Monday April 5th, 2021

How to Deal With Unwilling Colleagues?


Would you get involved in something that makes no sense to you? In which you see no benefits? Do you think other people are different from you? Thought so.


Your gut feeling does not fool you: for EVERYTHING we do, we need a CONVINCING motivation.

What does this simple psychological insight mean when a colleague balks, your client is reluctant, your child doesn’t want to do its homework or you are avoiding tidying up your office? The answer: A convincing “why” is absent, the decisive psycho-logical argument, the motivation, the sense, the purpose, the meaning.


Individual Purpose

We learn it differently, and we may also would like to have it differently. Nevertheless, how people define meaning for themselves and how they judge individual situations is their own business. Personal meaning depends on what each individual needs, what is important to him/her, their experiences and their goals. And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, personal meaning also depends on specific circumstances.

For ourselves, it is already difficult (to impossible) to know our own motivation and “system of sense” in concrete terms, to consciously control it or even to change it. Could you tell in DETAIL and EXACTLY why you are the way you are? Why some things are more important to you than others and when? Can you name exactly and specifically in every situation WHY you behave the way you do? If it is so difficult for ourselves, how could we possibly do it for others?


Throwing Spanner in the Works – “Basta!”

So, we are dealing with a complex situation here. What’s more, it is one of conflict. After all, someone doesn’t want it the way we want it. In this difficult, perhaps even unnerving situation, we like to resort to simple means: “Basta!”, “I don’t care!”, “I’m right!”, “This is how it’s going to be done now!” or even: “Is it really that important to me/us?”.

Of course, you can always act with simple means in complex situations. However, in social interactions (and not only here), there is a fairly high risk that the supposed liberating act will cause even more problems, that even more resistance will be built up, and that even more conflicts will arise or escalate. Often at the expense of the maximum good result.

If you want to avoid this trap and take a good alternative path, you might find it helpful to realise that we all tend to automatically and unconsciously use simple, usually coercive measures. Because whether we like it or not:

We all come from a distrustful, deficit-oriented hierarchical-authoritarian competitive culture that believes that the maximised profit of individuals is also beneficial to the collective. Other, e.g. compromise- or community-oriented approaches are underrepresented. They are second choice – if at all. This is why we often suspect unwillingness, opposition, sometimes even mean motives behind resistance (“He’s in my way!”, “She simply doesn’t want to do it!”)..

Thus, we do and can not recognise a personal search for meaning or any positive motivation that lie behind the behaviour or objections of our alleged opponent. It contradicts our culture and everything we were – and still are – taught as important and right.

And so some teachers accuse their pupils of being lazy and not wanting to learn, and even of intentionally making mistakes. Parents think that teachers are trying to bully their children. Counsellors think that their clients’ difficulties or questions arise from unwillingness or general disability to change. And employees feel that they are merely following orders from their bosses, their own opinion not being asked for.

This self-reinforcing pattern of deficit and mistrust, which we interestingly rarely want to accept for ourselves (because we are willing and capable!), gives us the presumptive right to use coercion. This probably applies especially to the hierarchical and performance-based structures that are so typical of our everyday lives. So we build up pressure, for example, by ignoring or belittling objections, formulating accusations, arranging for faits accomplis or handing out punishments. And we do this out of conviction: Don’t we have to be forced to be happy ourselves from time to time? For the good of all?


Do as you would be done by

The social cost of these steps is high. They are probably only surpassed by the psychological costs that arise at the same time. Both are settled in hot or sometimes long-simmering cold internal and/or external conflicts in which opportunities for open or hidden tit-for-tat are rarely omitted. Even though we may have become accustomed to this in many cases: It is the complete opposite of what the parties involved actually intend – least of all ourselves. After all, don’t we want the best? Don’t we want everyone to participate and contribute to the maximum – for the sake of a good outcome? Don’t we want to feel good about what we are doing?

“You can’t get them all, even Jesus lost one out of twelve.”
Frank Farrelly

So how to behave when a colleague does not want to go along? What we know for sure is that we will not be able to convince everyone and everything in every situation, so we may come to a point where we make a decision that does not suit everyone. But it is also certain that this should not be our first and better not our only option.

So what to do? To answer the question, it may help to ask yourself what you want for yourself when you raise an objection and thus supposedly signal that you “don’t want to”. My answer is: I wish that my conversation partners only assume good intentions and also value them – even if they are not sharing my views. I wish for openess and honest interest in what I have to say, in my opinion and my expertise. And above all, I wish for finding a motivating sense of common purpose in our joint work. Together.


And what I wish for myself, I also wish for my fellow colleagues. That is something I have control for myself. Something I can fulfil myself! So I’m starting with just that. That’s pretty good for a start. Don’t you think?


This text first appeared in German on Teamworkblog on 23 January 2017.


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