I don’t like you

Posted by Doc
Mar 25 2009

The nature of the world, and specifically the world of work, being what it is, sometimes you have to be with someone you don’t like. Right now, I’m thinking about the challenges of working with someone you don’t like.

“Don’t like” may be as simple as mild distaste or as extreme as despising. It may manifest as a mild discomfort or as actual physical symptoms like trembling or what feels like uncontrollable anger.

So how should I go about handling that? For me, it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

What I’m wondering is how you handle it, or suggest handling it.

Hopefully, I’ll get enough comments/responses to make this interesting, and to continue it into another post where I can summarize and think some more.

So how do you handle it?  How do you handle the circumstances where you’re part of a team, and you just don’t like/don’t like to work with one of the other members of the team?

Is it different for an agile team than it is for some other kind of team?

Do you take action? Do you take it to someone else?

Okay – that’s it – no more hints or suggestions from me.  Please share your thoughts.

13 Responses

  1. Lisa Crispin says:

    Given how many different people I’ve had to work with in my long career, I’m surprised I can’t really think of a lot of coworkers I didn’t like. I try to just mentally separate out work – I don’t have to socialize with my teammates, so if something about them bugs me I can compartmentalize that, and try to focus on their good qualities. But it’s nicer to enjoy the people you work with.

    For me it hasn’t been that I generally disliked a person, but that they were doing something that upset me, such as not helping me when I asked, or doing something that worked against the team. On an agile team, I’ve been able to get good help from the ScrumMaster, to help resolve a conflict situation.

    My team has had a different problem, that we really like someone, but their work is dragging down the team – they are not productive at all, or the quality of their work is bad and they aren’t willing or can’t improve it. Our management has let a couple of people in this situation go (after getting lots of input from senior team members, and working with the person for months or years). That’s painful. I’m never sure if it’s the right decision, because firing someone who is well-liked and has been a loyal employee for years is bad for everyone else.

    But that’s off the subject. I do feel that although agile teams are self-organizing, the manager/coach has to step in and be a manager when needed. Teams should try to resolve interpersonal issues themselves first, in general, and I feel a ScrumMaster type person can play a role, but ultimately, the manager needs to make sure that one person doesn’t make things miserable for everyone else. (this is why I decided to not be a manager anymore! I don’t like dealing with unlikable people!)

    • Doc says:

      If I’m understanding you properly, Lisa, it sounds as though you would turn to an authority to help resolve the issue. Although you did say that you try to compartmentalize, and that you don’t have to like them/socialize with them to work with them.

      I love the example of the liked-but-underperforming team member. It’s a challenge I’ve faced a number of times, and is definitely a corollary to my question.

      Back to your first paragraph, you said that you would focus on their good qualities and ignore the things that bother you. How do you see that affecting the team?

      • Lisa Crispin says:

        I’d turn to an authority if team couldn’t resolve it. I find ScrumMaster useful because she can be more impartial – eg., doesn’t have stake in “religious” wars.

        If someone’s behavior affects the team, I do raise the issue to manager, so he can be aware of it. But really, I’m able to get along with just about anyone in a work setting. I’m pretty good at standing up for my viewpoint. I don’t like confrontation, but I can also be a bit pushy, which is how I got to be a successful tester on agile teams.

        I try to lead by example, and I know some of my own faults, so I focus on being a good listener, and seeing other perspectives. And on not yelling at people when I get mad.

  2. Maura Thomas says:

    Interesting question, Steven. I personally have a few techniques. One is directness. I’m from Boston where I think people are much more blunt, and I really appreciate that. But a question like, “that sounded really confrontational (insulting, nasty, pick your word) to me. Did you really mean it that way?” Or, if you feel that the feeling is mutual, “it seems like there might be some tension between us. Why do you think that might be, and what do you think we can do about it?” Another is empathy/pity: “maybe their life sucks and they can’t help being an a*&hole. I feel sorry for them” (repeat as often as necessary). If both of those fail, ignore and avoid as much as possible! =)

    • Doc says:

      Good points, Maura. The last one is a nice variation on the Crucial Conversations question “why would a reasonable, rational, decent human being do that?” In fact, all three of your questions are really in line with that book and their ideas.

      My problem with your last little bit (taking it seriously, even though there’s a smiley there), is that it doesn’t help a working relationship/team.

      So what would you do if you were on a team, had no control over who’s on the team, and had to work with the a*&hole? Ignoring and/or avoiding them creates a breach and some dysfunctionality on the team. So…?

      Oh – and I’m from NYC, and have occasionally been noted for my directness/bluntness. Eh, Maura? 😉

  3. Everyone works with someone they don’t like at some point in their career.

    There’s likely perfectly valid reasons why we don’t like someone we work with. Sometimes, it’s just a personality conflict; other times it involves quality of work issues.

    I find it useful to recognize that I’m neither paid to like my co-workers nor dislike my co-workers. I believe the team is more productive if everyone has a friendship relationship. I’ll assume we’re talking about a work scenario where management does not try to cultivate friendship amongst the team but doesn’t actively discourage it. (I’ve been in both situations).

