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Coach's corner--June 30, 2008

Be direct in tackling communication problem with peer

The Client
Name: Phil
Age: 53
Title: Infrastructure manager
Time with company: Six years 
Industry: Healthcare
Issue: Overcoming challenges with peers
Q.  I haven't been able to successfully partner with a peer. He's friendly in meetings, but he doesn't answer e-mails, return phone calls or attend scheduled one-on-ones. It's important for us to have a strong working relationship and it doesn't feel right to go over his head. How do I overcome this?

A. Being direct is your best bet in this situation. But the tactics you use will depend on the underlying causes of the situation.

The inner game
Start by getting any anger or frustration you feel out of your way. To move forward with your colleague, you need an internal fresh start.

Then, think about his behavior. Is it just you, or does everyone get the same treatment? If it's widespread, it's mainly related to his ability to manage his work. In that case, find alternate ways to reach him, including catching him in hallway conversations or enlisting help from his administrative assistant.

If he's responsive to others, consider the causes of his lack of responsiveness to you. Your relationship seems cordial, so it probably isn't personal dislike. Instead, there may be power struggles between your bosses, a low sense of urgency about your needs or other political dynamics in your company. Also realize that, from his perspective, you may have dropped the ball; take responsibility for your role in the communication breakdown.

Once you've drawn your conclusions about the underlying issues, plan your next steps, including direct conversation and alternative approaches to use if you don't get his attention.

The outer game
Your best first step is to talk to your peer, being as clear and direct as you are in your question above. This may be all that's needed, regardless of the causes. If he's overwhelmed, it may give him a wake-up call. At that point, you can work with him on the best way for you two to share information or make decisions.

However, if you're bearing the brunt, then calling him on it will show him that you don't accept that level of treatment. It also puts him on notice that you'll bring the situation to higher levels, if necessary. In this type of situation, being passive could cost you in terms of results or reputation for effectiveness, so you need a positive but clear way to get your point across.

If talking with him doesn't resolve the situation, assess whether you should involve others, either to intervene with this colleague or to get you what you need to succeed in your work. Be sure that you've resolved any inner animosity so that your contacts with others are focused on the business needs. Any negative tone is apt to rebound against you, so it's worth the time to complete your inner work. Then, let him know the steps you've taken so it's clear that you're not going behind his back.

The last word
Failure to follow through can be driven by workload, indifference or political game-playing. Regardless of the cause, direct and open communication followed by appropriate action helps you get what you need while maintaining your strength in the organization.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted June 29, 2008
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