Responsibility to Others in the Workplace: Learning to Love Your Obnoxious Co-Workers


If you ask people what they love most about their job, they’ll frequently say, “The people I work with.” If you ask people what they dislike most about their job, they’ll frequently say, “The people I work with.”

Most people who dislike the people they work with rarely do anything about it beyond trying to tune them out or avoid them whenever possible. This is a lousy strategy that doesn’t improve anything and encourages people to internalize stress. Instead of honest interactions, we have people playing games with each other. Avoidance of others may be a decent short-term strategy if you’re trying to get out of a dysfunctional organization unable to change, but it’s a poor choice if you have any hope of workplace happiness.

In Working Choices, I wrote about our three basic human responsibilities: responsibility to self, responsibility to others and responsibility to the community. Let’s look at what that middle responsibility means.

Responsibility to others is all about your relationships and doing the things you need to do to keep them healthy. There are five fundamental actions related to this responsibility:

Seek the true self: Many people enter relationships based on their personal expectations of what they want the other person to be. This is obviously true in many romantic encounters, but also applies to the workplace, where we heap expectations on leaders and co-workers as to how they should behave. Such a perspective is inherently unfair and invariably disappointing, because no one is here on this earth to live up to our expectations. To be truly responsible to others, we must release others from our expectations and establish a space where people are encouraged to be natural. This also validates and supports the self-responsible action of self-development, in that by letting go of our projections, we learn more about others and therefore ourselves.

Respect for Choices: Along with seeking the real person behind the expectations, it is necessary to learn to accept another person’s right to choose. This does not mean that if someone chooses to shoot you that you should let them go ahead and do it, for you would be violating your overriding responsibility to yourself. What it means is that you allow people the right to make choices and mistakes, just as you permit yourself the right to make similar choices (and similar mistakes). It also means practicing tolerance for choices that may not fit with your particular tastes, but as long as a choice brings no harm to another, you cannot interfere. It is up to the person making the decision to judge whether or not a choice will result in harm to him or herself.

Offering Assistance with Choices: All of us need help in sorting out choices. Sometimes we miss potential consequences or fail to take certain variables into account. We can help others by sharing information and by listening to their thinking. Sharing information and listening without bias are probably the two greatest gifts we can give someone who is facing a difficult choice. Keep in mind that assistance does not involve giving advice or finding other sneaky ways to try to force them to live up to your expectations. It means being there for them, not for you.

Defining Your Parameters: It is important to be fair to others, and being fair often involves explaining to another person your own personal limitations. You have to let people know what values are important to you so they can make choices as to how to relate to you. It is not fair to another person for you to withhold values and feelings when withholding that information could lead them to make unwise choices about how they interact with you.

Forgiveness: Just as we need to learn to forgive ourselves, we need to avoid beating up other human beings who engage in the ultimate human experience of screwing up. Your parameters will determine how much you can forgive, which is why it is wise to let the people close to you know just how far your tolerance goes. It is also possible to forgive someone while at the same time deciding that you really don’t think it’s a good idea to maintain the relationship. In this case, forgiving another is important for you in terms of letting go as it is for the other in terms of receiving permission to attempt change.

The way to make co-workers more likable is to begin to see their actions through their perspective instead of through your judgments. Clarifying your parameters is a more professional way of dealing with relationships than walking the other way when you see your obnoxious co-worker coming down the hall towards you. If you want to be successful in this world, you’re going to have to learn to successfully deal with all kinds of people, and that means  building relationships based on the open, honest communication that leads to mutual understanding.

How to Make Work Meaningful Again

In Robert Morrow’s novel Ringing True, a group of Seattle twenty-somethings decide to address the sad state of humanity by launching a for-profit religion via cyberspace. The “product” or “bible” of the religion is contained in 12 precepts called “The Numbers,” each of which deals with a unique facet of human existence.

Number 10 talks about work:

The Tenth

It is fair to say that the human race has confused the meaning of work as thoroughly as it has confused the meaning of good and evil. The true nature of work has been further compromised by chaotic designations of financial value. Thus we live in a world where the people who feed us, teach us and protect us earn far less than those who entertain us, those who scheme for power and those willing to exploit innocence.

