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Rules & Collaboration at Work

If you have ever worked with, lived with, or been on a team with a group of people for more than a few days, you have likely found yourself frustrated, irritated, and exasperated over how someone isn't doing what they are "suppose to" be doing.  You have an idea about how things should go so that everyone's needs are met and sure enough someone is not doing it that way.

You might be tempted to review the rules with that person and give a reminder about his or her particular responsibilities. The underlying thought likely sounds something like this, "If I just tell him enough times about what to do he will do it." You assume here that this person has a need for information and clarity; that it was this lack of clarity that caused him to behave that way.

When you have been in a group for a while, it's unlikely that someone has not received the information they need about roles and rules.  So when you approach someone with irritation and a reminder about rules you are likely to encounter resistance in one form or another.

People naturally want to behave in a way that works for everyone when when there is a sense of mutual understanding and respect in the group.  Building rapport and relationship rather than reviewing rules creates the collaboration you are seeking.  If you find yourself irritated in reaction to someone's behavior, the first thing is to give yourself some empathy.  Name the irritation and ask yourself what need is not being met for you.  Here are some questions that can help you access needs:

  • What's most important to me here?
  • What do I long for?
  • What do I really care about?
  • If this person did what I am want him to do, what needs do I imagine would be met for me and our team?

Getting connected to the energy of your needs releases you from the contracted state of irritation.  Then other feelings might arise like worry or disappointment.

Once you are reconnected with yourself you have space to get curious about your co-worker.  You might guess at what could be going on in his or her world that would contribute to the behavior you have difficulty with.  You might make some guesses at feelings and needs alive for him or her.

You also could give some attention to what this person is doing that does meet needs for you.  It's easy to forget that there may be plenty of times when you are not irritated or even pleased.  You can create rapport in these situations by acknowledging what is working well for you, what you appreciate as often, or even more often than you point out what is not working.

When there is connection and genuine appreciation of the other, you can approach the difficult situation with genuine curiosity and caring.  In this atmosphere difficulties tend to clarify and resolve naturally.  Here is a basic format for initiating a conversation about someone's behavior that isn't working for you:

  1. State the two observations that conflict.  For example, "I heard you say in the meeting last week that you wanted to finish the project with Dale and this week I am hearing you say you can't get to it."
  2. State your own feeling and need:  "So, I am feeling frustrated and confused because I really want this project to go smoothly for all of us."
  3. Give the benefit of doubt:  "I know you care too so I am guessing something important must have come up for you."
  4. Make a request to create mutual understanding:  "I wonder if we could take 10 or 15 minutes now and if you would be willing to share what's up for you with this?"

Even as you follow these steps and speak from an authentically curious place the other person may not trust your intention right away.  Unfortunately, a lot of us having previous experiences that create fear of criticism and punishment and thus the impulse is to answer defensively.  If the other person answers defensively, stay with them.  Offer reassurance about your intention and make your request again.  The key is to ignore the content of the defensive response and continue to go after mutual understanding.


Take a moment now to reflect on a co-worker with whom you react to with irritation.  Notice the jackal show regarding him or her.  Notice your story and name your own feelings and needs.  Then imagine having a conversation with this person in which you go through steps 1 throught 4 named above.

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4 Responses

  1. Jul 01, 2010

    Great gem! Is there more to the last paragraph?

  2. Jul 02, 2010
    Tam An Tran

    Yeah, it never works to 'remind' someone of the 'rules' that they are not doing their share of the work, etc. I know this because it does not work with me. I value direct honesty and patience. Patience I need to work on a lot; direct honesty is also something I need to work on in terms of effectively and honestly expressing my frustration at having to do all the work, etc. or bseing honest and say that I am not feeling well, am too tired and will make up for it tomorrow or whenever and as soon as I feel I can. At the same time, it IS my responsibility to put myself in the other person's place and realize that at times, I too, need to be told again and not yelled at or despised because I forgot 'the rules.'

    The last sentence does seem to end in mid-air! Should it be there in the first place? Perhaps you could clarify this for us or is it the computer I'm using?

  3. Jul 03, 2010

    oops you are right there's a typo, thanks.

  4. Jan 08, 2014
    Tricia Armstrong

    I've mostly used this approach to collaboration in my family and the process and results have been so peace-filled...warms my heart to think about the connection that's created :-)

    Happy New Year!

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