Yunkai Zhou Co-founder & CTO, Leap.ai
Published on May 22, 2018
How to Work with Everyone

After publishing my Leap Moment “Work with Everyone”, a common question I got was “Sure, but how?” Today I will share some insights on how I learned to work with everyone.

1) ONE PERSON AT A TIME

The first tip I will share is this: don’t overload yourself and try to improve your work relationship with everyone at the same time. Do it one person at a time, especially in the beginning.

Let’s start by doing a quick exercise:

  • List the top 5 most important people in your work environment currently. These are the people who have the most direct impact on your work-related satisfaction. Your manager, team-lead, close working peer, and manager’s manager are all likely on this list.
    • Remember it’s really case-by-case, so choose carefully.
  • Now for each person on this list, assign a smoothness score between 1 and 5 based on your work relationship with that person.
    • 5 means very smooth
    • 4 means somewhat smooth
    • 3 means neutral
    • 2 means some friction
    • 1 means high friction
  • Now pick the person with the lowest smoothness score and begin to improve your work relationship with that person.
    • If there is a tie between multiple people, pick the one who works with you the most.

For the sake of convenience, let’s call this person Alex for the rest of this article.

By the way, if your lowest smoothness score on this list is 4, congratulations! You are already an expert on working with everyone, and I’m not sure if the rest of this article will help you much. Instead, I’d like to invite you to send me an email (yunkai AT leap.ai) and tell me your insights. I will consolidate insights from all of you and publish follow-up articles.

2) BUILD SELF-AWARENESS

Learning how to work with everyone actually starts with learning how to work with yourself. As your self-awareness increases, it becomes easier to work with others. As an aside, if you haven’t done so, I highly recommend signing up on our platform and take our self-assessment to start building self-awareness.

With Alex in mind, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • What are the things you consider yourself good at and Alex also agrees with?
    • These are your true strengths.
    • Focus on these, as these will strengthen your relationship with Alex.
  • What are the things you consider yourself not so good at and Alex also agrees with?
    • These are your true weaknesses.
    • You might think these are key areas to focus on. Surprisingly, these are actually easier to manage, and less critical in relationship building.
  • What are the things you consider yourself not so good at, but Alex doesn’t necessarily think so?
    • These are where you might be overly self-critical, but don’t need to be.
  • What are the things you consider yourself good at, but Alex doesn’t necessarily think so?
    • These are your blind spots that you need to be extra aware of.
    • These are often key issues that add friction to your relationship with Alex.

Next, think of a moment when you had a conflict with Alex. Time for some soul searching.

  • When the conflict occurred, what role did you play in causing the conflict? Did you play a part in escalating or aggravating it?
  • Why did you do what you did? Be honest - why did you do that?
    • Answering this question honestly is critical. Be truthful to yourself, and dig deep. This is when you will learn things about yourself that might surprise you. The deeper you think about this here, the more effective it is.
  • Is this behavior a recurring theme/thing for you? Did you exhibit similar behaviors or thinking in other settings either with Alex or with someone else?
    • If the answer is ‘yes’, congratulations! You found something intrinsic about yourself. This is a major milestone.
    • For example, one of the things I learned about myself through these soul searching exercises was that I get most frustrated when I feel - maybe subconsciously - that my time was being wasted. When this is triggered, I quickly go from being calm and collected to outwardly expressing frustration like a step function. After I became aware of this part of myself, I was able to start controlling this better.

I like to summarize the self-awareness piece like so:

“When <this scenario> happens, I tend to <take this action>, which makes things worse.”

Moving on, think of a time when you worked well with Alex. Ask the same set of questions, and summarize it as:

“When <this scenario> happens, I tend to <take this action>, which makes things better (or run smoothly).”

Great, now you have 1/3 of the ammunition to tackle this relationship problem.

3) SINCERELY APPRECIATE OTHER PEOPLE

The second part of building your relationship with Alex is focused on, well, Alex. It’s important to learn how to sincerely appreciate everyone. No matter how bad your relationship is with Alex, there must be something that this person is really great at.

Write these points down: “Alex is really good at <these things>; I really appreciate Alex for <these things>.” Then read these points out loud to yourself. (Of course, do it when no one else is around, if you don’t want to appear like a weirdo.) Seriously, read it aloud; reading it in your head doesn’t count. For whatever reason, our brains start to rewire when we incorporate more senses into our learning processes. That’s why it’s important to hear the sound of your own voice during this process.

Please do not fake your appreciation. The things you listed should indeed be traits or actions that you genuinely believe. They should be heartfelt. Superficial appreciation often gets the opposite effect.

You need to remember these points and internalize them. Once you internalize them, you’ll realize your viewpoint about Alex gradually changes towards this person’s strengths, instead of gravitating towards their weaknesses.

Now, I’m not saying you completely ignore Alex’s weaknesses. You want to have a thorough view of Alex, but in your work relationships, the key to long term success is really understanding and leveraging strengths more, while avoiding things that expose weaknesses.

4) ASK "WHERE CAN I HELP?"

