I once joined a professional organization with a diverse membership. We met weekly and discussed industry-related research. Every member sought to grow professionally; most attended at least one yearly conference hosted by the organization so the members grew pretty close. But one of the members drove me nuts, honestly (isn’t that always the case?) She arrived late, laughed hysterically at inappropriate moments, and insisted on interrupting people. When she shared information, it didn’t seem to add value or substance. I whined to my mentor, who was a fellow member. She turned to me and smiled.
“Bethany, you learn something from everyone. You either learn who you want to be or who you don’t want to be. I guess you’re learning who you don’t want to be.”
Ugh. YES. But I didn’t WANT to learn from her! I wanted her to go away. She didn’t.
But I did learn from her. For a few more years, I sat through meetings with the obnoxious woman, who continued to exhibit the same behaviors. Nothing changed about the woman’s behavior. The only thing that changed was my attitude toward her.
It was a great lesson learned. I probably learned more from her than from many of the solid, professional, appropriate, timely, well-behaved members of the organization who had their ducks in a row. Now don’t get me wrong–I learned plenty from those people. We need excellent role models and mentors in the workplace. Without them, we’d have no idea how to behave appropriately, how to carry ourselves through crises, how to prevent and manage workplace conflicts, how to handle harassment and other touchy situations, and how to seek promotions without steamrolling others along the way. By all means, we need great leaders and strong colleagues who have it all together.
But we need to learn from our colleagues who are barely making it, too. We need those people who have so many personal problems that they’re doing well just to show up to work an hour late, hair disheveled, tear-stained mascara across her cheeks. We need the colleagues in the cubicles next to us who take 10 phone calls per day from their elderly parents with dementia. We need the supervisor who is a micromanager, unable to let go of counting every single bean. We need the one who simply cannot stop telling crude jokes (and gets himself fired as a result–please, dear God).
We need those people because we learn our best and hardest lessons–often gaining soft skills–from the people who are most intolerable, most obnoxious, most needy, and most broken. Do you know how I learned how to communicate competently in difficult situations? By working in difficult situations, time after time, with very difficult people. Want to know how I learned how to prevent conflicts while interacting with volatile people? By working with emotionally disturbed teenagers with criminal backgrounds and a history of abuse.
We often do not choose to learn difficult lessons in difficult moments and situations. But when we find ourselves in tough situations, we have a choice. We can let those situations make us better or bitter, as the saying goes. We can either learn and grow through the situation, or we can whine, complain, and claw our way out as quickly as possible, refusing to accept that there may be anything we could possibly learn from the people and conflicts surrounding us.
I’m not suggesting you should wallow in suffering or willingly expose yourself to demeaning, inappropriate, or dangerous situations at work. If you find yourself in a hostile work situation, fraught with harassment, bullying, or conflict, you ought to immediately take appropriate action (whether that means contacting your human resources director, filing a legal complaint, filing a police report, or searching for a new job). But if you’re just feeling disgruntled or miserable because you don’t like the people you work with, or you find that a few of your colleagues or supervisors rub you the wrong way, or you’re not fully appreciated in the workplace, perhaps there’s something you can learn or gain.
Remember that obnoxious woman I dealt with in the professional organization? She never quit attending organizational meetings. She even attended conferences with us. She never changed. But my attitude toward her evolved. I stopped expecting her to change, and over time, that helped me see her in a softer light.
Most importantly, I learned deep lessons: acceptance, tolerance, patience, and compassion for a woman who had some significant personal struggles. Hear this: I didn’t have to like her, and I never did. Her struggles didn’t excuse her professional pitfalls. But extending kindness to her didn’t harm either of us. And offering a simple prayer on her behalf didn’t hurt me either.
What are you learning from your most difficult colleagues (or supervisors)? What are they learning from YOU?
If your organization needs a speaker/presenter on workplace communication or other soft skill, reach out to me to discuss scheduling.