You may prefer to work with people you like. Early in my career, I felt the same way. I figured if I was going to be spending so much of my weekdays with them, I should enjoy the majority of those interactions. I even made a few hiring decisions early in my career based partially on thinking that I’d enjoy working with the candidate. I’ve since decided that it’s much more important to trust and respect my coworkers. Liking them comes a distant second.
I’m not saying that I prefer to work with jerks. I just pay more attention to whether they behave with integrity and are willing to step up and make unpopular decisions, than to how much I’d enjoy working with them.
Trust and Respect
This first became clear to me well into my career when a coworker made the statement: “You don’t have to like the people you work with, but you do need to trust and respect them.” I thought this was a great way to express what I had come to realize myself but had never put in words: ‘It’s more important for my coworkers to do what’s best for the organization than to focus on keeping people happy.’
This may sound obvious, but it’s not so easy to follow in practice. It’s often said that we hire people they would like to work with, and I think that’s often true. If our coworkers are doing their job, however, they will occasionally need to make unpopular decisions. If someone consistently acts to align with consensus, are they making a significant difference in the organization?
I’ve had a number of examples in my own career that slowly awakened me to this truth. Some were people I liked working with but turned out to lack integrity and left me in very uncomfortable positions as a result. Others were people who initially struck me as too abrasive or too stoic, but consistently demonstrated high emotional intelligence or could be counted on to stand up and make the difficult or unpopular choice that we all knew was right.
This realization has led to improvements in my own working habits. I now subscribe to the maxim that if you are going to make a difference in an organization, you are probably going to piss some people off. I remind myself of this principle anytime I’m faced with an unpopular decision, and it helps me focus on the right action and not be persuaded by the anticipated feedback.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to hire someone based on liking them, because this is much easier to discern within the timeframe of an interview. Trust and respect take much more time. This is one reason why reference checking is so valuable. Specific questions can be used to determine how much previous coworkers trusted and respected the candidate and help a hiring manager avoid a very costly bad hire.
When it comes to the people you already work with, you may have less choice in the matter. When I first heard my coworker’s statement about liking vs. trusting and respecting, I agreed immediately. It took me much longer to realize that I was currently working with people I enjoyed being around but didn’t trust. I’d allowed my enjoyment of working with them to obscure a growing realization that they were not acting with full integrity. I suppose I didn’t really want to admit this to myself, because then I’d have to make a difficult decision to either consciously accept the situation or leave the company. So, I kept plugging away at my projects, hoping it would get better, failing to admit to myself what the problem truly was.
But of course, it didn’t get better. In time I came to realize that the problem for what it was, a company culture that enabled behavior I didn’t agree with. It became clear to me that my biggest frustration was not actually from the details of my work, but the fact that my values were not aligned with the values of the organization. That disconnect is so much bigger and so much more fundamental.
Once I realized it was a culture problem and not just related to individual people, I knew what I had to do, and I resigned my position. I had been frustrated for some time, but had neither fully recognized the issue, nor had I realized how it was standing in the way of my career goals.
Don’t make my mistake. Be clear with yourself about your values, and then work hard to find people you trust and respect to work with. Don’t worry so much about whether or not you like them. You are there to make a difference, not to make friends.