Harvard Business Online

A Secret for Contending with Colleagues


Posted on How We Work: September 10, 2009 10:01 AM

A few months ago my wife Eleanor came home upset after an incident with one of the parents at our daughter's school. That afternoon, when Eleanor said hello to Michelle, Michelle completely ignored her. Thinking maybe Michelle hadn't heard her, Eleanor said hello again, this time louder. Again, no response. Michelle wasn't speaking on the phone or in a conversation with another parent. She was able to respond, she just refused to. Eleanor was getting the silent treatment. Not one to give up, she said hello a third time. Finally, Michelle mumbled something without looking up and walked away.

Eleanor wasn't friends with Michelle. They had only spoken a few times in the past, most notably when she called Eleanor to complain about something our daughter did. Still, she was thrown off balance by Michelle's cold shoulder. It was one of those small things that's hard to get out of your mind. She wasn't expecting it.

We are constantly shocked by the things other people say and do or by the things they don't say and don't do. How can my boss have ignored me? How can my colleague have taken the credit? How can my employee have made that mistake? Can you believe my manager said that to me in front of all those other people? How can my partner be so inconsiderate? Why doesn't my spouse appreciate what I do for her?

When I coach executives or mediate conflicts between leaders, each person is always amazed at how the other people behave. This has led me to a very simple conclusion.

The problem is not us. And it's not them. The problem is our expectations.

It's not that people behave well or badly. It's that we expect them to behave differently than they do. Even when they have proven our expectation wrong time and time again.

At this point, should you still be surprised when your boss for the 100th time doesn't invite you to a meeting? Or when you send a colleague a nice email and it goes unanswered? Again.

Here's my advice: don't go to a hardware store and get upset when they won't sell you milk.

In this case, the answer to frustration is acceptance. It's amazing how changing your expectations can change your experience.

Because the world is more global and organizations are more diverse, the likelihood we will interact with people very different from us is increasing exponentially. And people who are different from us do things we don't expect or want them to do. Sometimes they don't look at us when we speak to them. Sometimes they talk back. Sometimes they don't talk at all. They defy our expectations, and we feel frustrated.

Remember the golden rule? Treat other people the way you'd like to be treated? Forget it. It doesn't apply anymore, if it ever did. Try this new rule instead: Treat other people the way they'd like to be treated.

If you don't like to be micromanaged, for example, you probably try to avoid micromanaging others. But there are some times and some places where that would be a mistake. Like India, for example.

According to Mike Schell, co-author of the excellent book, Managing Across Cultures: The 7 Keys to Doing Business with a Global Mindset, Indian workers prefer—and expect— to be micromanaged. Mike told me recently: "That ultimate sin of Western managers is the best way to get things accomplished in some cultures. Once you begin to treat people the way they want to be treated, you'll find the results much more rewarding. When operating in a new country, we don't just need word translators. We need people translators."

In some cultures it's important for meetings to start on time. In others, it makes no difference. In some cultures it's rude to interrupt. In others, it's simply the norm. Understanding other people's expectations can help you reset your own. And that helps you work with them more effectively

When I'm sitting in a meeting with Yukiko, my Japanese partner, and she doesn't speak, I might assume she agrees with what I'm saying. But I'd be wrong. It's not that she agrees with me, it's just that she would never disagree with me in public. If I understand that, I won't be surprised when she doesn't follow through.

Still it's almost easier to understand Yukiko because I'm from New York and she's from Tokyo. I expect her to be different.

But Chris in the office next door? Who's also from New York? That's a different story. I shouldn't need instructions on what to expect from him.

But I do. Because each one of us is, in effect, from a different culture. We have different parents, different teachers, different experiences, different hopes and dreams, successes and failures. Even if we understand the same words, we're still speaking different languages.

So instead of getting frustrated with other people, learn their rules of engagement. If you pretend each person is from a foreign country you don't fully understand, you'll be more open to accepting him or her.

Think of every interaction as an experiment that explains a little bit more about the individual you're dealing with. Then, when someone defies your expectations, don't get mad. Just change your expectations to more accurately align with reality. Once you understand your colleagues' operating instructions, you might decide to approach them differently. Use different words. Be more or less aggressive.

Or you might decide to leave—to go and work somewhere else with other people. Because once you accept your colleagues, once you realize you simply can't buy milk at a hardware store, you might decide you don't want to be in a hardware store at all. I'm not saying people can't change. I'm just saying you're setting yourself up if you expect them to.

"Do you think I should call Michelle to talk with her about this afternoon?" Eleanor asked me, still stewing over getting the cold shoulder.

"That depends," I answered, "will you be OK with it when she blows you off?"
Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. He is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

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