For many people living in industrialized cultures, work is often disconnected from meaning through specialization and the invisible coercion of the economic system. For many people living in agricultural societies, work is inherently tied to survival. What is ignored in both is that every human being has a unique contribution to make for themselves, for others and for the world. Work does not have to be meaningless: it can be the ultimate expression of responsibility. All forms of responsible work should be honored.

Each person will find their own meaning in their work, and the value of work should be measured not only by how far it advances the human condition but also by how much satisfaction and meaning it brings to the individual doing the work. True work nourishes the human soul.

This certainly appears to be wishful thinking, given the state of the workplace today. Between engagement surveys showing workers checking out of the organizational program and the continuing popularity of Dilbert and The Office, the workplace today doesn’t seem to generate much opportunity to find meaning beyond the daily encounters with the absurd. Cynicism dominates, and the phrase, “It pays the bills,” sums up how many people feel about their jobs.

When Morrow writes, “Each person will find their own meaning in their work,” this is not idealism but an observation of how human consciousness operates. Consciousness always requires an object; we are always conscious of something. As soon as we become conscious of something, we attach meaning to it. Think of an apple and you might think, ‘I’m hungry, or “Adam & Eve,” or “iPhone,” or “I lost a baby tooth biting into an apple.” The next time you see a perfect stranger, pause for a moment and notice all the meanings you attach to that person based on appearance (age, social status, cultural tendencies, etc).

You cannot stop this process in yourself or in another human being. We all seek meaning every minute of every day, even in our dreams. It’s how we interact with our world.

Most organizations fail to grasp this simple truth. Some try to ignore meaning entirely, as if the world would be better off if we all just left our conscious minds at home. Others try to impose meaning through rigid organizational philosophies, policies that demand conformity and status symbols. Some use the onboarding process to indoctrinate people in the “company way;” others use the process to take care of the legal CYA that contaminates the getting-acquainted process with the clear message, “We don’t trust you.” Nearly all organizations ignore the fact that, despite their efforts, each individual is going to interpret the world in his or her unique way.

This leads to the disconnection that dominates organizational life and provides Scott Adams withe fodder for his cartoons. It is a fundamental truth of human communication that I won’t really listen to you unless I feel heard and understood. I’m not going to share what I think or feel unless I have confidence that you really want to hear what I have to say. Unless I sense that you care about my input, I’m going to hear your input as coercion, no matter how nice you say it. This leads to the silly game that dominates organizational cultures everywhere: the game of passive aggression. It leads to meetings where we all follow the corporate line during the meeting, then leave the meeting to seek out like-minded radicals to bitch about what a waste of time it was.

We have heard about the importance of “creating shared meaning” in leadership training courses and communication workshops, but we tend to interpret “shared” as “imposing the company vision on a whole lot of people at roughly the same point in history.” The truth is you can’t “get everyone on the same page” unless you allow them to shape the content of the page.

This means that leaders have to allow every person who belongs to or enters your organization the chance to make a difference. It means you have to change your onboarding processes so that it’s more focused on mutual understanding than indoctrination. It means that leaders and team members should spend more time listening to what current and new team members want out of life and work, then use that information to find ways to help people achieve both personal goals and organizational goals at the same time.

It also means that leaders should use position power intelligently instead of automatically. The vast majority of people who enter the workforce want to find positive meaning and satisfaction in the work they do. They don’t need to be controlled; they need to be inspired to put those best efforts to work for their own good and for the good of the organization. They need good information to make intelligent decisions about their work and they need a good leader who is willing to listen help them think things through.

So much of the absurdity, frustration and pain of modern organizational existence would disappear if we simply recognized that people will attach meaning to their work. If you over-control, withhold information and fail to listen, the meaning they attach to their work will be the same meaning that Scott Adams’ characters attach to their work. If you engage in open and honest dialogue and teach people what they need to know about the organization and its values, the meaning they attach will be much more in sync with what you’re trying to achieve.

Photo Credit: © Orangeline | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos