How to Know You're Hard to Work With: True Confessions Edition Part 1

I’ve read lots of blogs and articles about people who are hard to handle in a work environment. Most of them come from the perspective of, “I’ve worked with a bunch of jerks, and this is what they were like.” This article is more like: True Confessions of Someone Who Didn’t Realize They Were Hard to Work With, but it Turns Out They Were, By Sarai Johnson.

You see, I think people are a mix of light and shadow. We all have great qualities and beautiful souls to offer the world - and we all have darker tendencies, and odd behaviors that might come to the surface when we are under duress or when we are not being vigilant in our self-examination. It is all too easy to vilify people who we think suck - because it makes us feel better to imagine that we are different. We would never behave badly! Of course, these “other” people are flawed and horrible, but we are pure as an angel’s tears.

The problem is, that’s not true. Other people do what they do for the same reasons you do what you do: needs. Everything we do is motivated by a need. Whether we behave well or poorly to attend to that need depends on a number of factors, both individual and systemic. As individuals, our health and mental health, sense of safety and stability, sense of belonging, self-esteem, and self-awareness all play into what behaviors we choose in the workplace (or anywhere else, for that matter). Systemically, we respond to the environments in which we operate - this includes the culture of your organization, and also the overall culture of your country of origin, your city, your subculture. When we are doing well on these matters, and our surroundings support us - we feel well and safe, we feel we are loved, and we love ourselves. We are more likely to choose behaviors that are productive to ourselves and our coworkers. When we are lacking in these areas, or when our environments are not healthy, we tend to choose behaviors that are controlling or manipulative to fill our needs.

It may strike you as odd that I am “coming out” as hard to work with. I’m a consultant, after all, and all I do is work with people. Here’s the truth: every leader - consultant or other - gains their experience and chops through a combination of successes and failures. What we do with our failures says a lot about our ability to lead with compassion and vision. I have learned everything I’ve learned through trying it. Sometimes it goes great. Other times, not so much. Everyone has failed - you have, I have, even the most perfect-appearing person has failed. If they haven’t, it’s probable that one of these four things is true:

  • They are lying;

  • You simply don’t know about their failures;

  • They really have never failed, in which case:

  • They are definitely lying.

Part of the reason this is so important is that it forces me (and hopefully, by extension, you) to face the fact that our self-concept doesn’t always line up with what other people experience. Sometimes, it’s good to let go of caring too deeply how others perceive you (need help with that? I’ve got you covered) - and sometimes, it’s good to make sure you get a sense of why those perceptions exist and whether they have merit. You see, I’ve always thought I was fun and awesome to work with. I’m funny and light-hearted, and also, I work hard and get the job done well. I’m smart and competent, innovative and clever, and I’ve been told by many people that I inspire and motivate them. But I also know that my wonderfulness has a shadow side. So does yours. You’re both wonderful and also probably kind of a jerk sometimes, inadvertently or no. It’s good to know which is what so you can continuously become a better person in order to be a great leader.

On Being Hard to Work With From Someone Who Thinks She Is Pretty Fun and Cool, Generally

Without further ado, here are 3 ways I’ve been hard to work with, why I chose the behaviors I chose, and how I avoid making the same choices now (and so can you!). Tomorrow, I’ll give you a few more, just for good measure. Since I have a lot to say about them, and because I think it will be more useful to give you the rundown on what I did and how I avoid doing negative, obnoxious and downright harmful behaviors now, splitting them into two posts will be a mercy.

I have a lot of work to continue doing on these issues, by the way. It’s a life-long practice to choose positive, productive behaviors, after all. After you read about my foibles, it might do you some good to sit down for a few minutes to go through some ways you might have similarly driven people nuts. Where have you made some errors in your attempts at being awesome? Where have you stepped on toes - purposefully or otherwise? Where do you need some insight and change in your life?

