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Quick-start series No 3: 3 steps to handle difficult colleagues at work!

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Author: Andrew Jackson

Woman in the busy office

We’ve all been there. When the “know-all” of the team chimes in with their wisdom and advice. When someone else seems very quick to blame others for something which went wrong. Or when someone they take undue credit for a success. Or simply when someone in the team says something which really winds you up!

Working in groups or teams can sometimes be frustrating, demotivating, and disengaging.

What if we could understand why it keeps happening ? What if we knew what might be going on between our ears? And better still, what if we could have a few tricks which help us jumping in with full energy and sometimes doing more harm than good ?

To summarise a few of decades of psychology and neuroscience, it turns out that our brains work in two quite different ways. One can be called ‘intuitive thinking’, the other ‘deliberative reasoning’. The first is really quick and is the first to engage. The second can take a bit more effort and time. They both exist together, and when they work together are helpful for different reasons. Our super-fast reactions have help us evolve and stay alive. But by using these shortcuts to reach conclusions quickly, they can sometimes be wrong ! Our slower more thoughtful mode can be ‘expensive’ in energy terms, so being in this mode all the time can be ‘costly’. Think about sitting a really difficult exam for 3 hours and how our brains feel immediately afterwards.

One way of thinking about this is through a metaphor - we love metaphors at Rethinkly! Think about an elephant which represents the intuitive mode, reacting from prior experience. The elephant gets startled by the sight of a tiny mouse, and stampedes off in a particular direction. Sadly for its much smaller rider, it takes a lot of effort for the rider to realise there is no real threat, to reason with the elephant and to bring it to a halt. Elephant and rider interact in all of our thinking and decisions but most of the time our intuitions come first, reasoning second *.

In our busy world of work, we frequently go from one hurried meeting to the next, often under pressure. We don’t have much time to pause and reflect so it’s very easy for our elephants to get startled and charge off. As soon as we meet someone different to us we’re alert, and when they say or do something which is different to our expectations or preferences, our riders can have a hard time getting the situation back on track.

Given that it is incredibly hard to change other people, the only thing we can change is our own reactions. So what if we could improve our elephant - rider relationship?

Here are three things to try. We’ve also provided a link to a short exercise too because there is good evidence that practicing these and visualising a real situation can be very helpful.

  1. Notice your own thoughts and feelings. Give yourself a time to ask a question ‘what’s going on for me now? What judgments do I make?’. It’s important to plan this step-back time because when our elephants do things fast and respond on autopilot. We might stop listening, avoiding or get to an emotional response anywhere from fight to flight.

  2. Name your trigger. These are very situation-specific. It might be a particular difference that you notice, use of language, tone of voice, someone's preference or values which are different to your own. It might be that you have some prior assumptions about the person or the situation. When you name it you know it, it will be easier for you to recognise them in the future and respond better.

  3. Build empathy. Try to see things from the point of view of others. Imagine yourself in their place, in their context. This might be the best thing you can do to unlock some new ideas to make things differently. If others are involved, try to be compassionate and understand why their reaction is absolutely appropriate.

These 3 steps will help you think and feel differently and are very helpful to find a way dealing with challenges in your team. Be kind to yourself as you do this too – it is not easy putting new practices in place.

Your exercise.

Give yourself 15 minutes to go through the suggested 3 step process using Rethinkly. When start you will be guided with the instructions in this virtual world once loaded.

Before you start think of the situation, something recent, or still going on which has set you off, perhaps someone has triggered your elephant, disturbed you in some way... when you are ready click Start exercise. Enjoy!

(By starting this exercise I agree to the Terms and Conditions.)

Finally, if you’re trying to create the conditions where elephants and riders can co-exist in your place of work, check out our blog on this subject or read our white paper.

Good luck!


(*) With thanks to Dr Kris de Meyer at UCL for introducing us to Jonathan Haidt’s work

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