One of the most important hiring criteria for many companies is the ability to work as a team player—yet, so many of us have colleagues who don’t play well with others.
“If you have one bad apple in the bunch, it can really hurt the morale and enthusiasm of an entire department,” says Andy Teach, a corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time. “A department, or company, that works well together, has the most success together. When you enjoy working with your colleagues and look forward to interacting with them, everyone benefits.”
Working with other team members whom you have a great work relationship with can actually make work fun, he says. “Morale is high, which leads to better productivity, which leads to better results.”
Skip Weisman, a leadership and workplace communication expert, agrees. “A high-morale work environment will always produce more than a low-morale work environment." When people care about the people they work with, things get done faster, he says. “People will go the extra mile; they will take ownership of a job, a decision or problem and work through it without feeling like they have to go up the chain to get things done.”
Another benefit of colleagues working well together: Information flows more freely, says David Parnell, a legal consultant, communication coach and author. “In addition, the group’s well being and success become more of a priority; patience, generosity and a gravitation toward interaction grows; and good moods and dynamic information beget better moods and even more dynamic information,” he says. “All of this conspires to create a more balanced, functional, aggressive and successful company.”
So, what happens when colleagues don’t work well together?
Parnell says time and cognitive bandwidth is wasted “exercising restraint, measuring words and otherwise forcing hands to play nicely in the sandbox.” The outcome is shoddy workmanship, pushed or missed deadlines and severe lacerations to the company culture or your group’s sub-culture.
“If you don't look forward to working with a particular colleague or colleagues, guess what? Your enthusiasm suffers, your morale suffers, and ultimately, productivity suffers,” Teach adds.
Deborah Shane, a career author, featured writer, speaker, and media and marketing consultant, adds that a bad workplace relationship creates negative energy, which can affect everyone on the team, as well as customers or clients. It can also cause employee turnover, which “interrupts building and creating a strong, unified team.” Finally, she says, “conflict fosters cliques and factions within a team that always works against it.”
If you want to get your colleagues to work with you better, here’s what you can do:
Make teamwork a priority by making it part of the performance management system.
This begins with performance expectations when someone joins the organization, Weisman says. “I was speaking with a prospective client last summer who was complaining about this very thing--that their people were not working well together--so I asked her, ‘Well, do you assess their contribution to teamwork as part of your annual performance review process?’ She looked at me like a deer in headlights and responded as if it was a master stroke of genius.” If you don't measure it and give people the expectation at the very beginning of their role with the organization, it will not be seen as priority.
Pinpoint the issue.
“Explore your feelings and behavior toward your colleagues,” says Parnell. “Social and professional relationships are inextricably symbiotic and interactive, and much of the communication that occurs is both subconscious and reactive.” If your colleagues seem to be difficult, they may actually be reacting to the signals you are giving off – whether consciously or unconsciously. While this might be a bitter pill to swallow, you may be the very root of the problem and the first step toward recovery is discovering this.
Do not complain to management.
“Mommy, mommy! Jimmy isn’t being nice!” isn’t going to cut it here. In fact, it will just make things worse. “Going over someone’s head to leverage them with authority is the best way to gain faux cooperation that is backed by insidious, Machiavellian game play,” Parnell says. “Take whatever steps are necessary to remedy your situation first, and only turn to management as the last resort.”
Ask for advice.
Again, you don’t want to go to your boss or upper management to complain about a co-worker, but you can ask your supervisor for advice on how to improve your work relationships. “They will certainly appreciate the fact that you came to them first because you want to improve the team dynamic,” Teach says. “This will help your supervisor see that you are truly a team player."
Communicate directly with them.
“I think that this is perhaps the most important factor when it comes to improving a work relationship,” Teach says. “It's totally understandable why you and a co-worker don't work well together but the onus is on you to improve the situation.”
If you complain to your boss, he or she will most likely just ask you to speak directly with your co-worker to try to improve the situation. So instead, ask your co-worker if they have some time to speak with you, maybe at the end of the day once all of your projects are completed. Just state your feelings in a non-accusatory way, tell your co-worker that you'd really like it if you can help each other in the future and work better together, and ask them what you can do to make this happen. “It's possible that they are not even aware of their shortcomings or perhaps they don't realize that there is a problem between the two of you so hopefully they will appreciate the fact that you are bringing this to their attention,” Teach says.
Parnell agrees. “I know this may be a cliché, but you should address the problem head on. If someone seems to be abrasive or even combative, relay your concerns to them and ask if there is something you can do to help.” It is uncomfortable, potentially embarrassing, and certainly not the easiest route; it is, however, the most effective, he says.
Engage the law of reciprocity.
“If you happily help people first, others automatically will feel a sense of obligation to return the favor,” Weisman says. When you have an extra free minute or two ask your co-workers if they need help with anything, or engage in another act of kindness. Maybe your colleagues will reciprocate, and thus improve the way you work together.
Give your co-worker an incentive.
You may present your case to a colleague as to why they need to work better with you--but without an incentive, they may not be accommodating, Teach says. Explain to them that by improving the work relationship between both of you, they will have more support from you, they will enjoy their work more, and they will get better results. Tell them that this can potentially lead to more appreciation and recognition from upper management, which hopefully will lead to a promotion and raise down the line—and that by not working well together, this scenario will be more difficult to achieve.
Celebrate and reward great teamwork.
Unfortunately, most employees won’t go out of their way to work well with others, unless there’s something in it for them, Weisman says. If you’ve already explained to your co-worker how they can benefit from working with you better, and he or she still isn’t doing it, talk to your boss about implementing some type of rewards or recognition program.
Shane believes employers should acknowledge workers regularly for their team efforts and loyalty, both in private and to the entire team. “Set up a ‘Team Player of the Month Award’ that the team votes on and reward that person with a dinner out, gift certificate or cash,” she suggests.
This should help motivate your colleagues to be better team players.
Go out to lunch or for a drink.
When colleagues don't get along or don't work well together, it simply might be that they don't really know each other, Teach explains. The best way to get to know a co-worker better is to spend some time with them away from the office. “Offer to take them out to lunch and just chat with them as an equal,” he says. You can also ask to meet them after work for a drink, when he or she might be more relaxed and perhaps not as cautious when it comes to discussing your relationship. Use the time to find out what you have in common outside of work.
“Of course, use your social barometer to monitor the depth of your plumb, but dig deeper and add some foundation to your relationship,” Parnell adds.
Find out their challenges and obstacles.
Don't always assume that the reason why a co-worker doesn't work well with you is because it's personal, Teach says. It may be that they don't have the aptitude for the job or don't have the training necessary to do a great job. “If this is the case, offer to train them or to help them in any way. They will see you in a new light; as an asset and not a liability.”