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the Middle with You!
By Tom Dennis –
President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
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
eN-100408 – 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
eN-061207 – 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
• 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
• 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
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.
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Effective Engineering Consulting Services, All Rights Reserved