Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stuck In The Middle With You

Many times in almost everyone’s career employees come up against difficult situations where people who just don’t get along with each other (one of whom may be you) are required to work together cooperatively to achieve a critical goal, be it a project, a program, a sale, a presentation, an approval, or whatever. The drama can become intense (see also Too Much Drama!). Sometimes it’s easy, but other times it can be extremely difficult, not only for the people who don’t get along (they may deserve each other), but for all the others who are stuck in the middle with you.

How do you overcome such difficult situations to achieve the desired (required) result when you’re one of those stuck in the middle of such a situation? Here are some examples and some proposed solutions: 

1- When you’re a co-worker stuck in the middle:
You’re part of a team of co-workers tasked to work together on a critical project with a very tight deadline. However, two of your teammates don’t like each other at all and make that evident every day in every way possible. They have entirely opposite philosophies and approaches to doing the work your team has been mandated to do, and make their differences plainly evident at every possible opportunity. You understand what has to be done and even see a number of effective ways to make it happen in the timeframe available, but the continual fighting and nitpicking between these two is worse than just distracting; it’s damaging and demoralizing.

What can you do?
• If you have any sway over either of them, take one or both of them aside and let them understand that you’re all being measured on this project, and that their bickering is making a difficult situation impossible. Let them know it’s time for them to put their differences aside, if only for the time being, to get the job done the right way.

• If you don’t have any sway over either of them, but another team member does, ask him/her to do this.

• By one means or another, if they refuse to work together, try to get one of them to voluntarily leave the team for the good of the project.

• If neither you nor your coworkers have any sway over either of them, and neither want to leave the project, then meet with their manager(s) and let them know about the problems, and that something must be done or the project will fail badly. Let the manager(s) know that the feuding teammates’ willing and cooperative participation would probably be better, but that you and the rest of the team are prepared to tackle the project without them. Regardless, something must be done. 

• If nothing else works, let the project sponsors know that you and your other teammates are in an impossible situation that is outside of your control despite repeated attempts, and that something needs to be done to get the project back on track. Either they do it or give you or someone else the control and authority to make decisions to break the logjam caused by these two impossible team members.

2- When your team is stuck between warring managers:
As before, you’re part of a team of co-workers tasked to work on a critical project with a very tight deadline. You and the team are raring to go, but your team consists of people from two different groups, and the managers of those two groups have ‘problems’ resulting in turf wars or other real or imagined issues.  These two people typically have different approaches, and often even seem to enjoy ‘sparring’ with each other in areas of philosophical disagreement, sometimes even prolonging their disagreements to allow ‘rounds’ of back and forth ‘negotiating’. This could be tied to management of the team effort, approvals of sign-offs along the way, or something else entirely.  The project deadline simply does not allow time for such crap (see also Stop Picking The Flysh!t Out Of The Pepper!).  

What can you do? 
• If you have a good working relationship with your  or both managers, meet with one or both and make it clear that the timeline simply doesn’t allow for distractions of any kind, and that the team must move forward with a good plan as quickly as possible. If another teammate has a better working relationship, ask him/her to do this instead, or meet jointly (perhaps a team member from each group). Try to quickly reach agreement on a good joint approach. 

• If such discussions with one or both managers aren’t productive, then try to find one of their peers or bosses and make it clear to them that the team just wants to get the work done and the timeframe will not allow distractions such as those you are seeing. This may not be in your long-term personal interests (ticking off your boss is generally not a winning strategy), but it may be essential in getting a critical project done.

• If nothing else works, as with the first example, let the project sponsors know that you and your teammates are in an impossible situation that is outside of your control and that threatens to derail the project, although in this case due to a logjam created by two irresponsible managers. Ask them to give control to one or the other (but not both), or to give someone else the control and authority to make decisions to break the logjam. The project must get done!

3- When you are the problem: 
You and a co-worker who you don’t get along with are tasked to work together on critical project. You and your co-worker both recognize the importance of the task you’ve been assigned which can make or break your future with the company, but you really don’t like each other and find it very hard to reach mutually acceptable decisions. You are stubbornly insisting that only your way is acceptable, and your co-worker insists only his/her way is acceptable.

What can you do?
• It’s time for you to ‘man up’ and recognize that this is not about you (or the other person). It’s about the project.  You don’t have to like someone else to work with them. Put your differences aside and work to find a common solution. Who knows, you may just develop some respect for the other person, and he/she for you.

• If you’re willing to work together, but the other person is not, then either go along with that person’s approach, or talk with the manager(s) to let them know that you’re at an impasse and that one or both of you have to go in order for the project to proceed and succeed. This may be difficult to do, but better to admit it and even remove yourself than to be the person most responsible for the project’s failure. This should at least generate some respect for your integrity to help the project succeed.

Working with difficult people is a way of life in just about any organization. Difficult people can be peers, subordinates, superiors, or you. How you deal with difficult people in difficult situations is one of the measures of how effective you can be. Throughout your career you will find times where you will need to effectively deal with being stuck in the middle with you.

1 comment:

  1. Tom,
    Thanks for another great article, and I’m glad to see the work is available now as a Blog. This format will allow us to participate directly in the discussions and see comments from your readers.

    While the article gives practical suggestions for working around the conflicts, I am surprised that you don’t suggest attempting to understand and perhaps resolve the root of the conflict. At the root of conflict are contradictory goals. Until the contradiction between the goals of the bickering parties can be identified, the disruptive turmoil will continue. The good news is that if “project progress” is truly a shared goal, then the contradictions must be at a lower level and may allow resolution through some innovative solution. I advocate transcending conflict in the webpage at:


    Lee Beaumont


Comments are welcome and encouraged!