The comfort zone is nice, but choosing to engage with more challenging coworkers—even remotely—can make your work better.
It’s 2019: you’re in a meeting with your whole team and that one irksome colleague keeps talking over you and repeating your ideas as if they were their own. You sit there stewing for the remainder of the meeting, trying to think up a comeback, missing the points your other colleagues make. Later, you’re headed to your desk and you pass by a group coworkers chatting, but you don’t stop to engage because you’ve never really clicked with any of them. You smile hello and keep walking.
It’s a common scenario; the odds that you’re going to get along with everyone on your team are slim. So when remote work became the norm, one silver lining was the ability to consider your least favorite colleagues “out of sight, out of mind,” for much of the day. Suddenly, it was possible to exist on Slack channels with only your fave former deskmates, email chains with selective CC’s, and only endure the occasional forced interaction.
Life in a curated echo chamber of people we enjoy interacting with can seem peaceful—in fact, limiting interactions is one of the top tips for dealing with a disagreeable colleague—but ultimately, less diversity of thought can weaken your work and erode your relationships. Counter to common understanding, an echo chamber doesn’t just create a personal bubble of people more likely to agree with you—it results in distrust for everyone outside of that bubble. For a workforce, that level of division is poisonous.
Stepping out of the cocoon of your home office, where you can go entire weeks only interacting with those you intend to speak with, can benefit you in more ways than you might think—you just need to learn how to do it.
Friction makes sparks
Respectful, healthy debate has an important role in the workplace. The exchange of ideas, and the culture of learning and feedback that exchange engenders, supports collaboration and creativity. Of course, with any workplace encounter, the respect part plays a large role in feeling seen and heard.
That might be why a lack of trust between coworkers has been brewing since the world settled into remote work. According to the BBC, “Without in-person interactions to bolster our professional relationships, there’s more room to make negative—often unfounded—assumptions about our colleagues’ behaviors.” The consequences of this broken trust include diminished productivity, innovation, and motivation.
The limitations of video calls can also lead to increased miscommunications that don’t exactly cultivate a desire for more interaction. But, remember, interacting across the office aisle can highlight things you may be less aware of personally in a way that chats with your office bestie often won’t.
A diversity of ideas also comes from a diverse hiring strategy. Recent Wall Street Journal research confirmed that “socially diverse groups are more innovative and productive than homogeneous groups.” This definition of diversity ranges from sex, gender, race, age, and sexuality, and notably includes experience diversity, like career path and cultural differences.
According to Forbes, “A sense of complacency and sameness in thinking is more likely in homogeneous teams than in diverse teams. Differences among team members force each person to anticipate that there will be alternative and unexpected viewpoints to consider and evaluate.” When a consensus is easily reached, it’s probably because you haven’t yet considered every angle. It’s not that everything needs to be a battle, but if all the seats at the proverbial table are occupied by people who look or think the same, at least one piece of the puzzle is certainly missing.
It’s undeniable that diversity makes the workplace stronger. It’s essential, even. We’ve just been taught that conflict—even the reasonable, respectful kind—is scary. With differences of experience and worldview come natural disagreements. But friction doesn’t doesn’t need to be flammable—it just needs to be harnessed. During this remote work era, arming yourself with the approaches you need to understand and engage with those you’d rather not work with—to learn to see their input as an asset rather than a liability—is the key to a more harmonious and productive work life.
Finding the right approach
Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant has long-examined how people find meaning and motivation at work. His most recent book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, is all about the importance of rethinking and unlearning—namely, seeing the value in dissenting voices and learning to communicate more effectively with those who have them.
We’ve been taught that conflict—even the respectful kind—is scary. But friction doesn’t doesn’t need to be flammable—it just needs to be harnessed.
A powerful vision—yours or anyone else’s—can be a great motivator, but one vision should never supersede what’s best for the project. Grant explores how great business minds who are also known for a headstrong approach, like Steve Jobs, were made better by surrounding themselves with challengers instead of sycophants.