Moving Too Fast

What I Did: At the nonprofit I worked for the longest, I was in charge of many things - chief among them all of the programs, ever. I also spent a good amount of time and work on organizational development. When I started in the organization, we were very small. We had about 6 people, and half of us worked on program stuff. When it was that little and cute, changing things or adding things or doing things a new way was easier. As we grew, it became more complicated to get everyone on board or informed as things went. The other challenge was that we were trying to do what amounted to lean startup work, without a framework, which was...messy, to say the least. The most common complaint I heard for a long time was “you move too fast! Nobody can keep up with you! Slow down!” The first two things, I took as a compliment. The later, I ignored.

What I Didn’t Realize: Moving quickly and being nimble were valued at my organization. I thought I was moving those values along at a nice clip. However, if I ever would have stopped to look around me, I would have realized nobody was following me anymore...or at least, they were far in the distance, panting and gasping for breath, begging for some water. It was hard for me to manage my pace, and I didn’t recognize that everyone else needed time to adjust and adapt to something. Change comes easy to me. In fact, I thrive on it. It was very hard for me to understand that just about everybody else on the planet isn’t quite as cool with it.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I went fast because I am naturally inclined to see a problem, find a solution, and address it. If something isn’t working, I notice and make a change. I don’t shy away from change, and I don’t shy away from decisions. All of these things are fine on their own, but you don’t work in a vacuum. In the end, I realized I was choosing these behaviors because I was running all the time. I never learned how to walk or stroll or even jog. It was part of who I thought I was, and when it was brought to my attention that I needed to slow down or everybody else would die or quit, I didn’t even know how (or want to). I thought everyone else should just hurry up.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I still move fast. I have learned that when people know what to expect by way of pace and change, they handle it more readily. I also make sure that I insitute processes and systems to provide a context for changing course regularly. The Lean Nonprofit process of program development allows for iterative progress that is constantly monitored, measured and adapted. We can make pivots, but that expectation is built in. What I once did by instinct and gut, I now do with structure and support.

Not Communicating Enough or Effectively

What I Did: A funny thing about a lot of these not so pleasant behaviors is that they stem from something that would otherwise be a positive trait. However, because I wasn’t mature enough or self-aware enough or in the right time and place in my life to know it, I used them in less than advantageous ways. Communication is one of those things. I’m a good communicator. I always have been. But because I move fast, I often communicate too little too late, or overcommunicate with very long, stream of consciousness emails and other eloquent attempts at addressing the masses. If you’ve read any of my blogs, you get what I’m saying. This is basically a normal email for me.

What I Didn’t Realize: Communication is the most important thing a leader and manager can do with their people. When I was working at the self-same nonprofit I mentioned above, there was a period of time when I had a department that consisted of three people and myself. We were in charge of resource development, program development and organizational development. Our projects were sweeping and majestic - and onerous and insane. We ran a massive workplanning process along with the budget process each year; we did all manner of tinkering with databases; we created new processes and systems (our organization had doubled in size year over year for three years running and things were nuts)...What I didn’t know was that in other (siloed) departments, the managers of which I once oversaw, the staff called my team “Black Ops.” They were suspicious of us and what we were doing. They were resistant to every single thing we tried to implement and obstructed our work. We were frustrated, they were freaked out. Everybody lost. Communication would have gone a long way toward helping this. Of course, changing the weird culture that allowed for these sentiments to pervade departments would have been even better, but at least, I could have been more open with what we were doing, as we were making decisions.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I thought I was communicating. It turns out, it was hard for people to accept and adopt entire new processes and procedures and policies when they arrived via email at a random time on some given day. They weren’t included (didn’t always need to be, but should have been at least some of the time), and they had no idea the context of why things needed to be done. I thought that if I mentioned something once, everyone would know and do it correctly forever. Obviously, to anyone who has ever worked with a human before, this is an errant assumption.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I communicate continuously and openly, without filter and without political concern. I am honest and forthright. I deal with issues as they arise instead of waiting until they get so overblown they are nearly impossible to handle. I realize that my main job is communication - not just getting stuff done, but telling the story along the way.

