By Kristine Steinberg, CEO of Kismet
Over the past two decades of coaching professionals, I have found that stress emerges much less in regard to the work itself. While issues like work overload or imposter syndrome can cause real challenge, it’s the tension, conflict, and toxic communication with colleagues that keeps us up at night.
At some point or another, we’ve all felt wronged, annoyed, frustrated, repelled, or angry because of someone we work with. Someone’s work style was the opposite of ours, and it was impossible to work together. Someone else talked to us in a tone that we would never use.
We come across differences of all shapes and sizes in the workplace. So why is it so hard to work together?
As a society, the idea that we are all different, unique individuals and that we should hone in on our own distinctness is encouraged. Whether subtly or outright, we’re made to believe that our beliefs are the right ones, that our ways are superior, and that we are better than others. Instinctually, we surround ourselves with people who are like us, who think and act in similar ways.
We’re naturally repelled by differences because they might lead to challenges, disagreements, or conflict. We like to think that we’re immune to this and actually celebrate differences — but do we really have the open minds and tolerance for others that we think we do?
Start by Looking Within
In the workplace, we can’t avoid people who are different from us like we can in our lives outside of work. Consider someone at work who annoys you, or you find is difficult to work with. How do you deal with them?
Here’s the secret: you won’t find the answer by analyzing the other person. You have to look within. What is it about the other person that bothers you? Get really specific and name what it is about them that irks or repels you.
The truth is that the specific repulsion you have for that other person is actually something that you dislike about yourself. It’s a quality that you can’t tolerate in yourself, and so you project your frustration onto the other person. It’s a hidden part of yourself that you suppress and bury deep within. When you interact with someone who is behaving in this way, it pokes at what you’re subconsciously hiding and triggers you.
Our Shadow Selves
Think of your personality as a mountain. On one side are your primary personality traits. These qualities are easy for others to identify in you and for you to identify within yourself. For me, these could be independence, compassion, and directness.
On the other side of the mountain are your secondary personality traits. These are hidden, shadow qualities that you aren’t really aware of and can’t clearly name. They’re hard to identify, so you have to work backwards and ask yourself the question, What bothers me and is hard to tolerate in others?
For me, it’s neediness. I struggle when I feel like someone is acting like a victim, or they are putting a drain on resources, or they complain and don’t do anything to solve their own problems.
No one would ever call me needy because it’s not part of my primary personality. But underneath that, there is an intolerance for neediness inside myself. When I have to depend on another person, I feel extremely vulnerable, and it’s hard for me to navigate interdependence. I struggle to ask for help when I need it (and I feel ashamed when I do). So, when I see that vulnerability in others, I’m triggered.
Recently, I led a workshop for a team working in global professional services. I had them go through the above exercise of identifying their primary and secondary selves, and there was a real pushback. But one person at a time, we went around the room and shared. Someone couldn’t stand disorganization in others. Underneath that was a realization that when he felt chaotic in his own life, he would beat himself up about it pretty hard.
Someone else reported a lack of dependability in others as his most despised trait to tolerate. When diving deeper, he realized his own recent habit of showing up late due to back-to-back meetings and his guilt over letting people down.
Drive All Blames into One
There’s a Buddhist concept, “drive all blames into one.” It means that when you start to project your blame onto others, you become disempowered. Blaming someone else is a red flag that it actually has something to do with you. So instead, look inside. Rather than dealing with the toxic personality in your workplace, you have to cleanse your own toxins. You can’t change other people, but you can change your thoughts about them. And, you can increase your compassion for their faults by increasing compassion for your own.
The amount of tolerance you have for others is directly correlated to the ratio of tolerance you have for yourself. It isn’t until we accept ourselves — and allow the blame and shame to diffuse — that we will be able to accept others. When you become softer around your own shortcomings and recognize that you aren’t perfect, you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to let people down — you will begin to interact and communicate differently with the people who are different from you. When they make mistakes or let you down, you can forgive them more easily.
What to Do When You Feel Triggered
Tolerance of differences doesn’t mean letting people off the hook or not holding them accountable. But the intense feelings and reactions dissipate, and you can come from a much more objective place. Rather than an emotionally charged reaction, you can be curious and discover what’s under the surface. When your colleague misses a deadline, instead of reacting with anger, you can have a conversation about how they’ve been missing deadlines lately and ask what you can take off their plate.
If you’re feeling frustrated with someone on your team, this is a signal to meet with the person and get to know them better. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I spent time getting to know them?
- Do I know what’s going on in their life right now?
- Do I know what their strengths and weaknesses are?
- Have I given them clear direction?
- Have I helped set them up for success?
Say you’re in a situation with someone who’s narcissistic or unfair. It’s not that you have to tolerate that or allow yourself to be treated badly by others. But we all have little parts of the narcissist or the bully inside ourselves. Once you identify it and have the courage to face it within yourself, you will have the courage to stand up to the other person.
Sometimes, lines are crossed. When you become more self-aware and look inward, you’ll start to have an antenna for what’s okay and what crosses your boundaries and makes you feel unsafe. That’s when you should go to a trusted colleague to confide in, assess the wrongdoing, and seek professional help from your Human Resources department or get legal advice.
Recognizing that we are all human and dynamic gives you back your power in the workplace. Being able to navigate different work styles is the core competency required for success. Part of the job of working as part of a team is to manage the pros and cons of your own work style and learn how to leverage the different styles of others. When we are truly tolerant of other people and celebrate differences, we are able to access everyone’s strengths — and our work relationships become much more fulfilling.
Kristine Steinberg is the CEO of Kismet. She believes that your life should be deeply fulfilling — not tolerated. Partner with Kismet to dismantle fear, define your path, and lead with courage. Start your transformation today: www.thisiskismet.com.