Many years ago, in a company far, far away, I transferred into a new department. From the get-go, I liked all of my co-workers, with one exception – his name was “Walt.” Our journey on the road to a productive work relationship was a bumpy one filled with power plays, tension and avoidance.
The story below is not intended to malign Walt. He was a very professional, smart and talented individual. Rather, my goal in telling this tale is to share with you a lesson I learned about setting boundaries.
Shortly after my arrival in the department, tensions began to surface between me and Walt. I suspected that we were engaged in a power struggle of some sort, but for what type of “power?” We were peers and to my way of thinking, we had equal amounts of power within the team structure. Not being a pushover, I felt the struggle and began to push back whenever he tried to get the upper hand.
It all came to a head during one meeting in which Walt and I convened in a conference room to discuss a project we were working on. We had each brought several large reference binders into the room. As we stood up to leave after the meeting, I gathered my armload of materials. It was at this point that Walt picked up his coffee cup and moved, with otherwise empty hands, toward the door. He nodded in the direction of the binders he had carried into the meeting and tossed off, “Hey, grab those books for me, will ya?” and then turned to exit the conference room.
Now, here’s what was going through my head, “I am not your personal assistant, and no, I will NOT pick up your stuff!” Instead, I blurted something only slightly less severe, “What? Are your arms broken?” Walt turned and stammered, “Well, I only….um. Geez!” A tense silence ensued. Then he offered, “I didn’t mean anything by that, I just thought. . .” He trailed off. I countered with, “I think you are perfectly capable of carrying your own stuff back to your office.” Which he in fact did do immediately after I stormed out of the conference room.
I’d love to say that this outburst provided the catalyst for a meaningful conversation between two colleagues about respect and boundaries. In a perfect world, that’s what would have happened, but instead we each acted as if the whole blow-up hadn’t occurred. Yeah, yeah, I know, “avoid the co-worker” isn’t exactly high-quality interpersonal advice. But here’s the upside – I drew a line in the sand. Drawn somewhat clumsily, yes, but drawn nonetheless. Prior to this, either I was inadvertently signaling to Walt that he could push me around or he was testing to see how far he could push me. In either case, from that point on, the power struggles stopped. We were able to work on getting to know each other’s talents and build upon that knowledge to create a more productive working relationship.
Once we stopped trying to prove who was more “powerful” (or smarter or better-liked by the boss or whatever the heck we were trying to prove), we were able to bridge the substantial gap in our affinity for one another. I discovered that Walt and I shared a similar educational background, having even attended the same undergraduate program at the same university. This led to us “talking shop” about human performance technology which in turn helped me learn a bit about Walt and his family.
Did Walt and I end up becoming the best of buddies? No. But we did learn to respect what each other brought to the team and that strengthened our team’s overall performance.
If a colleague is pushing you around, don’t be afraid to draw your own line in the sand. It’s tempting to wait for that “right” time, thinking you need a well-rehearsed, professional spiel in which to present your case. That’s great in a perfect world, but sometimes perfection doesn’t cut it. Sometimes a less-than-perfect yet direct route gets the job done just as well.
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