“The reality is that much of Apple’s success came from [Jobs’] team pushing him to rethink his positions,” says Grant in the Harvard Business Review. “If Jobs hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world.”
Grant posits that everyone has the capacity to change—the most rigid can flex, the most open-minded can put up walls; it’s all in the approach. In most cases, you just need to find the right key that fits the lock of a particular personality. Grant suggests learning how to let know-it-alls explain things until they can see gaps in their own knowledge; to let stubborn people seize the reins so they’re more open to considering alternatives; praising a narcissist to affirm your respect for them so they’re open to hearing you; and disagreeing with disagreeable people by countering with questions that require their solutions.
Knowing how to effectively deal with those who need challenging, and learning how to accept feedback from someone who grinds your gears, is all part of that cycle. “When leaders lack the wisdom to question their convictions, followers need the courage to persuade them to change their minds,” says Grant in his book. And that’s just it: it takes courage to stand up for what you think is right, as well as to admit that your plan could use some help. Just another reminder that, now more than ever, we’re all just doing our best.
Leaving the echo chamber
As much as adjustments to remote life have proven occasionally difficult, these types of unique problems represent growing pains worth enduring. If you find yourself in an echo chamber, it’s time to start stepping out of your comfort zone and begin challenging the parts of your working self that aren’t solely focused on setting up a home office or collaborating over a screen. You’ll find you’re already in good company.
“Many of my clients working remotely have reported that former strained relationships with co-workers have actually eased as the COVID-19 crisis has evolved,” says licensed clinical social worker and executive coach Maggie Craddock. The connection to more real aspects of colleagues’ lives—their apartment decor, their childcare woes, their more authentic physical presentation—has acted as a lowered veil. At the very least, the pandemic has demonstrated just how very human we all are.
Still, there are things you can do to reintegrate challenging relationships into your work life—again, relationships that are respectfully dissenting, not openly hostile or abusive.
Bring an empty cup to the table. Buddhists teach that you can’t have a truly open conversation if you approach someone with a cup that’s already full. That is, if you’re already firm in your assumptions and ideas, everything the other person says will filter through those assumptions and ideas—you’re not really listening. Consider that other people have useful thoughts that aren’t overpowering your own, but might bolster or even improve them.
Identify colleagues with whom your conversations should remain strictly about work. You can accept that a diversity of ideas is important in order to produce the best work possible, but you don’t need to exhaust yourself in the process. Learn when to engage and when to walk away.
If you’re already firm in your assumptions and ideas, everything the other person says will filter through those assumptions and ideas—you’re not really listening.
Get clear on your values as an employee and a person, and set boundaries when necessary. “Getting clear on your values can help with being able to set better boundaries because our values are our reason why,” says therapist Audra Potter. “If we understand why we’re setting boundaries, because they’re connected to values important to us, it’s easier to stay consistent.”
Use intent to your advantage. In the office, the basic concept of shared space meant that interactions could happen off the cuff (often when you didn’t want them to). The nature of today’s distributed workforce means that almost every interaction is an intentional one—and if you’re met with messages that aren’t to your liking you have time to form a response, with only the occasional obligation to smile and nod over video as you do so. When we have that luxury of time and space, we can be as kind, patient, and precise as we want to be. Taking advantage of this reality can result in more peaceful interactions and happier teams.
The bottom line is that while your echo chamber may feel safe, it’s more likely to bounce back ideas just like yours. And nothing groundbreaking ever came from playing it safe. Yes, breaking free of your comfort zone leads to friction, but that friction can unlock solutions that would have otherwise never been possible.
Finding common ground with someone is the first step to breaking down barriers and establishing the kind of communication that could one day lead to wonderful collaboration. But to find that common ground, you have to be willing to listen. With any luck, somewhere along the way you’ll learn to like that person you never understood—or at the very least learn something about yourself.