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How to Cope When Difficult Colleagues Won’t Cooperate

It’s frustrating to try to get through your own work or to help your team make progress when you can’t get your colleagues to cooperate. Last week’s post covered some of the reasons that you might be hesitant to address this lack of support directly.

Whether you prefer to avoid conflict and confrontation or you’re worried about being perceived negatively by peers or management, here are three ways to reassure yourself that you’re doing the right thing:

  • Make the commitment not to be confrontational. Curious inquiries and attentive listening will help you learn more about your colleague’s true concerns and likely behaviors than will any upfront challenge.
  • Be sure to focus on the organization’s goals and values, not just your own. You won’t let things devolve into personal attacks because you’re not raising these concerns for your own sake, but on behalf of your team and the rest of the business.
  • Be thoughtful about what’s necessary to be effective in your position, not just to be accommodating. Although there is great benefit to staying open-minded and hearing others’ views, it’s your responsibility to take care of business, not to tolerate anyone’s whining, sniping, or withdrawing altogether.

Should You Sound the Alarm?

Sometimes senior managers are aware of a problem, but haven’t made it a high priority. Perhaps they haven’t yet agreed on a more effective organizational structure, job assignment, or performance improvement plan to remedy the situation. And, believe it or not, some executives actually like a little dysfunction because it makes them feel more firmly in control. (See Can You Help Your Leader Handle the Truth?)

But it’s also possible that your management feels just as stuck as you do. They may need the data you can provide on what’s not working, and will be grateful that you’re making efforts to improve current conditions. So contemplate gathering up your guts, taking the risk, and trying to work things through.

Master Nonconfrontational Confrontation

Here are some suggestions on how to begin the process:

  • Assemble enough information to ensure you understand the entire situation.
    • Consider whether your data matches the other party’s data. Is the other party acting on the level?
    • Get input from others who also observe the situation.
  • Be clear about what you see and what’s not working. Share the information that demonstrates your case. Your colleague may disagree with your evidence, but that’s not the same as their disagreeing with your point of view.
  • Consider the possibility that the other party truly does not see the situation the way you do. So establish as much commonality of goal, purpose, and perspective as possible. Then, instead of just continuing to feel contrary about each other, identify the areas in which you specifically and actively disagree.
  • Find other natural allies — and not necessarily only at your level. Your colleague may feel some pressure from lower level staff who also need to get their jobs done, or from a more senior exec who is also wondering what’s going on. Sometimes you can identify a critical mass of dismay or disapproval that will help you move forward.
  • Use whatever influence you have — even if you have no direct authority. That can help you keep the issue in play while you build support or explain your position more thoroughly.

Other Options

You can also challenge yourself to fill in whatever leadership is missing, while remaining open about what you’re doing, so you can actively show how things can be so much better than they are. You need to show support for your colleague’s staff — not because you’re trying to take them over, but because your staff can’t do their jobs otherwise.

In rare circumstances, it could turn out that everything seems deadlocked or stalemated because your colleague’s functional job performance is severely lacking, and they’re really just holding on for dear life. When that’s the case, you’re almost forced to work around them and make the problem very clear to your management — the same way you would make plain any other existential threat to success.

Onward and upward,


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