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Positive Workplace Politics with Colleagues

By Margaret Morford

It’s sad but true: Most of us spend more time with co-workers than with family members. But are we fully developing these relationships? Are we getting everything we should out of them? Are we doing the specific things necessary to make our work life go smoothly and make our co-workers want to go the extra mile for us?

Here are 4 quick rules for forging better relationships with co-workers and turning them into people who will watch your back and promote your career.

1.   Always confront a co-worker in private: If you disagree with one of them in a meeting, try not to do so in front of an audience. Nothing solidifies their position faster than someone disagreeing with them in front of other people. You force them to act strong and make it impossible for them to change their mind and agree with your position. If you can, wait until after the meeting, go by their office, and tell them, “I didn’t want to say this in the meeting, but I have a problem with one of the things you said. I wanted to discuss it with you in private.”  They will appreciate your effort not to embarrass them and be much more receptive to your viewpoint. If it is impossible to wait until after the meeting—if you are convinced their position is so wrong it will derail the entire project—try saying this in the meeting: “Joe, I think when you made that decision (or came to that conclusion), there was a piece of information no one shared with you. That piece of information is…” and add an additional fact to the mix. By doing this, you alert Joe to the fact that you believe he has made a mistake, you give him a few minutes to think about his decision, and, most important, you give him room to change his mind and save face. He now can easily say, “Well, given that new information, I would decide things a little differently.”

2.   Go out of your way to help people when they are in trouble: When co-workers make a very public error—or everyone knows the boss is mad at them—it is a natural human tendency to avoid contact with them. They are often treated as if they are made of Kryptonite and everyone around them will be collateral damage. The reality is, if they survive the incident (and in most cases they will), they will remember those who still talked to them and associated with them while they were working through the problem. And if one of those people is you, you will have gained a loyal co-worker and an advocate for the life of your career. And at worst, if they do not survive the incident, you are seen as someone who helps people and never kicks them when they are down—a good reputation to have in any organization.

3.   Always break bad news face-to-face: In this age of voicemail and e-mail, people have gotten used to conveying information while holding individual contact to a minimum. If you have negative news for a co-worker, go see him or her and begin the conversation by saying, “You are not going to like what I am about to tell you. But I respect you too much not to come tell you in person.”  You have now achieved two things:  You have prepared them for bad news, so they are less likely to become angry at you because you have surprised them. You also have cultivated their respect for you because they will realize there was an easier way (voicemail or e-mail) that you refused to take. You now can expect a much calmer response, along the lines of: “You’re right. I’m not happy about the decision. But I appreciate your coming to talk directly with me.” 

4.   Do not be threatened by experts—and select and use them wisely: At times during my career, the CEO of my organization has hired outside consultants to help with projects. I spent most of the project incensed that I did not get to select the consultants, and used every opportunity to point out their deficiencies. Essentially, it was re-fighting a war that was already lost. Instead, befriending the consultants and using the situation as an opportunity to forge an alliance with them would have been a much stronger alternative. At some point, the consultants were going to report back to the CEO informally, and I should have set myself and my department up to have positive things reported back. But having said that, whenever possible try to be the one who selects the consultants in the first place. That way, they will be loyal to you and will not criticize your efforts as a means of creating their next piece of business. Have an eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with the consultants before they ever come on your premises and tell them, “I selected you for this project because I am looking for two results.”  Then describe the end result of the project you want to achieve and add, “The second result I want is for you to look for opportunities and make suggestions where my department could contribute more to the success of the organization. I expect, as you see those, for you to discuss them only with me. I am sure that if this works as I anticipate it will, we will have additional work for you in the future.”  If the consultant does not immediately understand what you are saying, you need to re-think your selection.

Your co-workers can make or break your career. Be politically savvy enough to go beyond being simply collegial. Work those relationships so they benefit you and those who work for you.

Read other articles and learn more about Margaret Morford.

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