    Having an opinion about someone is not something you can really control. For me, I tend to segregate my opinion of someone from the work involved. If I don’t like someone, I simply do whatever needs to be done to get the work done the best way possible–which is the same thing I’d do if I do like the person. All interaction with that person becomes purely professional. I don’t let my opinion overshadow that work needs to be done, needs to be done correctly, and needs to be done on time. It can sometimes be a motivation to get things done quicker :). Sometimes this means being friendly with the person…

    I’ve seen people’s opinions of people cloud their judgement and affect how they do their work. Sometimes even attempting to sabotage the other person’s work. This is never a good thing; and the person doing the sabotaging is always at fault. I don’t let politics get created or cultivated based on my dislike for the person.

    If my poor opinion of someone is based upon their work or their ethics and I feel that the business is jeopardized by this person then I’ll bring it up with someone who is empowered to do something about it. But, I won’t go out of my way to complain about their work unless that work has had or will have detrimental consequences. (and that I can show examples and have time to document them). There’s the risk of being seen as a complainer or a squeaky wheel, and simply because you don’t like this person means you’re jeopardizing your own job.

    At the end of the day, it’s your choice to let this person bother you–life’s too short to let things that don’t matter ruin your day. And if you don’t like the person, that person doesn’t matter.

    • Doc says:

      Thoughtful, as always, Peter.

      I particularly like your closing thought, as it ties in so nicely with my IAAM philosophy. I see this last bit as taking responsibility for my own feelings.


  4. Mike Wilson says:

    A funny thing happened to me on my way through my career.

    I run into people I can’t stand professionally, but whose company I quite enjoy personally. I had a manager a few jobs ago who was just abysmal. Trying to lead a team of high end C++ programmers in a very high pressure environment while having no idea what he was talking about technically.

    We’d lock horns frequently. But come lunchtime or 5:01 (which was really 8:01) we’d go out, knock one back and have a damn good time. Still keep in touch to this day. Professionally because he was my manager, it was an untenable situation.

    Plus I’m also of the “particularly blunt NYCer” variety, and I quite like it when I’m treated in kind.

    Interpersonal tension is fine. I don’t think it always “needs to be solved.” If I don’t like someone or they don’t like me that doesn’t mean we can’t have a perfectly civil professional relationship.

    If you really need to like everybody (or worse, need everybody to like you) you’re in for a sorely disappointing life of square pegs and round holes.

    • Doc says:

      I agree that it doesn’t need to “be solved” in the sense that someone or something needs to be fixed. On the other hand, your behavior is doing just that – by ignoring the things you don’t like and choosing to work together professionally, you are unilaterally addressing the situation and taking action to “fix” it.

      I’m not saying that I think that’s bad/wrong. Just observing that it’s not inaction, and it’s not passive. In fact, I applaud you for being able to “have a perfectly civil professional relationship” independent of how you may feel about a colleague.

  5. I don’t think the methodology matters too much. Maybe people feel a little more empowered in an agile project, but I don’t think it matters.

    Some people have mentioned the split between personal and professional relationships and I think this is important. From a personal relationship, you have much more room to work with and, let’s face it, the project shouldn’t fail if that relationship is poor.

    Once you split these out, you concentrate on the professional relationship which is of vital importance. There are may different techniques for resolving a bad professional relationship, but one key factor is emotional intelligence. If a guy is doing his job well, it really shouldn’t matter if you don’t like the shirt he wears or don’t like his sense of humour. In software, developers can lock horns over coding styles and all sorts of small issues. Does this extend to a dislike for a guy being really pedantic? Maybe, but just create a project coding standard and separate the professional and personal issue.

    There are a multitude of cultural differences here. I like the blunt approach, but it just does not work in some countries. Does everything have to be solved? Sometimes 2 guys can hate each other but professionally complement each other. It totally depends on the situation.

    • Doc says:

      I disagree that the methodology doesn’t matter. You seem to speak from the perspective of a rational human being in control of his emotions. What if it’s not that easy? What if you find yourself grinding your teeth and feeling barely in control of your anger? What if you find yourself unable to give your best when that other person is around?

      Then what?

      • Well, maybe methodology matters in the sense that a waterfall project will have many more conflict points than an agile project. But then again, a badly run scrum project can be just as bad. I personally think methodology is very important, but just not in your relationship with colleagues.

        If you were a patient going to see a doctor and you observed them “barely in control”, you’d walk out the door. Should be no different in our industry. If you are in a professional environment and you are letting your emotions run wild, you need to control them. Calm down, go for a walk, count to 10, whatever. Jerry Weinberg wrote about something similar (http://secretsofconsulting.blogspot.com/2007/10/developing-emotionally.html). Maybe it’s easier said than done, but you have to be professional about it.

      • Doc says:

        Ah – sorry – when you said “methodology” you meant agile versus waterfall. I understood you to be talking about methods for dealing with the situation. My misunderstanding.

        I’d still disagree, but for a different reason. On a waterfall project, it’s more common for team members to be isolated, both physically and emotionally/socially. On an agile project, being collocated and being able to communicate well and work closely together all day every day are important.

        While your techniques (calm down, go for a walk) work for acute situations, I’m still wondering how one would deal with a chronic condition.

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