Among our most significant relationships are those with our professional colleagues. Many organizations have highly placed partners and executives who are very valuable to the organization but who also invariably seem to be at the center of turbulence. The costs of this conflict—in organizational energy, in peer and subordinate turnover—can be enormous. What’s more, organizations often too easily give up on changing the situation, believing the person “just won’t change.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know that such partners’ and executives’ behavior is in large part determined as much by the role they’ve assumed in the organization as it is by their individual character. This is why it is so hard both for the organization and the individual to break out of this “role-lock,” or to even see that it is part of the problem. We also know that the brain’s executive function remains “plastic,” i.e., changeable throughout our lives. These realizations means that such valuable partners, officers, and employees can indeed learn to make positive contributions not only to the bottom line, but also to the peace and tranquility of the organization.
Moreover, the hierarchical structure of most business organizations invariably creates one-up/one-down relationships that engender friction and conflict. Senior professionals often expect subordinates to perform as we would in similar circumstances. Thus, we are constantly disappointed, often failing to remember that our subordinates are not us. High-powered professionals are often so incredibly busy that it’s even difficult to take time to train subordinates, to give them the information necessary to most effectively complete assignments, or to even be clear about what we expect.
As a result, we often don’t get optimal performance. We may express frustration or irritation because our expectations aren’t met, hoping to encourage better performance by “punishing” substandard work. More often than not, this just increases subordinates’ anxiety, paralyzing them with fear and disabling their common sense. When senior executives are open to changing, we can learn to be far more effective managers.
More often, however, it will be up to the subordinate to adapt. This is not easy. Simply being a subordinate is uncomfortable for many; hardly anyone really likes being in a subordinate role. By definition, we do what our superiors ask even when that might not be what we want to do. We may have difficulty accepting criticism even when it’s constructive. We may be subject to criticism that we consider unfair. We are often suffering the natural insecurity that comes from inexperience and, as a result, may be hypersensitive to our superiors’ disapproval. We may suffer from the tension between ingratiating ourselves with our superiors and trying to have a life outside of work. While there’s nothing easy about being in such a position, subordinates can learn potent coping strategies that can turn depression and self-pity into a positive, empowered outlook. Moreover, they can learn to voice concerns in a way that they’ll not only be heard, but that will inspire a positive response.