it takes two to tango

It takes two to tango

“We grow neither better or worse as we get old, but more like ourselves.”

May L Becker, writer

It takes two to tango. That’s what I thought when fellow career coach John Lees directed me towards an article about how not to be an old fogey in the office. Addressing the issue of working with younger people, it had lots of useful tips, like adjusting your language to be more hip (albeit not too hip); not banging on about past glories; getting in the habit of checking the time on your phone or PC rather than your wristwatch… ( yes, whoops, I didn’t even know that was a tell-tale sign of being long in the tooth). See ‘How not to come across like an old fogey on the job’ But it was totally directed at the oldies. I told John I’d write a guide to redress the balance

As much as older workers (and I’m not even going to get into definitions here) are seen as set in their ways, technophobic, unwilling to embrace change etc, youngsters are seen as thinking they know it all, too ready to make changes, more likely to spend time building their profile with the great and the good rather than getting on with the job and having a preference for glamorous initiatives over routine tasks.

Recognise any of these? Yes, I’ve seen and heard these but of course these attributes are all stereotypes and when have stereotypes been useful other than on the comedy circuit?

Hard to believe now, but I was a young upstart once. Actually, in those days I didn’t have the confidence to be an upstart but in my early 20s I was promoted over someone who was in her 60s and, boy, was that relationship hard to handle. Partly, no doubt, because we each had particular beliefs about each other, along the lines of the list above.

In reality, people are appointed to a job for a reason – it is believed that they can do the job. At the heart of working with people who are different (for of course this applies to race, gender, sexual preference and the rest) is understanding what their strengths are and what they have to offer in the workplace – in spite of any shortcomings, which of course we all have – not because we are old, young , black or Jewish, but because we are who we are, a particular person.

Humans are delightful bundles of attitudes, abilities, beliefs and behaviour. But when do behavioural quirks become a problem? In personal relationships, you hear people say things like ‘the problem with my marriage is that my husband has entirely different interests from me’. Presumably that was always the case but early on it was manageable, even delightful, and at some stage it became an issue and then often it becomes the worst kind of issue, the unspoken kind, and when it means that you behave with the expectation that’s it’s going to be troublesome, then it’s a problem.

So it is with work relationships. Take time to get beyond the stereotypes of old fogey or young upstart and get to know the individual underneath. As I said, it takes two to tango. Here are some tips:

  • Take responsibility for making the relationship work. Take time to get to know the other person – likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses and be honest about yours.
  • Understand areas of complementarity. Often people who are different are appointed specifically to create balance within a team, eg a detail-focused person to counteract a strong creative. Personality-profiling (eg Myers Briggs Type Indicator) can help a huge amount here by providing a ‘language’ which is neutral and non confrontational.
  • Listen, converse, don’t make assumptions.
  • Engage a mutual supporter who truly understands what each person has to offer and respects both. Usually this will be the appointing boss, though often a mentor from outside the direct line relationship can be valuable here.
  • Be aware of language you use – jargon is rarely helpful in building relationships.
  • Be professional. Don’t get sucked into office politics. Other colleagues might love to see a spat but don’t get drawn into bad-mouthing – it’s never going to reflect well on you. Support your new colleague and encourage open conversations.
  • Be open-minded. Don’t look for trouble or expect problems, eg they’re older so will struggle with email; they’re young so will inevitably have trouble getting up in the morning. See the person and not the stereotype.
  • No man is an island. Even if you’re being paraded as the best thing since sliced bread you need others. Ask others for advice and truly listen to everyone’s views. Be clear about what you need from others and don’t be afraid to ask for help, at the same time as being clear about what you contribute.
  • Keep a perspective on the long term. Quick wins are rarely worth it if they jeopardise long-term harmony in working relationships.
  • Focus on tasks and what needs to be delivered as a team and not individual personalities and style, particularly if problems arise. The latter encourages blame, whereas the former encourages results.
  • Adopt an approach of learning from each other. There are huge benefits from working with people who are different, so make the most of it.

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