In my last post I wrote about how Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono, who is in the midst of a female-to-male gender transition, has developed some unexpected new behaviors and preferences under the influence of testosterone, including a lack of tolerance for idle chit-chat and an enthusiasm for the latest technological toys.
You may or may not agree that Chaz’s transgender perspective makes him an ideal candidate to become a relationship counselor, as he suggests. What does strike me as being particularly unusual, and valuable, about his experience is the high degree of awareness he now has about how differently he moves through – and is treated by – the world as a man vs. a woman.
Perspective-expanding events of that magnitude in life are rare. All of us are, to varying extents, prisoners of our own experiences. We operate with a set of assumptions we’re only partially aware of and selectively filter information that drives our choices, large and small, through lenses that reflect our own very particular worldview. For many of us, being forced to acknowledge that we even have a default mode when we encounter people who are working with a different set of operating assumptions can be difficult. Finding ways to relate to, and establish common ground with, those people is even more challenging – but failing to do so isn’t an option if you want to succeed professionally, unless of course you happen to be an elected official.
If you’re looking for ways to expand your perspective, develop your emotional intelligence and / or just build stronger working relationships, here are a few techniques to experiment with:
- Take an inventory. You already know more about your colleagues than you think you do. When I work with clients on their relationship-building skills, our initial focus often centers around developing a more informed and nuanced understanding of important others in their work orbit – e.g., their bedrock beliefs, preferences and fears. So, for example, if you are hoping to cultivate a more productive relationship with your boss, some of the questions you might want to try to answer about her could include: What are her core values? Pet peeves? Decision-making style – data-driven or emotional? Is she direct or conflict-averse? Process-oriented or strategic? Is she motivated by the desire for achievement, stability, financial gain or something else entirely? Most people are able to answer those questions quickly, with a fairly high degree of confidence, even if they’ve never given them much thought before.
- Generate working hypotheses about behaviors that could make a positive difference and test them. Once you have a clearer, more three-dimensional picture of your boss (or, if you are the boss, your direct reports and anyone else you’re looking to get on a firmer footing with), try to imagine how your actions could potentially be getting interpreted, ormisinterpreted, by them. And vice versa. For example, one client (we’ll call him Ted) – an introvert who placed a high value on technical competence and a low value on interpersonal relationships – communicated with his peers and direct reports throughout the day almost exclusively by email, even though many of them sat nearby. Ted’s team had a fairly high turnover rate and his boss, while praising his virtuosity at executing, wanted him to make network-building a priority. After we talked about how it might feel for someone with a strong preference for collaboration and social interaction to be on the receiving end of all of those emails, Ted decided to try a new approach. He built time into his schedule for walkabouts, lunches and informal face-to-face updates. Ted’s “charm offensive” – while initially difficult for him – wound up being highly successful, and engaging in those activities gradually became easier.
- It never hurts to ask or explain. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’ve noticed that you seem to prefer having the data as far in advance as possible. Would it be helpful if I were to send you my weekly reports a day or two before our meetings so we can discuss strategy instead of spending our time together going over all of the numbers?” Or, “I can see that you are used to working autonomously and that my hands-on management style may be a bit of a departure, so let’s find some ways to develop check-in milestones that will feel comfortable for both of us.”
If, after trying all of these strategies, you find that the quality of your relationships improves but your patience for certain colleagues’ less-endearing traits does not, remember that a little live-and-let-live tolerance and civility can go a long way. It’s a truism that seems to have been rejected by a certain breed of politician in our nation’s capital, but perhaps after this gruesome budget debacle the pendulum will begin to swing the other way and we’ll start prioritizing a different set of qualities in the people we elect.
Come to think of it, maybe Chaz should stop noodling over whether to become a relationship counselor and consider running for Congress instead!