Dear Crucial Skills,
I often run into a brick wall when trying to have a crucial conversation with workaholics. It seems as if they will work with you only if it increases their power or they can exercise control over you. What can I do to get some cooperation?
Thank you for your question. It is one that is almost universal, although not perhaps in the way you may think. While many people may work with “workaholics,” the ubiquity of your question is in fact that we all carry around negative stories in our head about people we interact with. In my opinion, the universal problem you are facing is not centered on the person you work with but rather the stories you have told yourself about this person.
Allow me to explain. Your workaholic is trying to “increase power” and “exercise control.” These behaviors aren’t actually behaviors. That’s right; these are in fact stories.
When you encounter problems with a person, you must first step back and separate the facts from the stories. I suggest asking three questions to help you challenge the stories you are telling yourself:
1. What are the specific behaviors that this person is in engaged in that are causing problems? Sometimes it can be difficult to be specific enough, especially when we are holding on to our story tightly. You can use a litmus test of sorts by asking yourself, “If someone gave me that feedback, would I know exactly what to do differently?” If the answer to the question is “no” then you are still operating at the level of stories and need to dig deeper to the specific behaviors.
2. Has your story distorted the way you view that person’s actions? One of the insidious things about stories is that they begin to act as filters. For example, if I believe someone is incompetent, I will naturally start to watch for that person to make a mistake. And when he does, I seize on it, file it away, and use it as evidence that my story was correct. What I don’t do is open myself to the possibility that we all make mistakes and perhaps this person is a competent person who occasionally makes a mistake.
3. How has your story influenced your actions toward that person? It is important to recognize that when we have a story about someone, regardless of whether the story is accurate, that story will always shape the way we feel about the person and our feelings will always direct our actions toward that person. Notice that the question is not “Does my story influence my actions?” but rather “How has my story influenced my actions?” It may be that, through your actions, you are provoking or intensifying the very behavior you find distasteful.
Finally, let me assure you that there are people who are compulsive about work. There are people who constantly seek to exercise control or increase their own power. These people are difficult to work with. But, before you can address the problem, you need to know exactly what the problem is. Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” So, I invite you to think about the specific behaviors you want to address before attempting to solve the problem.