Despite the stereotype, tech professionals don’t spend all of their time sitting by themselves in cubicles, communicating with the world via email and text message. Whether in software development, network administration or hardware engineering, IT jobs have an awfully large human element to them. Many involve budget and time pressures, which can be exacerbated by differences in personality and style between teammates. Sometimes it’s unavoidable that tempers will get short and email threads will turn rude.
Much of the time, we take this sort of thing in stride, as isolated incidents or the unfortunate-but-inevitable consequence of too many long days. But other times the issue is more about personalities than workload: You find yourself laboring alongside a person or group with whom you simply don’t get along. As a professional, your impulse might be to make the best of it, but when you’re faced with the same challenge day after day, that can be more easily said than done.
Working through personality conflicts takes patience, management skills and an ability to take the long-term view. “What I try to do is be proactive,” said Randy Gross, CIO of the trade association CompTIA. “I start out focused on the goals and keep things focused on the work. That removes some of the stresses around likes and dislikes.”
Maybe you feel a colleague is making certain technical challenges out to be bigger issues than they are, or you believe the priorities of other team members are out of whack. Whatever the situation, it’s important to speak up and articulate your perception of the problem.
“The first step is to try to understand the dynamics,” said Ben Hicks, a partner at Waltham, Mass.-based recruiter WinterWyman. “Let the other side know there’s an issue. They may not even be aware.”
Before you voice the issue, it’s a good idea to step back and try to imagine the other person’s perspective, added Gross. “Most people don’t set out to make other people mad or annoy them,” he noted, adding that simply examining your colleague’s point of view can help diffuse the pressure you’re feeling from the conflict.
Thinking through the situation also gives you time to cool off. You don’t want to open up disagreements when you’re frustrated or angry. “Wait until another time, when things aren’t so heated, so you can approach someone calmly,” Hicks said.
Of course, sometimes issues go beyond a simple conflict between two people. Something in the team’s dynamics may be affecting everyone’s work, or there may be so many disagreements that the project barely crawls along. In such cases, you may have no choice but to involve your manager.
When you do, be respectful of everyone on the team and avoid straight-up complaining, Gross advised: “Say, ‘There’s an issue, I’m having trouble, how can I make this work better?’” As in other delicate situations, focus on the assignment and your desire to get the job done, not on the personalities of those involved.
The situation is more difficult if the unhappy dynamics impact an entire group or seem tied to the department’s or company’s culture. In those cases, Hicks suggests having a conversation with your boss—but be careful: “I do warn people that if it’s that widespread, the conversation may force you to leave the job pretty quickly.”
Very often, Gross believes, the best solution is to simply be professional. “If you give people the benefit of the doubt, that will often do it,” he said. “Don’t have a huge ego. Being a bit humble can take you much further.”
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