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Leading people you don't like

Photo by Rodrigo Santos

At some point every leader encounters a teammate that is just not their cup of tea. Maybe it’s a person you brought to the team or maybe it’s a teammate you inherited when you stepped into a leadership role but either way, when it happens, it can be tricky to work through. I covered some “don’ts” for this situation in my last newsletter (don’t try to convince other teammates of your perspective and don’t isolate or ignore that teammate) so let’s look at what to what to do instead.

1 - Reflect on why you have a problem with this person. Are they doing something that is inappropriate or detrimental to the team? Are their “edgy and boundary-pushing jokes” actually just sexist? Do they do their work well enough? Do they have a laugh you find obnoxious? Are they all about puns and you are, definitively, not? Do they remind you of someone else you don’t like because they did that terrible thing three years ago that derailed that project? Do they have some bad habits like responding poorly to feedback or always needing to be “right” in every conversation?

If they are doing something that makes them a challenging teammember for many people it might be on you to help them learn to become a better teammate. Get after it! You will feel better and the team will work better if you deal with any problematic behavior swiftly and directly.

2 - If it’s not anti-team behavior that’s the problem, and it’s a matter of personal taste why you are not stoked on this teammate, your best bet is to invest your time and energy into trust and respect supporting behaviors. You can have a professional work relationship that has both trust and respect with someone you don’t actually like.

Here are some places to start:

  • Identify what this teammate does well and position yourself to encounter this teammate doing the thing they do well as often as possible. Say something when you see them doing the things you do like.

  • Get clear on your relationship to your power as a leader. Is it important to you to be able to impact and influence the people around you? Are you enacting that power in a way that supports the teammembers and team goals first (and consistently)? Is that true with this person too?

  • Examine your preferences and biases. Are they serving you and your teammembers well?

  • Without ignoring or avoiding the teammate you don’t like, make a plan for how to interact with them productively. Focus your time and energy on being respectful during the situations when you need to work together directly and don’t schedule bonus or off-topic sessions.

  • Work on your diplomacy skills. What do you need to do to be trustworthy regardless of how much you like them?

  • Revisit your core values - the ones you live by all the time - and identify ways to enact them with authenticity when the person who you are not into is working with you.

  • It’s ok to make concrete plans for your interactions with this person. Start with your personal values and move toward trust and respect.

  • It’s also good to know your limits. If interacting with the person you don’t like results in you feeling frustrated, and you know you snap at people and get passive aggressive when frustrated, you may need an escape plan to disrupt that chain of events. How will you recognize that your frustration level is rising and what will you choose to do instead of engaging in negative behaviors?

  • Remind yourself that you don’t have to have an opinion on everything. You can suspend judgment. If you’re in the habit of rapidly forming strong judgments based on very little information, rewiring that habit could free up considerable energy for you and improve your working relationships with many people.

  • I’ve heard it said that the things we don’t like about other people are a reflection of things we don’t like about ourselves. So… look within and consider getting your own house in order first.

It’s hard to appreciate the people who rub us the wrong way, but they do provide an opportunity to work on things like patience, acceptance and compassion. As leaders, working with people we don’t like is a noticeable piece of establishing psychological safety and a productive team culture. Working with people we don’t like is a opportunity that is hard to contrive. With some intention and thoughgtfulness, you can use the opportunity to explore what emotional intelligence means and looks like in action.


If you actually have a conflict with a teammate (or want more tips for helping them change their behavior) check out my Emotionally Intelligent Conflict Management Checklist.

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