Arnold Kling  

Getting Along in Business

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A reader emails:


I am low on agreeableness with people at my place of work...I am interested in knowing what you have learned about how to get along with co-workers and overcome low Agreeableness. I think that people who are not naturally gifted in an area are often best suited to teach it because they have had to really understand it and work at it.

Let me offer three tips.

1. Separate ideas from people. At a meeting, instead of saying "I like Joan's idea" or "I dislike Fred's idea," say, "I like the idea of doing X" or "I dislike the idea of doing Y."

Even when it is obvious whose idea it is, talking about the idea in impersonal terms helps to defuse a lot of the emotion that goes with it. Surprisingly, even when you agree with someone's idea, they often feel more comfortable if you express that agreement impersonally.

2. Express yourself gently. In fact, "I like" or "I dislike" is often too strong. Better to list pros and cons.

Instead of saying, "Writing our new Web application in COBOL would be insane," say, "one concern with writing the Web application in COBOL might be...."

Remember that the stronger the basis for your position, the less emphatic you have to be in stating your case.

3. When you encounter personal criticism, take it as constructive. If you cannot find a way to see it as constructive, ask a friend to help you find a constructive aspect to it.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

I like Arnold's suggestions.

Joshua writes:

A further piece of advice: learn to let go. Once a decision is made, even if it's not the one you would prefer, let it go and do your best to implement it (if that's your job) or ignore it (if it's not part of your job). One thing that people who are low on Agreeableness seem to have trouble with is dredging up old arguments and disagreements over and over again. They don't seem to realize how this comes across as nursing a grudge and being disagreeable for the sake of being disagreeable; they probably see it as being true to their convictions and sticking to their guns, but it's a quick way to become cordially loathed and poison people against all their ideas.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Arnold, as someone who is also low on agreeableness I would appreciate more posts of this kind.

Dan Weber writes:

Prefer "I disagree" over "you're wrong."

Les writes:

Sorry, but I like disagreeable people. I much prefer to know what they think and where they stand, rather than have to guess what that bland, inoffensive person might have in mind - that is if they even have a mind of their own.

Yes, I know one has to go along to get along. But a little of that goes a long way. Hypocrisy may be diplomatic, but its too sugar-coated to taste good.

steve writes:

I largely agree with Arnold's points. However, as an engineer, I often find some of my associates biggest gripes center around the belief that they did not receive enough credit for their ideas. As a result, when supporting an idea I always make it clear when it is not of my own origination. Sometimes making explicit attributions, sometimes not, depending on the individual involved.

Even when I believe it is my idea, I will tolerate someone else claiming credit (i.e. usually the boss) as this seems to greatly increase its likelyhood of adoption. Plus, I find people seem to recognize you as a valuable champion of good ideas even when you don't receive formal credit for the idea itself.

Unfortunately, I think most engineers gripes about not receiving recognition for their good ideas is based more on the attitude of "What have you done for me lately?" rather then a lack of credit for their good ideas.

Horatio writes:

These are all good suggestions. Letting go is a big part of it, especially things that don't matter. Being low on agreeableness, you'll often get the "you're wrong!" impulse even when saying that creates no value. When situations like that come up, just keep your mouth shut. If you disagree with something of no import, just keep it to yourself.

I learned to accept criticism my senior year of undergrad. We had to give a presentation on our research, but one professor was in charge of getting us ready for the presentation. We would practice in front of him a dozen times and he would tear the presentation apart. The thing is, most of his criticism was valuable, even if he did couch it in the most negative terms. After learning to accept his level of criticism, no one has been able to shake me with their criticism and I've become much better at seeing the value in it.

You should also learn to praise people. As someone low on agreeableness, you neither need nor are inclined to give praise, but most people are and it can make a big difference in your relationships if you let someone know they did a good job.

FGH writes:

A helpful framework is the P-A-C model, or Parent-Adult-Child, where the aim in adversarial discussion is to attain an Adult-to-Adult demeanor at all times in the exchange between the two parties. Personalized or talking down approaches (Parent-Child) either need to be walked away from or neutralized as best one can, per Kling's examples. It's goes to say that Child-Child, as represented by a shouting match, is useless.

Come to think of it, one could create a whole economic system based on the Parent-Child idea (nanny state), Child-Child (anarchy) or Adult-to-Adult exchange (free markets).

Joshua Herring writes:

This is one of Econlog's most useful posts, even if it's a bit OT. Thanks to Dr. Kling for the advice, and also to Joshua and Horatio. Personally speaking, I find Joshua's advice the hardest to follow. Letting old arguments go is definitely something I could work on. As for taking criticism, my experience is a bit at odds with Horatio's. I find it's like exercise: something that's easy and even enjoyable in a perverse kind of way when you're actively practicing at it, but that you can easily lose your ability at if you let it slip for a month or so.

John Fast writes:

I'd like to recommend some good books on how to be assertive (as opposed to aggressive) including Your Perfect Right by Alberti and Emmons, Responsible Assertive Behavior by Lange, and Managing Assertively by Madelyn Burley-Allen, which also includes sections on how to deal with one's boss and co-workers, not just subordinates.

Gary Rogers writes:

If you are not agreeable, make sure you are right. I would much rather work with a disagreeable person who who can think through a problem than someone who is agreeable and generally wrong. In other words, figure out what unique qualities you can add to an organization then develop your reputation and career path on those values. Be aware that you will probably not end up in customer service.

Vangel writes:

I remember a lesson I was given a long time ago about how to deal with ideas that did not make the cut. It went something like this.

Assume that there is a continuum of solutions from Bad to Perfect for the particular problem.


Bad..................................................Perfect


The first step is to figure out what is acceptable (A) for a solution.

Bad.........................................A.......Perfect


Suppose that you are given a solution on the wrong side of the spectrum. Directly telling the team or individual who provided the solution that it is not good is the wrong thing to do.


Bad...............X.........................A.......Perfect


The proper approach is to begin by pointing out the good parts of the idea. The parts of the problem that the idea solves should be listed and only after that is done do we point out what issues have not been addressed yet. Ask for ideas how to move the fix along to come up with something that will address all of the issues. Point out that there is no need to come up with the perfect fix at once but that various steps and attempts to find a solution is perfectly acceptable. The individual or team of individuals will come up with changes that further attack the problem and move the solution closer to being acceptable.

Bad...............X....X....................A.......Perfect


After enough iterations we should get a solution that is good enough to be accepted.


Bad...............X....X...X.....X......X...A...X...Perfect


At that point the process can stop and the individual or team is provided with the credit for the solution. Because every statement was factually correct and specifically addressed there is no BS in the process to offend or discourage anyone and there is a genuine sense of accomplishment.

If the process is followed over and over again the people involved get good at it and as competence and confidence improve will come up with solutions to problems much faster. By sticking to the facts the process is not subject to personality conflicts and the accomplishments are real. That is usually good for all involved.

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