Can't We All Just Get Along?

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By: Norman B. Gildin

We live in polarizing times when one group is pitted against another. Turn on the news and we see Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative, ethnic, religious and racial divides and the list goes on. Unfortunately, it all begins on a much smaller scale. So, I pose the question: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Actually, I raise a dilemma faced in all industries and give pause here to address a common workplace conundrum. While some of us at The Club are retired, many still go to work every day. Hence, this column.

Have you ever had a co-worker who rubbed you the wrong way? Of course you have. Everyone likely has suffered at least one nemesis at work. And if you haven’t, then consider yourself lucky. 

I wrestled with two such employees during my career. Operatives, at different organizations, who went out of their way to make life difficult. Work is challenging enough. But it’s no fun facing an adversary in the workplace when your main objective is doing a good job. 

Your hope, always, is that when you wake up in the morning it is with an air of optimism coupled with anticipation and excitement to go to work. Working with contrarians goes against this grain. It’s like hitting the car accelerator and going nowhere fast because you didn’t turn on the engine.

In one organization, we entered a new phase of our development — a major building expansion. The organizational structure needed beefing up and this individual was hired by the senior executive who created a new junior executive position that reported to the senior executive. This, in and of itself, created awkward interpersonal relationships. 

This individual created numerous challenges. Within our organizational structure there were defined roles and responsibilities. Certain departments reported to the senior executive; others reported to me or to this new staff member. Suddenly department directors with whom I worked informed me that the junior executive approached them making demands to conduct their business in non-conventional ways.

Mind you this individual had no experience in Housekeeping and Building services but without thinking twice bypassed the administrator-in-charge and issued instructions that didn’t make sense. 

Once, this employee, unprompted, acted as a media spokesperson on subject matter about which the person wasn’t qualified to speak. In another instance, the junior executive contradicted the senior executive at Board meetings without a grasp of the facts making the administrator look foolish. There were many occurrences, too many to recount here.

So, what did we do? In general, we asked departments to send this person back to the administrator-in-charge to communicate any “genius” advice. There were times when we confronted this individual in a tactful but assertive manner. At others, the senior executive was informed so that he could take corrective steps including disciplinary action. Human Resources also was often involved. The important thing was confronting the “stress-carrier” in a timely manner. You cannot let matters fester.

Did it help? At times. But I am fond of a saying I once coined. “A chameleon may change colors, but a chameleon remains a chameleon.” 

At another organization, a key position opened. Over the years I interviewed hundreds of candidates for different positions and enjoyed an excellent record of hiring the right people. In this case, the individual had good credentials, but also one major failing. This person frequently moved from one position to another. The reason we were told was that successive jobs suggested upward mobility. But my gut instinct felt otherwise. Then both the senior executive and board members of the organization put on the “full court press” because this candidate had acquitted well in various positions. So, against my better judgment, I hired the person.

Can you spell b-a-c-k-s-t-a-b-b-e-r? Am I too harsh? Not really. At every turn, this toxic individual stealthily undermined my efforts. The manipulative employee was also a narcissist and wanted everyone to hear, “Norm couldn’t produce the same results, so why settle for less?”  It became obvious that this person was pining for my job. What to do? 

Efficacious ways I tackled this problem included being myself. (If you can’t be true to yourself, don’t expect good results.) I met or exceeded my goals. I sent out informative missives to staff. I scheduled regular time with my boss to review progress, as well as informed Board members and staff of our successes. And, I wasn’t bashful about our good work. But I never vilified the saboteur and I always remained professional. A visit with HR was periodically necessary to address situations. 

In time, both of these employees went elsewhere.

Helen Keller is quoted as saying: 

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience on trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

So, I ask again, can’t we all just get along?