Three steps to help with tough working relationships

Sharing timely, kind feedback is the best way to shed the mental weight of a hard work situation.
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That feeling when you dread a meeting

Can you remember a time when you really dreaded meeting with someone at work? We’ve all been there: the pit in your stomach. Crossing your fingers and hoping it’s canceled. Thinking it’d be much easier to send an email than to deal with this person directly.

But we have to work with people, every day — and sometimes working with people is hard.

I’ve dreaded a lot of interactions during my two decades in tech. Early in my career especially, I would spend so much mental energy leading up to conversations with certain people — overpreparing, worrying about how they’d respond, trying to control it all with a strict agenda.

It usually turned out like this: the meeting was fine, not great. We did what we needed to do. I felt much better when it was over and told myself not to worry next time.

But I didn’t feel any better about my relationship with this person.

Now, as manager for a team of software engineers, I’m often in the position to counsel others in situations like this. I care deeply about the people I work with at Pixo, and I don’t want them to exhaust their energy or lose the joy that comes from collaboration. Part of my job is to help people navigate tough relationships, and I’ve found a few strategies along the way that work.

How do you shed the mental weight?

1. Recognize the root cause.

When you dread working with someone, it’s for a reason. In every case I’ve experienced, these feelings have been a sign that: 

  • the person is not aware of your feelings (or they’ve been told something by someone else, but it’s not the whole truth), and
  • the person may not have the same feelings toward you, but they are unhappy with their current work situation.  

Every time I’ve seen a toxic relationship fester, these two things have been true. So then what?

2. Tell them how they make you feel.

Ever considered telling the person how meeting with them makes you feel?

When someone comes to me with a problem, the advice I’ve given the most as a manager is: “Have you talked to them about it?” Easier said than done, but it almost never fails.

Taking these steps can stop toxicity from spreading:

  1. Tell the person the kind truth about how you feel when working with them (that is, share difficult feedback with compassion). Give specific examples so they have context.
  2. Tell them you’re worried they could be affecting others on the team too.
  3. Ask them if something is wrong, or if they are unhappy at work.

If you do this, then you’ve just turned in the right direction. You’ve given the person a chance to reflect and to make a choice about how to move forward. And you’ve given yourself the opportunity to shed that mental weight.

3. Tell them now.

Every second you don’t give the person feedback, you will continue to carry that weight.

But we often drag our feet, maybe saving it until their annual review. Or worse, we never share our feelings at all. Why? Because of fear and conflict avoidance.

Our performance-obsessed culture tells us that people are not good enough when we make mistakes. Many studies point to this as the reason why most people experience the fear that leads us to avoid conflict at all costs. And if you’re from the Midwest like many of us at Pixo (shoutout Central Illinois), you’ve had years of training in Midwest Nice — that form of politeness that can become passive-aggressive if you’re not careful.

The best thing you can do is address an issue in real time. This makes your feedback more relevant and meaningful to the person in the moment, and more likely to be received.

So go ahead: rip the Band-Aid off. Get it out there. If you feel anxiety about someone at work, consider telling them about it next week. If that feels ok, consider telling them tomorrow. If that feels ok, consider messaging them right now to see if they’re free. You can’t tell them soon enough.

Give your team (and yourself) the chance to grow

Dealing with conflict is healthy for relationships to flourish, especially in software development — when we’re solving tough problems across multiple disciplines for all types of people. By sharing feedback with a coworker, you’re giving that person an opportunity to see the issue and do something about it. They may not, but at the very least, you’ve accomplished a hard thing and prepared for a day when you might be on the receiving end of feedback yourself.

Want to hear more about engineering management? 

I’ll be speaking about why it’s worth taking the leap into tech leadership at the University of Illinois Web Conference on April 7. Register here.


Interested in joining our team?

Pixo cares a lot about the people who work here. We’re currently hiring for a software developer. If that’s not the role you’re looking for, get in touch — we’re always looking for curious people who love a good challenge.

Last modified on April 1, 2022