How do you lead when you can’t stand working with someone?

May 9, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Leadership, Tips

Yesterday I wrote on how to lead people (yourself or others) you disagree with without judging them. I skipped cases where you felt you could not work with the person under any circumstances.

Let’s look at such cases today.

I’m going to treat these cases strategically. Most cases will be unique at the tactical level so you’ll have to figure out how to apply the strategy.

If you can’t work with someone, YOU have a problem

First things first. No matter how bad you think they are, no matter how much evidence you have pointing out their faults and shortcomings, no matter how many other people agree the other person has problems, you have a problem too. I’m not saying they don’t have problems too.

I’m saying you do.


Because you can’t change enough of their problems for your satisfaction — if you could you’d be able to work with them and yesterday’s post would apply.

You can change your beliefs, behavior, and perspectives. I point out you have a problem to focus you on what you can act on.

In other words, don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can (almost a mantra of mine, for those who don’t already know).

Now let’s get out of the way the obvious solution — you can leave. The problem with leaving is that if you leave every time you can’t work with someone, you’ll have a twenty page resume. At any firm larger than a sole proprietorship someone at some time will seem impossible to work with. (I’d suspect at the sole proprietorship too).

Challenges are opportunity

Easily said in the calm outside a storm, but most valuable to remember when you’re in it: resolving challenges with people builds experience people value. Solutions here apply generally to all people problems.

As a retired general manager put it to me once, anyone can pilot a ship in calm weather. The challenge of a captain is can they pilot a ship in rough weather. What do you do when the water turns white, the waves keep you from seeing the horizon, and the winds start gusting faster?

Can you stay calm or do you lose your shit?

I know of only one way to stay calm and pilot a ship in those conditions. The only way I know to solve hard problems. Solve easier similar problems first!

If you have a chance at successfully resolving this challenge, consider using it as a learning experience. If you have alternative you prefer, you can take them, but remember the value you have here — if you change your model to seeing this case as an educational opportunity.

People hire and follow people who can stay calm under pressure.

What works?

Focus on your and your team’s goals and interests, the consequences of your action, and the consequences of their actions. Focusing on right or wrong will bog you and your team in finger-pointing, argument, and defensiveness.

Let’s consider a case. People arguing for considering something right or wrong often bring up extreme cases. “Isn’t it wrong for someone to rape and kill a thousand innocent children? Why should we consider their interests? That person is a monster. Surely you admit everyone would consider that person wrong.”

Ironically, such cases are the easiest to handle as a leader. So many people agree on how to handle someone who did such things, you can call the police and let the law handle the hard work. Again, dwelling in right or wrong doesn’t help. While those people are busy defining right and wrong and forcing people to see things their way to force them into agreement, I’m busy building companies and attracting people to work with me.

Borderline cases are harder to deal with. You catch your boss stealing from the company. Turning them in will bring you down with them, but you expect them to do it again. What do you do?

These challenges are harder. I’ve posted on the first general step before in A solution to all ethics problems.

Focusing on interests and consequences as opposed to rightness or wrongness leads you to a series of questions that will help you create a more successful strategy than just telling the other person they’re wrong, leaving in a huff of self-righteousness, or both.

Considering questions like the following will hurt no one and doesn’t force you to agree with someone you disagree with.

  • What are my interests? Do I want to hurt this person? Help the company? Advice my career? etc.
  • What are this person’s interests? Do they believe stealing is right? If not, what motivated them to do something so risky? Could they be in trouble? Could they want to hurt someone or the company?
  • What would happen if I confronted them?
  • What would happen if I left?
  • What would happen if I told someone?
  • Do I like any of the consequences of the above actions?
  • What other alternatives do I have?
  • Can I use their interests to resolve the situation?
  • What solutions have worked in situations like this before?
  • Whom do I know who has solved such problems before?

To repeat: I’m not advising you to agree with someone you disagree with or to approve of behavior you can’t approve of.

I’m suggesting that if you put judgment aside to approach situations with understanding and intending to achieve your goals, you more likely will. After you’ve achieved your goals, you can always go back and judge things, but I bet you will have resolved them in the process.


At the strategic level

  • See the situation as opportunity to grow and gain experience to improve your life and make you valuable to others.
  • Focus on interests and outcomes.
  • Ask questions to understand.

Use the results of your strategic actions to guide your tactics.

Enjoy! You’ll look back at situations like this as your most formative times. You may even come to appreciate these people, as I have with ones in my life, for how they helped you grow (which is not the same as liking or approving of them).

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