Playing Well With Others in the Workplace and Beyond

Now that my book is published (Yay!), I will continue to share some of the “raw material” that the book is based on – the roughly 400 lessons I catalogued as part of the process of reflecting on what I learned during the last 30 years of my life (and especially during the last 15).  One category of lessons related to working effectively with others, in the workplace or in any other setting.  I came up with 44 distinct ideas, techniques, or habits that I ultimately put into practice and seemed to work much better than other things I had tried previously. 

Ultimately, this book and the larger project it is part of is about leadership.  Developing oneself into someone who can lead an organization effectively requires many things: intelligence, curiosity, energy, public speaking talent, the ability to sell an idea or product or vision, and a willingness to take calculated risks.  But I believe that a fundamental building block of leadership is simply being someone who works well with others.  What does that mean? To me, it means being a person who leaves far more people that they come into contact with better than they found them, rather than worse.  Such people create a growing network of individuals and groups who want them to succeed, who assist them when they can, who overlook their flaws, and who are loyal to them through the tough times. 

Sorry – there are no magic bullets here. Rather, there is an approach to life where one habitually and instinctively tries to be helpful to other people – both in small ways to anyone (including strangers) and in significant ways to friends, family and colleagues.  By the time a leadership opportunity comes their way, such people have skills, habits and connections that make succeeding in their jobs much easier. Anyway, here are my top 10 (out of 44) lessons related to “playing well with others.”

1.      When someone tells you about an important and deeply personal issue, your biggest contribution may be to hear them out, let them know you have understood their dilemma, perhaps share some principles that might guide their decision on how to resolve the matter, and affirm that you are confident that they will make the right decision.  Giving them specific advice to how to deal with it may not be needed or even appropriate.

2.      If you are in a conflict or difficult negotiation with someone, take some time to try to see the situation through their eyes.  Instead of assuming they are being difficult for no reason other than spite or lack of consideration, develop a hypothesis about how they could be taking their position based on a principle or value that is important to them, and that you yourself would respect in some situations.  For example, someone who is being highly critical of you in a group setting could see themselves playing the important role of a courageous truth-teller who channels the concerns of other people who are afraid to speak up.   

3.      An apology with the words “if” or “but” in it is actually not an apology, and sometimes it is worse than saying nothing at all.  As Adam Grant has written on his delightful Twitter feed, “‘I'm sorry if...’ isn't an apology.  It's an expression of doubt that you did anything wrong.”  Avoid cluttering and diluting your apologies.  When receiving an apology, accept even watered down or otherwise imperfect apologies graciously, as it is often the best a person can do.   

4.      If someone whom you have or wish to develop a positive relationship with makes a mistake that impacts you, err on the side of having grace for them.  Whether they show it or not, they will remember that.  (They will also remember if you don’t.)  Keep a mental list of those people who had grace for you when you made a mistake that impacted them – they are among your truest friends and allies. 

5.      When you are one of the popular or powerful people in a group or otherwise have high status, look for opportunities to visibly reach out to and include those who are less popular and powerful, or have lower status.  It sends an important signal to everyone.

6.      Most people like to positively influence others, whether be it something small like trying a new restaurant or recipe, or something major like making a choice to change your career or marry someone.  Let people influence you with their good ideas, suggestions, advice, the behaviors they model, and then let them know how they influenced you and how it benefited you, even if it is years later. 

7.      If you take risks in your personal and professional relationships with others, which you should, you need to make peace with the fact that some of those relationships will suffer.  Rather than seek to have all your relationships be healthy all the time, seek during any period of your life to have a significantly greater number of people thrilled with how you have treated them (compared to their expectations) than the number who feel you have not treated them well.  In other words, don’t make your highest priority minimizing the number of people that you upset, offend, or turn into enemies.  That will make you too risk averse and cautious in your dealings with others, and rob you of spontaneity.    

8.      In conversations with others, boldly speak your truth, but don’t confuse it with the truth.     

9.      Encourage people to build on or criticize new ideas you come up with.  Use humor to convey that you will not take offense if they don’t think it makes sense in its current form.  You can preface it by smiling and saying something like, “This might just be my worst idea of the day/week/month/year, but here goes….”

10.   If you can help someone, say, a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, a professional peer or even a stranger, and it will take you under 30 minutes to do so, go for it.  If you become so busy that this is impractical, lower the threshold to 10 or 20 minutes. The universe will pay you back for your reflexive generosity many-fold.