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Why Your Peers Can’t Stand Working With You


This is a guest post by Scott Eblin, author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. Scott is also an executive coach, speaker, and blogger. He is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, president of The Eblin Group and graduate of Davidson College, Harvard University, and Georgetown University’s leadership coaching certificate program, where he is also on the faculty. Scott has generously offered to send four free copies of his newest edition of The Next Level to the first four people who thoughtfully respond to the questions at the bottom of this post (that means that there is some decision made on what “thoughtful” means – i.e., just commenting may not get you a free book).

My work as an executive coach involves looking at a lot of 360 degree feedback reports. Like anything else in life, if you look at enough data points you eventually see the patterns and connections. One of the patterns I see in the 360 data on leadership behaviors is that peers are typically the lowest rating group for any given executive. They rate lower than direct reports, direct managers and the participants’ self assessments.

Why is that? Well, it’s a little risky to generalize, but we can draw some conclusions by looking at some of the trends in the database I have for the 360 degree leadership survey that’s based on my book, The Next Level. Here are some of the behaviors that are in the bottom 25% as assessed by the peers of the high potential leaders I work with:

  • Regularly takes time to step back and define or redefine what needs to be done.
  • Tailors his/her communications style to the needs of the particular audience.
  • Demonstrates an understanding of the impact of his/her comments on the morale of the organization and makes appropriate choices.
  • Takes time to get to know his/her peers and their interests.
  • Seeks to understand others’ points of view and goals by asking open ended questions.
  • Achieves results through others rather than by himself/herself.

So, do you see any patterns or connective dots in those items? Here’s the story that I come up with. These items paint the picture of someone who is so singularly focused on their own stuff that they fail to recognize or incorporate into their agenda very much that’s important to others. They over focus on short term results and under focus on relationships. Executives with this profile are long on “me” and short on “we.” Leaders who operate in this mode lose their peers in no time flat.

What’s the recovery plan? The low rated behaviors listed above hold the seeds of change. Some simple action steps to strengthen connections with peers could include:

  1. Asking peers what’s important to them and how you could help.
  2. Following through on item 1.
  3. Visualizing the impact of your comments before you speak and adjusting if necessary.
  4. Spending some “non-agenda” relationship building time with peers.
  5. Asking for help.

What’s your take? What’s the most effective thing a peer has done to improve his or her working relationship with you? What do you wish your peers would do on a regular basis? What have you been meaning to do yourself but haven’t gotten around to yet?



15 Responses to “Why Your Peers Can’t Stand Working With You”

  • Juan:

    Asking peers what’s important to them and how you could help.
    Following through on item 1.
    Visualizing the impact of your comments before you speak and adjusting if necessary.
    Spending some “non-agenda” relationship building time with peers.
    Asking for help.
    What’s your take? What’s the most effective thing a peer has done to improve his or her working relationship with you? What do you wish your peers would do on a regular basis? What have you been meaning to do yourself but haven’t gotten around to yet?

    I had recently the opportunity to be promoted to a sales manager position, when I was an individual contributor, everything depended on my own motivation, obviously I learned how to work with others to make things happen, now I am learning how to get results thru others, by leading and teaching to try to duplicate results.
    My first goal was to understand each of my direct reports everything about them, their needs, wants, dreams, family, to meet their family, have them meet my family.
    At the same time – I had to clearly understand what my company expected from me, and really believe on it.
    Then my next goal was to align my company’s goals with my employee’s goals, in other words clearly show them if we followed our execution plan what results/impact would they have, positive or negative, if we failed what would happen as well. That way I am trying to keep it real. This is an ongoing task, and it is at the individual level.
    It is not easy, when you have to sell your vision of what could happen if we do this or that, I am sure this book will help me greatly.

  • Deborah Kenney:

    Although it was rated in the bottom 25%, “Tailors his/her communications style to the needs of the particular audience” might still be useful for strengthening connections if it was phrased in a different way. I appreciate when my peers understand and respect my communication style, but simply focusing on communication style alone is not enough. Communication should also involve an understanding of a peer’s personality style. For example, my peers understand that I welcome challenging debate and discussions, but I dislike long sessions of “small talk.” Because my peers understand and respect my personality differences as well as differences in communication styles, we have a much more productive working relationship. In turn, I understand that “small talk” is important to several of my peers, and I make the effort to participate; not necessarily because it is important to me, but because I know that it is important to my peers.

    I would rephrase the quoted behavior as “Understands and respects the personality and communication styles of peers and adapts his/her discussions with peers accordingly.”

