• Sara Murdock

Dealing with colleagues: Good intentions, poor actions

Whatever your area of expertise, you probably know terms and skills that other people just don’t get. It's normal--a chef might struggle to code, a programmer might struggle to teach, a teacher might struggle to prepare taxes, an accountant might struggle to create a new consumer product.

In most cases, we feel fine about one colleague simply not “getting” what someone else brings to the table. Because we, after all, are not good at everything, either.

But what about when your boss constantly under-sells your skills? Or your team member constantly under-value your role? Once in a blue moon, this is pure maliciousness. But usually, it’s unconscious or simply habitual.

Example from my life: I’ve been introduced alongside male colleagues like I’m the assistant...

“Please meet Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones. And this is Sara.”

Of course, those of us who need assistants to get everything done should -- yes, I’m using the “s” word--be far more gracious with so-called support staff too. Try managing everything without them, I dare you!

So what to do? When someone botches your title or dismisses your contributions in public? The example I just gave is pretty simple… At a convenient time, I pointed out the discrepancy. I also noticed in later meetings that this person still struggled to get it right. He was struggling with consistency more than my reputation was struggling from his botched attempts!

In other words, your colleague’s actions and attitudes often point to their exhaustion, split focus, and having very little practice outside of what’s familiar to them. In other words, they’re grappling with being as human as possible.

At the end of the day, poor actions--especially those that impact others--are similar to being a total beginner. Only in this case, instead of being a beginner with a tangible skill, they’re a beginner when it comes to the ability to “see” others. Their preparation in respecting you happens on their own time because it’s an interior skill set that simply shows itself externally.

Here’s another example:

I’ve done more DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) trainings than I can count… and I’ve gotten mostly glowing feedback… yet despite years of experience and deep subject matter expertise, half the time people aren’t prepared to absorb the material.

A famous example that many DEIB experts can relate to is training on “equity vs. equality.” I completely understand that these sound basically the same to people who aren’t familiar with the field. The same way that I don’t really understand the difference between quantum and regular physics.

I’ve given trainings where people thank me profusely afterward… and then proceed to misunderstand and misuse concepts in the very next meeting. I definitely have to focus on good intentions instead of mediocre application in order to stay focused on my own work.

Perhaps another way to phrase this is that we all deserve the benefit of the doubt. But I’d suggest we take this a step further: just because your colleague has a fancy title, makes a lot of money, or otherwise “looks” impressive, they might need your guidance more than you need their respect. I don’t suggest we stick around for negligence, but I suggest we let them and ourselves off the hook.

And in the spirit of learning… that, my friends, might be the skillset that you need.