Covering My Butt Through Manipulation, Deflection, and Blaming

What I Did: I am an ambitious person. I mean, I want to do every awesome thing I can possibly do in my life, and I want my life to matter after I die. I want to leave a legacy, if you will. I also want to make a difference because I truly care about the world and want it to be a better place. When I was younger, and I felt less safe, less stable, more at risk, and had a vast and unending need to please everyone all the time (my true-life, I’m not making this up, motto was: “YES TO EVERYTHING!!” which, ironically, I didn’t realize meant “no to a whole lot of things that matter, but especially to myself”), like everyone else, I made mistakes. I didn’t do things right. I forgot about things that would fall through the cracks. I was experiencing information overload with reams and reams of handwritten notes from the (apparently) thousands of meetings I attended each day, which I basically recorded verbatim and then left to die in my piles and piles of papers (sometimes files, if I remembered about Getting Things Done right then)...I was terrified of getting in trouble. I mean, I thought of it exactly that way. I was afraid of “getting in trouble.” As an adult woman. A high-level professional adult woman. So. I was manipulative. I shared or withheld information as it suited my needs. I planted ideas until someone thought they were their own and then ran with them. I put the onus of failure on other people to try to make myself look better. Hell, when things got really bad at work, I bought new clothes and got a haircut, which worked like a “Hey, look over there!” deflection trick. Another weird manipulation trick I did was take responsibility for everything, even when it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do any of this consciously or with evil intent. I did it as self-preservation.

What I Didn’t Realize: I was codependent as hell. Like, the definition of codependent was my face next to the caption reading: “She thinks “YES TO EVERYTHING” is an appropriate life motto.” Look. I didn’t know I was scared to death of losing my status or my job. I thought I was doing what I needed to do to get by and protect myself and my team and my friends at work and the organization and endless other rationalizations that would have made me feel OK. I acted without integrity, but I didn’t know I was doing it, and wouldn’t have realized it to save my life. Except, one day, my friend Lori came by my office after everyone else had left for the day. She was not surprised to find me there, because I was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. She asked why I was still there. I said I was working on a project because it needed to be done and even though someone else on my team could have done it, I would rather suffer than make them do it. She said, “That’s pretty codependent, don’t you think?” I was like…”Huh. I’ve heard that before, and Googled it.” When I was finally able to go down to the basement to collect my lower jaw, I thanked her for letting me know, and embarked on a journey to try to figure out what on earth to do about it.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: Being driven can be healthy...but it must come from a sense of wholeness and completion as a person. I, however, was driven by an insatiable sense of unworthiness. I was driven to do well at work at all costs because I felt, deep inside, that my life literally depended on it. My work ethic was the only way I knew to prove I was worthy and valuable. It was all I could do to show that I belong somewhere. This isn’t a pity party, and it isn’t an excuse. But it does explain a lot.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I know what my integrity means to me. I know how to connect with my body so I can sense when my gut tells me I’m out of alignment. I make choices more quickly when I realize I’m in an environment that isn’t right for me. I leave when I know I might get sucked into a culture that is damaging and harmful. And I know what my values are and how to uphold them. Mostly, though? I have learned to love myself and find my value in the fact that I exist. I don’t need the external stuff and approval and “not getting in trouble” to make me feel OK. I feel OK no matter what, because I am OK no matter what. So are you.

Until the Morrow, My Love

This is enough honesty for the day. On Wednesday, you’ll get to see several more ways I’ve been a huge bummer to work with, and how I managed to perpetuate a bad culture in a very wonderful organization full of amazing people who did incredible work. Life is full of strange contradictions, isn’t it? Even well meaning souls like us can sometimes do things that hurt the thing we love the most. Let’s learn to live with more conscience and more consciousness, shall we?