  • Gayle Ely:

    With my natural style being task oriented (vs people oriented), I have had to work at building relationships as I have moved up in my organization. Sharing this journey with persons in our Leadership Development Program, I got the question “If task oriented is your natural style, why work on being someone other than who you are naturally?” My answer was simple, “Because I like the results.” Relationship building has resulted in greater effectiveness and personal satisfaction in my position and career.

  • Regardless of whether my comments meet the definition of “thoughtful”, I appreciated this post, am interested in reading more about these survey results and do have a few other recovery exercises to offer:

    Sometimes high performers don’t consciously consider the importance of a common aim. Even if the high performer has the ability to set goals and acheive them at a higher level than others in their organization, long-term achievement isn’t possible unless everyone is pulling in the same direction. The ability to identify and articulate a common aim, and to continue to align oneself and others with that shared aim, is one of the most valuable skills a leader can develop. And since it’s not possible to articulate a common aim in term of “I” or “me,” it becomes natural to begin speaking in terms of “we.”

    A second technique that can be helpful to a high performer learning to develop his or her leadership skills is what I’d call “in spite of/because of” self-inquiry. Sometimes the skills or attributes that lead to high performance on a sole contributor level aren’t the same as the attributes or skills that result in effective leadership. Some key questions that can be helpful this regard are:”Have I reached my current position because of this (specific skill/attribute), or in spite of it? Will I be able to develop my leadership potential going forward in spite of this skill/attribute, or because of it?

    Thanks for the post and for encouraging the dialogue.

  • Mark:

    An interesting list of actions and activities, ones to utilize as a manager. As one whose manager is lost when it comes to operating under these six behaviors, I find it necessary to pay special attention to such things, so as to provide those around and below me with a different, better perspective and operating style. Thanks for the reminder of how to function.

  • James Flanagan:

    As I understand this, the task is to “respond to the questions at the bottom of this post” and those were; What’s your take? What’s the most effective thing a peer has done to improve his or her working relationship with you? What do you wish your peers would do on a regular basis? What have you been meaning to do yourself but haven’t gotten around to yet?

    My take on your post is subjective. You seem to be focused on communication styles and their effect on the profficiency of the subject of the 360 evaluation yet openly you state that these are in the bottom 25%? Are you implying that the 75% rated above these examples are in some way hindered or influenced by the area’s that the individual needs to improve on?

    Throughout my working career I’ve always focused on customer service and my single biggest challenge was learning to distinguish between internal and external customers. That experience however has taught me that these customer groups are not exclusive of each other but synonimous. My focus had always targeted one group as more valuable than the other but in the end what I found out was that my single biggest challenge was that simple question of perception on my part.

    The flood gates opened up for me on day one. When I listened more, so did they. When I explained my thoughts and needs clearly, so did they. When I started to understand their needs, they started to understand mine. When I recognized their communication style, they responded accordingly. In short, our cohesion as a unit improved and this has since driven proficiency and productivity higher. Win / Win ..

    If I had a wish to wish, I’d wish that my peers, contemporaries, and direct reports would simply recognize that we go to work each day to “work”. I come to work because I enjoy what I do and I sincerely believe that what I do and the service I provide is important to everyone. I truly couldn’t dream of a better job (perhaps being paid to fish would be an exception) but it truly annoys me when folks can’t concentrate on the tasks and needs at hand.

    What I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t gotten around to is to read more and to further challenge myself to grow professionally and experience more. I’m certain that there are bigger challenges ahead for me. I’m equally certain that they will present obsticals that I have not yet encountered in my 25 year career in federal service. I’m sincerely looking forward to what’s ahead for me but then I’ve already explained that. I enjoy going to work and so should you or you should find another job where you will because life is entirely to short for regrets. Especially at a place where you will spend 1/3 of your life.

  • Scott, here is my take on how to establish a strong working relationship with your peers:

    It’s all about giving. Give, give and give with no strings attached.

    Our peers are part of our circle of influence. Whether we deliberately ask for help or accept help, we influence them and they influence us in one way or another. The key is to realize that the influence channel already exists and then work on developing your intent to influence.

    You want to influence your peers positively, by generously giving and generously accepting. Just like with any other relationship in our life, when we realize the value in the relationship, we become committed to it. Soon we will become accountable to one another. And true value is not measured by what you get in return but by how much you give.

    We start with giving.

  • Interesting findings. I was just talking to Wally Bock today about how peers are often the most accurate raters, and possibly also the lowest.

  • Mary Jane Reed:

    The key action steps that you have outlined are right on target, but they require listening skills. I find that busy leaders try to practice good listening with their direct reports and boss…but often lose patience when listening to the needs of their peers..this is the underlying reason why leaders often lose this key group of stakeholders.

    I would add one other action item: Schedule a lunch or coffee once a week(with no agenda)with a peer. Over the course of a few weeks/months, the leader will gain considerable insight…if he or she listens more than talks.

