Relating to: Colleagues, Coworkers, and Bosses (Oh My)

Jim presents part one of our discussion on relating to folks in the workplace. Karen will follow up in two weeks.

Having a full time job means that over a third of our waking hours are spent at our place of employment. Many of us spend more time with our coworkers than with our families. The workplace is a subculture. The relationships we have there can enrich our lives or drain them, personally and professionally.

Maybe your job is just a job. Maybe you have a career. Regardless of what your job means to you, there are still folks you’d like to at least peacefully coexist with. How we choose to relate to others has everything to do with what we hope to accomplish and attain individually and collectively.

It sounds nice the first time you hear it. You start a new job and some well meaning HR person tells you, “We’re a family here.” You should play close attention because they’re not lying. If you work as part of a team, the dynamics can easily mirror those of a family – functional and otherwise.

We all know that we’re supposed to leave work at work and home at home, yet unavoidably we bring the person we are to every experience we have and so do our bosses, coworkers, and colleagues.

The biggest mistake that people make in the workplace is trying to get their personal needs met. This is generally not consciously driven behavior. People tend to be largely unaware of what they’re seeking, much less where they’re seeking it.  Each of us has a personal and professional agenda. So do every one of the folks we work with. These often conflict. How then do we achieve our goals?

From personal experience, I advocate doing it creatively, genuinely, and in a manipulative manner. Unfortunately, being “manipulative” has a negative connotation. I use it to mean managing or influencing. It is a person’s intentions that make this approach positive or negative. We are free to promote our interests without harming others. We are free to manipulate systems and institutions. We’re free to find loop holes, build better mousetraps, and create our own opportunities.

Traditional approaches advocate the value of networking. Networking is all about manipulation. We seek to convince others that they should see and do things our way. This does not require a persona; it only requires that we find mutually beneficial arrangements. Here again we must break free of competitive models, otherwise networking is about creating an illusion as opposed to a reality. There is always a win/win but it takes collaboration and earnest efforts to find them.

The key is to do what my friends in AA refer to as “seeking to understand rather than to be understood.” When I sincerely take an interest in the goals and dreams of others, I grow and learn personally and professionally regardless of the outcome. What I have consistently experienced is reciprocity. All that is required is that I be painstakingly honest with myself about people’s character and their agendas. Like most lessons I have accepted, I learned this the hard way.

Passive approaches generally result in unsatisfying results because they depend on a traditional hierarchy to recognize the value of our work, the potential that we have, and to meet our needs accordingly. Hierarchy sucks. I love that the people who work for me will not hesitate to tell me that I am wrong.

I advocate breaking the rules. Most of us are locked into a competitive model. You getting yours means I can’t get mine. If anything, I have found the exact opposite to be true. Most of my closest friends are people I met at work. We know that dating people we work with is generally a bad idea but that’s how I got to know my wife of 25 years. We know that we’re not supposed to go into business with people we love or employ them yet that’s exactly what has worked for me.

Personally and professionally, there’s very little that’s written in stone and the truth is that most of the successful people I know are making it up as they go along.

The biggest obstacles to relating, connecting and collaborating with colleagues, coworkers, and employers are ego and resistance to embracing things that seem to be mutually exclusive. Humility and greatness can coexist but these are ideals and not accomplishments.  We must surround ourselves with people who will both support us and challenge us. Most of all, we need to be vulnerable enough with each other to make our agendas overt. Seeking to achieve individually is always limiting. What we can do together will always be greater than what we can do alone.

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About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.