately recorded and reported to HR or other authorities. Say something, early on – but also record the conversation, for example writing down the date, time, place, any witnesses and exactly what happened, and send it via email to HR or management urgently.
Whether it’s the everyday difficulties of working with other people, or the big red flags that are completely unacceptable, the message is the same. When you see a red flag, say something, and do something about it as soon as possible. Speak up early, even if the conversation is difficult. If you postpone this early uncomfortable conversation, the situation could get far worse later on down the line, potentially going beyond resolution.
Wherever you work, you will encounter challenging stakeholders or difficult colleagues at some point – it’s just a fact of life. But if you know your own red flags, and say something early on, it can make your relationships at work far better than they were before.
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