The third step in solidifying your work relationship is related to both you and Alex. Since we just discussed the idea that Alex has weaknesses too, this means that there are things Alex needs help with. Those needs represent opportunities for you to build some rapport. Put yourself in Alex’s shoes and think, “If I were Alex, what are my goals? What are some challenges I face? What do I need help with?” List a few things you believe Alex would need help with and then try to match the support you can offer with that list.

Be careful and differentiate between “where you think you can help” and “where Alex agrees you can help”. Have you ever experienced someone who tried to offer help when you didn’t actually need it? Did you appreciate that, or did you get a little annoyed by that? Exactly. Self-awareness plays a key role here.

Humans, by nature, practice reciprocity. It is in our genes. If Alex receives help from you, Alex is more likely to return the favor in some way at some time.

5) BUILD "VULNERABILITY BASED TRUST"

Now that you have a good understanding of yourself, a sincere appreciation of what Alex is really good at, and something that you think - and Alex would agree - you might be able to help with, it’s time for a heart to heart conversation… with Alex.

This is called “Vulnerability Based Trust”. To my knowledge, Patrick Lencioni is the first person who defined this term in his famous book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Here’s his talk (which I highly recommend everyone watch). The basic idea is that trust is best built when all parties share vulnerability with each other and reach common understanding. This might sound like some fancy theory, but you probably have experienced it first-hand in your life, and just didn’t know it. Here are a few examples.

  • E.g., You have a special bond with your spouse or partner. You two trust each other and know each other inside and out. That’s Vulnerability Based Trust.
  • E.g., You have a special bond with your high school classmates, even those you didn’t hang out with back then. That’s because you have mutual understanding of each other’s common vulnerability in that high school environment. That’s Vulnerability Based Trust.
  • E.g., Your team probably has done some team building events together, say paintball. Ever wonder why the team dynamic magically improves after these events? That’s because participants - maybe unintentionally - shared vulnerability with each other during the activity and consequently, you understand and trust each other more. Again, Vulnerability Based Trust at work.

Remember earlier I shared how impatient I could become when I feel that my time is being wasted? As a reader, did you feel like you got to know me (and trust me) a little more after reading that? That’s a moment of Vulnerability Based Trust. :)

Now with Alex, you need to intentionally build this Vulnerability Based Trust. Tell Alex what you appreciate about working together - remember that speak-out-loud practice you did? It will help here. Share some of your vulnerabilities and where you think Alex can help you, and vice versa. If all these are sincere, it works like magic, especially if Alex isn’t expecting it. You will find that a little unexpected appreciation can leave a person pleasantly surprised, searching for words - and that’s certainly a sight to behold.

BTW, do not open up with all your vulnerabilities at once. The key is to start small and wait for some reciprocity from Alex. Again, humans reciprocate by nature. If you are sincere, Alex is very likely to be equally sincere, and this conversation likely goes amazingly deep in a very short period. Afterwards, you and Alex will be on completely different terms.

6) ASSUME GOOD INTENT

Okay, even after you’ve had an extremely successful heart-felt conversation with Alex, chances are you will still have conflicts with Alex occasionally. (The low smoothness score being low to begin with certainly has a reason, and this won’t be addressed in just one conversation.)

Each time when a new conflict happens, remember to assume good intent. Say Alex made a decision that you disagreed with or took an unpredicted action that surprised you. In all these cases, before you get upset, think about what you really appreciate about Alex first and then assume good intent and identify what the information gap is.

It turns out, most times people have disagreements because they have different information. Do you have some information that Alex doesn’t? Does Alex have some information that you don’t? Try to fill the information gap, and often times you will find your disagreement goes away after the information is equally shared on both sides, or at least much easier to understand and peacefully live with the disagreement.

PARTING WORDS

If you are able to do the above points with Alex, I’m pretty sure you are able to improve your work relationship with Alex very quickly. Now repeat that process with the next person, say Alice. You will find that improving your relationship with Alice occurs faster than improving your relationship with Alex, since the relationship was slightly better to begin with, but more importantly, because you’ve practiced the skills of improving relationships once before.

It took me several years to become effective in doing so - with a lot of soul searching and self-criticizing for sure - but in the end I know that worked for me, very effectively. I may not become best buddies with everyone, but I am able to work with everyone, even with those people I don’t necessarily like.

Before I leave this topic for today, there’s one more point I want to share. Relationships need to be built and rebuilt all the time. Even after you’ve successfully built a relationship, don’t assume this is a once-and-for-all type of task. Relationships diminish or deteriorate if they are not maintained or rebuilt from time to time. As for vulnerability sharing one-on-one: remember to revisit that space once in a while - the second time will be a lot easier since the reciprocation has already been established before.

Want to explore opportunities with Unicorn and Baby Unicorn companies? Get Matched and Referred, on Leap!

Yunkai Zhou - Co-founder & CTO, Leap.ai
Yunkai is a technical executive and entrepreneur. He has worked in companies from technical giants like Microsoft and Google to late stage startups like Sumo Logic, as well as an early stage startup he helped found. In Google, he spent nearly 10 years in Search Ads / AdWords, and has led projects across infrastructure, machine learning, and UI. Yunkai’s passion for using technology to solve real business problems led him to co-found Leap.ai.