I’m reminded of something I learned a long time ago about relationship dynamics in the workplace – from the Zen master of leadership Renn Zaphiropoulos.
Teamwork is critical to moving fast. I wrote in the past how trust is simply more efficient. It allows people to share risky ideas, make decisions quickly-learn-change, and to be safe so they do so again and again. I have no respect for attacking behavior in the workplace – it’s immature and destructive and hurts the team. I’m frustrated sometimes in silicon valley with the cult of the technical jerk savant (ref The Social Network film – note the object of the cult is almost always a white male – and I guarantee they are not always white). The vast majority of hard working technical professionals are not like that and quality companies follow the No Asshole Rule (ref the book on Amazon) and don’t tolerate the behavior.
Attacking behavior often arises between people who have not developed a conscious relationship of mutual respect and so the relationship deteriorates to one of mutual contempt. This is because the Respect-Contempt imbalance is inherently unstable. It’s too caustic for the one held in contempt to sustain so survival skills require the relationship degrade into mutual contempt.
The leader’s role is to help each person see and learn to respect the strengths of the other, even if their role and contribution is very different. Everyone has a role to play and value to contribute or they would not be here. (It’s also important for us to try to weed out the bad behaviors during the interview process; looking for arrogance and disrespect for others being subtly communicated as the candidate reviews their history.)
The hardest role to be playing is the person who is being attacked by an intellectual bully in the team. I have seen this at the peer level, rarely see it down the power hierarchy these days in technology (good people simply leave) and see it surprisingly often up the power hierarchy. It’s easier to take cheap shots up at your management because they just have to take it – they should not attack back (although that’s a matter of style choice – I know one former CEO who would intentionally verbally obliterate disrespectful employees – but it’s not my style choice).
In all cases my advice to the person being attacked is take the high ground. It’s unlikely to be personal and it’s more likely to be about the other person and some threat they are feeling in the moment than it is about you. I was in a situation recently where this happened to me where I am a board member (it was a very difficult conversation with a member of management) and I worked hard to stay calm, listen, let the energy run it’s course, and then return to the problem at hand.
Respect builds over time, as does trust. And if you find yourself in a contempt-respect or contempt-contempt relationship ask for help. Your manager’s job is to help you with it.