Something that has always struck me about all of the management texts and gurus is a sort of a general assumption that all people have a willingness to actually succeed and they can all be motivated to succeed. This is not the case. Particularly in the public sector which, for various reasons, unfortunately does not always attract the top talent. Many times you are left dealing with people who are entrenched, and they know how to do just enough work to not get fired, but no more.
This will be a challenge in any workplace. The thing you learned in kindergarten about working and playing well with others was probably the most important task you could have learned. Success in life depends on your ability to work and play well with others.
Difficult people are everywhere including the astronaut program. When Col. Chris Hadfield encountered a particular astronaut who was highly skilled but was also arrogant and confrontational he had to learn to deal with it for the sake of both the mission and his own sanity (Hadfield 110). You can always leave the situation of course, but then you won’t get anything done and wherever you go you are simply trading one set of problems or one particular difficult individual for another. Sometimes its better the devil you know.
The first thing Hadfield realized about this belligerent jerk is that he was actually effective. His public dressing downs and language did work despite its negative impact. He also quickly realized that he should not take the guys’ behavior personally (Hadfield 110).
“The trick to working well with him was to understand that the problems were his, not mine, and they all seem to stem from his insecurity. He was unable to view his colleagues as anything other than competitors out to destroy him,” Chris Hadfield (111).
One thing I realized from being bullied as a kid and then seeing similar behavior throughout my life in various workplaces, is that it almost always stems from a feeling of insecurity. People don’t feel they are good enough so they demonstrate to others that they are by putting everyone else down. Coupled with the fact that their tactics are often effective which means they will continue to use those tactics until it is no longer effective. Something else I have learned about people like this is that you are not alone in your evaluation of them. Everyone else thinks they’re an asshole to (Hadfield 11).
Often times the best way to deal with these jerks is to understand that you are not alone. Humor, camaraderie and shrugging your shoulders like a duck sheds water from its back when the comments come your way are often the best strategies. Sometimes its important to let them see that it doesn’t affect you. I’m not saying you have to always put up with crap, but I remember the scene in the movie Dazed and Confused where one of the junior high kids takes a licking from several of the high school seniors (part of initiation to high school in the politically incorrect days of the 1970s). Later, the main character tells the kid that if he showed up at a party later, it would show the other guys that the licks didn’t really bother him and that would be pretty cool.
What many people learn along the way is that investing in other people success doesn’t just make them more likely to enjoy working with you it also improves your own chances of survival and success (Hadfield 113). People appreciate it when you have their back and it makes it easier for them to have your back. Trust often has to be extended by one party first to be picked up by another. And speaking of trust, one of the things that can increase others trust of you is the ability to get stuff done. It has been said that if you give the hardest job to the busiest person they will find the quickest way to accomplish it. Of this I have no doubt, but they may not do quality work.
You can get it good, fast or cheap, pick two, but you can’t have all three.
Many times the busiest person is the one that either does not know how to delegate or has way too much on their plate to give your job the proper attention. And as we have talked about extensively in this blog series, the ability to focus is critical to accomplishing the truly important projects and tasks. Do you consistently produce results? Do you finish the job or let someone else do that? Can you stay focused on the important while ignoring the shiny objects?
Something that NASA has their pilots do is flying the antiquated T-38 training jet. The T-38 is very difficult to fly, it’s fast but short on fuel, not very responsive, with complex, and unforgiving systems in an environment where the winds and weather are always changing. But, nothing focussed your your mind quite like flying a jet (Hadfield 118). It’s great conditioning for other areas of your life.
One of the things that staying proficient in the T-38 does for astronauts is helps them maintain their focus and their ability to concentrate on the next thing that could kill them. Translating that to most of our normal lives this means the rare ability to concentrate on focus on the most important thing, the one thing that you should be focused on every day, your top projects, hot leads, or whatever it may be that helps determine the success of your business or endeavor.
One thing that will definitely earn my immediate respect is when I see someone who has the ability to tune out all of the clutter, the useless email, the shiny objects and focus on one thing at a time.
Sometimes, those entrenched individuals in an organization have been there a long time and they have seen plenty of “Pop Bottle Rockets,” (including me) come through the workplace. I’m using the term pop bottle rocket to describe those people that shoot up, moving fast and on fire – they are the New Jesus. They want to make a bunch of changes in order to build their resumes and make their mark and then they move on, often leaving carnage and unworkable systems behind. A friend once told me in an environment like that you need to remember that they live there, you are just visiting (let’s assume you’re the pop bottle rocket). Keep in mind that those already “living there,” have seen many new Jesus’s coming through. They’ve been promised numerous second comings of management theories, leadership philosophies, technologies and all sorts of stories of how “the next thing,” is going to make their lives so much better. They are a little jaded to say the least.
Your ability to actually engage and value the opinions of those who were already in the workplace before you, learn the environment and understand the problems before applying your diagnosis, and being honest about your motives but understanding that whatever value you add must continue to add value after you leave, will probably help move some of these entrenched people to get behind your bright idea. Focus on making their lives better rather than focussing on your resume and you’ll benefit everyone involved, including yourself.
Hadfield, Chris. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. New York: Little, Brown and, 2013. Print.