I’ve learned that someone can bring out the worst in me, and, if I’m not careful, I can do the same to them.
My little explosion
Years ago, I had called a meeting with two of our company’s project managers. I needed to show them how their projects did not meet certain regulatory requirements and recommend what needed to change. Weekly meetings like that were typical of all of our projects and they were seldom confrontational. But I hadn’t met these two people, yet, so I was aware of the need to build a productive and appropriately-friendly workplace relationship.
The meeting began with the usual handshakes and introductions. I thanked them for making time for the meeting and I began to explain the potential regulatory risks posed by their designs. But, about two minutes into my explanation, one of the project managers said, “Tom, when you smile I feel like you’re mocking us. It’s like you think you’re better than us.”
Immediately, a little explosion went off in my brain. Yes, I had been smiling, occasionally—I’m usually a pretty happy guy—but when he said that, I brought out my worst self and the meeting degraded into an argument.
What is bringing out the worst?
Bringing out the worst at work means actually causing someone to be defensive, depressed, anxious, confused, or nervous. Once they feel that way, everything they do or say will not be their best.
Why do we bring out the worst?
We often bring out the worst in people when we feel uncertain, afraid, or angry. In the workplace, and in every business relationship, we feel uncertain, afraid or angry when we lose too much power to the other person.
Losing too much power often causes us to say or do something that makes the other person feel defensive, depressed, anxious, confused, or nervous. When someone feels this way, we will experience their worst behavior. Of course, if they feel they are losing too much power to us, they will say or do something that brings out our worst behavior.
When it comes to bringing out the worst in people, it doesn’t matter who caused it. The only things that matter are how to stop it and how to start bringing out their best.
How can we reset bad workplace and business relationships?
There is a lot of very good social science research that shows that nearly all workplace conflict has a permanent, negative impact on relationships. I’ve written about the myth of positive workplace conflict and how to minimize conflict. But, can we turn a bad workplace relationship into a good one? Can we repair and reset these relationships?
The most we can sometimes do is to turn a bad relationship into a tolerable one. By tolerable I mean that each person is going to do the minimum for the other so that they can get what they need and minimize conflict. Just like the research shows, once damaged, most bad relationships can’t be turned into wonderful relationships.
Bringing out the best in people
Since bringing out the worst in someone, maybe only once, will cause permanent damage to a workplace relationship, our best strategy is to always try to bring out the best in people. Here’s how to do it.
#1 You always have power, so be careful
You have power in every workplace and business relationship, even if the only power you have is to end that relationship. And, other people in that relationship are aware of the power you have. Using your power can negatively impact others. That’s a threat to people and they often feel uncertain, afraid, or angry when threatened.
So, if you’re going to bring out the best in people, you need to make people feel safe in the presence of your power. People need to feel that they can challenge you, give you advice, and make mistakes without worrying that you will use your power. To make them feel safe, encourage feedback and be thankful when they provide it.
#2 All emotions are contagious, so be positive and helpful all the time
In nearly every social situation, emotions displayed by one person are immediately mimicked by others. It’s called emotional contagion and it’s been studied for decades. I’ll smile and you’ll smile—unless you’re that jerk I used to work with. You start sounding worried and depressed and I’ll begin feeling worried and depressed. Research also shows that people do their best work when they feel happy. If you want to bring out the best in people, be the first to be positive and cheerful, then stay positive and cheerful.
#3 Create safety, actual safety, before you bring up problems
No relationship is perfect. No one can read your mind to know exactly what you need. But remember, in #1, above, I said that you have power and that power can bring out the worst in people. So, how can you bring up problems without bringing out the worst in someone?
Your best chance of discussing problems in a way that does not create bigger problems is to be clear about one thing. You need to begin by clearly and sincerely showing that you will not use your power. They already know you have power, and you can use it in the future, but now is not the time to advertise it. Now is the time to do everything you can to make them receptive to your feedback. Make people feel safe.
You are not a punching bag
If you’ve done absolutely everything you can to bring out the best in people and they are still treating you poorly, then it’s time to accept the relationship for what it is and move on. There is another job out there for you. There are better places to work and better people to work with. You are not someone’s punching bag.
How do you bring out the best in people? Have you been able to repair damaged relationships? Please let me know by leaving a comment, below. Or, you can connect with me and comment on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Also, please share this article with your family, friends and coworkers.