I was doing a presentation on how to be a supervisor when one of the participants shouted out, “My coworkers suck.” There was nervous laughter from the other people in the room. I was silent. I didn’t know how to respond and, in fact, if I should.
Suddenly from the other side of the room, someone said, “Mine employees do too.”
The laughter was less nervous and more in agreement.
“Raise your hand if your coworkers suck,” I said to an uproar of laughter. Many of the people in the room raised their hands.
As a workshop facilitator, at that moment, I was calculating the amount of time left and the amount of work yet to be done against the need to unpack this topic.
I decided to go for it.
“What do you mean when you say your coworkers suck?” I asked the group.
It was the typical list of complaints that you would expect from coworkers. They don’t listen. They don’t communicate. They are lazy. They don’t do their work. They are always asking me to do something. The quality of the work sucks. I am constantly fixing their mistakes. They steal my lunch.
But there was also an undercurrent of a darker side of work. They mistreat me. They talk behind my back. They don’t listen to me because I am (insert ethnic background). . . They give me funny looks when I walk in. They stop talking when I walk in. They judge me on my religion, race, ethnicity, age, gender, etc. (See the PostScript)
As we continued to unpack it, I could feel the room fall into the dreaded blame game. Those people are terrible, and I am the perfect vibe. I decided to ask a simple question.
“Do you think you could be the coworker that sucks for one of your team members?”
The room went silent.
It is a tricky question to answer.
Changing the subject, I asked, “What does it mean to be a good coworker.”
It is an important question to ask ourselves, our teammates, and our organization. What does it mean to be a good coworker in our workplace? Or what traits or characteristics do you value in your coworkers.
These traits will vary from team to team, from organization to organization, and from industry to industry, so there needs to be a conversation at your workplace about what it means to be a good coworker and the expected behaviors. When I am working with organizations, we work on creating a set of values for the team. After the values are decided, we choose how the values are expressed behaviorally.
For instance, if the value is respectful, one behavior might be to listen before responding. Another behavior might be to treat each other fairly. It is a powerful exercise when done with the team because it gives everyone a chance to understand how value influences their behavior in the workplace.
Back in the workshop, we had a great conversation about what it means to be a good coworker. As you can imagine, with over fifty people in the room, there were a lot of opinions, but all of them were valuable to help in the organization’s success.
I asked, “Based on this list, are you a good coworker?”
Most people said yes, which is what I expected. I don’t know many people who would say, “Oh, yeah, I am a terrible coworker.” At least not in front of a group of strangers.
“Let’s look at this list,” I continued, “Think about that coworker that you think sucks at their job. Review the list and find at least one trait they excel at.”
“Raise your hand if you found at least one trait.”
Everyone in the room raised their hand.
“Did you find more than one?” I asked. Most of the participants were nodding.
“So, your coworker doesn’t universally suck?” I asked half in jest. There was laughter around the room.
It is a critical lesson that supervisors and managers need to understand. Every employee has traits that make them good coworkers and characteristics that make them bad coworkers. Leaders must provide the necessary knowledge, abilities, systems, resources, and guidance to make our employees productive at work. We cannot do that until we know what they bring to the table and what they do not. Telling them they suck doesn’t benefit anyone.
PS: It saddens me to see these issues (discrimination, harassment, disillusionment, etc.) in the workplace. As an organization, you cannot tolerate it. Executives, Managers, and Coworkers must address these issues immediately.
Some steps I recommend.
1. Have a no-tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
2. Make sure everyone feels they belong in your organization no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, and disability status.
3. Train your team about respecting others.
4. Provide a clear process for communicating harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
5. Take Action.
Check out my workshops that help leaders and coworkers work better together. (learn more here)