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10 Tips for Handling Complicated Work Relationships

Group of six young consultants discussing a project.

We’ve all been there - an upcoming project requires you to collaborate with a person, team, or department that is consistently difficult to work with. Whether it’s personalities, politics, or policies causing tension, the good news is there are a few steps you can take to minimize the butting of heads:

  1. Be prepared - Do you work with this person often? If so, you can probably anticipate their response. What can you do to get ahead of the storm? Maybe you need to temper expectations of your own team members, or address areas that might be of concern ahead of time. Taking a few minutes to prepare prior to a conversation can help start a project off on the right foot.

  2. Tailor your communications - Most people respond better to being asked for something rather than being told what you need and when you need it. Take a few extra moments to craft your request. Think of this colleague like a donor and use what you know about them to tailor your approach.

  3. Make an effort - Get to know a person or team of people if you work together often. Whether it’s a simple conversation in passing or asking them to lunch so you can learn more about what they do, making an effort goes a long way in building relationships. Again, think of them as a donor prospect - ask thoughtful questions and, most importantly, be a good listener!

  4. Pick your battles - Look at the issue as part of a bigger picture - is it really worth the fight this time? Sometimes a tiny loss now is worth a big win later on. If you know you’ll be working with this team/person on a larger, more important project in the near future, it might be worth it to let a few smaller things go in the meantime.  

  5. Try to empathize - This one isn’t always easy, but try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Different positions often have different goals and priorities, and sometimes even different policies and guidelines to follow. Understanding where they’re coming from can help lessen the blow of an unfavorable response.

  6. Be a creative problem solver - Think outside the box. If you run into a roadblock or significant pushback, is there another way you can accomplish the same goal? This can be a powerful tactic, but a tricky one as well. Keep lines of communication open and let the other person know what you’re doing. They’ll likely appreciate you finding a way to get it done, but workarounds can get you in trouble. If I’m told something won’t work, I like to offer up alternatives I’d be happy with and let the other person choose the option they prefer. It often results in a win-win and a much less stressful interaction.

  7. Say thank you - Cupcakes and donuts are great ways to make friends. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. If a project goes well or someone goes above or beyond for you, say thank you! It can be a handwritten note, a gift card, a sweet treat, or anything that displays genuine gratitude (in other words, something more than just typing, “Thanks!” at the end of an email).

  8. Don’t take it personally - I like to assume best intentions, which means understanding that sometimes policies, budgets, and bandwidth play a role in these complicated interactions. If you didn’t get the response you were looking for, try not take it personally. There may be external factors playing a role that are beyond the other person’s control.

  9. Ask for forgiveness - It’s always good to try to play by the rules, but I firmly believe in taking risks and asking for forgiveness when necessary. Just don’t forget to actually ask for forgiveness.

  10. Keep calm and carry on - When all else fails, sometimes it’s best to accept a situation for what it is and move on. Not everyone can work effortlessly together all the time. Feathers will get ruffled and feelings might even get hurt, but at the end of the day you have to slap on a smile and keep doing your job.

I hope you find these tips helpful the next time you have to collaborate with someone you've found it difficult to level with in the past. If you're feeling wary, just bring donuts to your next meeting!

Thank you to DRG Group contributor, Ashley Rowe, for this helpful guest post. How have you managed difficult workplace relationships? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.




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