  • Thanks everyone for the very thoughtful comments through 4:15 pm on Friday. I’d like to take the opportunity to engage on a number of the points you’ve made and thoughts you’ve shared.

    Juan, I admire your attention to and intention with your team. In reading your story, I was reminded of Bill Bridges Four P’s model – what’s our purpose? what’s the picture of the future as we fulfill our purpose? what’s the plan for creating that picture? what part do each of us play in the plan? For me, that sort of framework bridges the needs and expectations of the organization as a whole and how a specific team fits in. Hope that might be useful to you.

    Deborah, great points about communication. I probably need to work on my own as the point I was trying to make is that most high potential leaders could and should do a better job of tailoring their communications. In my book, I call it picking up custom fit communications and letting go of one size fits all communications. The simple way I think about custom fit communications is that it’s outcome oriented and audience specific – how does this group or person need to be engaged so that we get to the desired outcome or come up with a better one together?

    Gayle, good to see you on Mary Jo’s blog since you’re a regular commenter on mine. Love what you said. It reminds me of something a leader once told me – I don’t need to change who I am, I just sometimes need to change what I do.

    Elizabeth – couldn’t agree more. Lots of high performers are originally designated as such because they’re great at getting stuff done. Their focus on that can limit their attention to what others are trying to get done. Needless to say that can create challenges with the others – their peers. The distinction I’ve made for leaders on the rise is that you need to pick up looking left, right and diagonally as you lead and let go of primarily looking up and down as you lead (up to the boss and down to the team).

    Mark – sounds like you’re performing a valuable service in your organization. Take care of yourself!

    James – again, it’s clear to me I didn’t communicate my point very well. The behaviors I listed are VERY important, they’re just the ones that the leaders in my database were rated low on by their peers. Your point about listening is spot on. There are several items in the Next Level 360 instrument related to listening behaviors. Whenever I have a client with lower scores on listening I encourage them to focus on that skill because the ripple effects of improving there are so broad and positive.

    Raj – agreed. Give before you receive.

    David – Yep. The peers can be the toughest critics. Maybe it’s a case of the things that annoy us most about others are the same as the things that annoy us most about ourselves.

  • Patrick:

    Mary Said that some simple action steps to strengthen connections with peers could include:

    Asking peers what’s important to them and how you could help.
    Following through on item 1.
    Visualizing the impact of your comments before you speak and adjusting if necessary.
    Spending some “non-agenda” relationship building time with peers.
    Asking for help.

    I want to add another suggestions which are:
    Try to know what your peers’ interests.
    Try to find what your peers’ difficult problems and talk with them even if most times you could not help them a lot.
    Don’t talk with them by purpose or when you need their help. You should contact with them without purpose and just for relationship.

    In here, I have another question about the last suggestion. What kind of help are you gonna ask them? How often? I think asking help in here should not be too often and too tough.

  • Casey O'Looney:

    Great blog post. I think there are three things that all peers could do to work together better: consider how your actions affect the group, appreciate each others work, and offer amends when you’ve wronged someone.

    First, think about how your actions may affect the group. For example, if you are working on a project and the client says they must have a new design by Tuesday, don’t wait until Friday night to open up the job. Open it up the same day the client asks for it to give everyone ample time to do their job.

    I work in client relations. Often we are seen as the “schmoozers”. I have been told my job is “easy” because I get to take clients to dinner. What my peers don’t see is the client getting mad, the time away from my family and upselling in order to make more money for our company and keep everyone employed. Don’t belittle or underestimate the roles each person is required to do.

    Lastly, the most important thing a peer has every done is directly apologize when they did something wrong. Not the casual – “I’m sorry” – but, a true amends where they acknowledged the wrong they did, said they were sorry, asked for forgiveness and then asked what they could do to remedy their wrong doing. Wow! My socks were blown off (and the wrong doing was immediately forgotten).

  • This is intelligent advice that seems common sense but is often not followed. I find the spending “non agenda time” so difficult given the pace of work these days. Usually, I find, however, that a social lunch truly helps in sharing information and ideas that benefit all lunchers. Thank you very much for these ideas.

  • I found this article by submitting “working with peers” in a google search engine and I appreciate the quick tips mentioned above. One of my biggest struggles as a leader is peer collaboration… I can be a “me” manager, which is not truly my intention, but how I am perceived amd I need tips on how to change my approach. I am looking forward to integrating the above tips into who I am and how I interact with my peers as I can see how using these techniques, along with a few more ideas, will help right any misperceptions and help with peer unity.

  • Hi Susan, I’m not sure if it helps you to know that your dilemma is not unique. Many leaders struggle with learning to be collaborative. Best wishes!

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Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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