As instructional designers, we often have the opportunity to work with SME’s (subject matter experts) when developing instruction. This is most often an informative and rewarding experience. But every once in a while it becomes necessary to work with someone whose manner is, well, less than appealing. I have affectionately labeled these folks SMB’s (Subject Matter Bigmouths).
Most of us will have to deal with this type of person at some point or another in our careers. And it can be a very difficult experience. Fortunately, there are those that have gone down that road before us—specifically, my friend Toby,* who for years had to work very closely with one of the most difficult SMB’s it has ever been my fortune to know. And Toby constantly surprised everyone in the office with how patient and positive he was with the poor SMB.
I recently spoke with Toby about the experience, and he gave me four strategies for having the most positive experience possible working with a less-than-congenial co-worker.
1) Get to Know the SMB
Toby says he would make a point of getting to know this SMB and asking him about his interests, even though he was very hard to get along with. “Knowing what people enjoy is one of the keys to any relationship,” he explains. “Asking questions and understanding what someone likes is a recipe for a successful relationship that is bound to blossom and grow.”
2) Play the Student
The SMB Toby worked with had years of business experience, and was very willing to share what he called “golden nuggets” of information. “Sometimes I valued these nuggets, but oftentimes the wisdom felt disingenuous and without a point,” says Toby. “I felt that he wanted to pontificate knowledge to somehow increase his own stature, not necessarily to help me.”
We can all relate to Toby’s situation. It can be very tempting to try and go head-to-head and compete with this type of personality. But for the sake of peace, Toby decided to take the high road. “I quickly found that it was much easier to smile and attempt to glean any useful information than to offer any resistance or, heaven forbid, share an experience I had,” he recalls. It wasn’t particularly easy for him, but it was more wise than wasting energy clambering for recognition the SMB wasn’t likely to give.
3) Learn the Gentle Art of Steering
To explain this strategy, Toby recalls a scene from the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when a mother explains to her daughter that while her husband will ostensibly be the “head” of the household, she will be the “neck” that can guide the head in any direction. “My experience with my manager was much the same way,” Toby explains. “Rarely was an idea or proposal that I brought forward ever taken forward on its own. However, most of my ideas were brought to fruition if I guided my manager toward the goal carefully, allowing him to be a part of the process.”
4) Have Perspective and Patience
“I feel strongly that you can learn and glean something from almost anyone,” says Toby. “Be patient if you have to work with a difficult person. Think of yourself as a student and try to find anything you can learn from him or her. And remember, you are not going to work with this person for the rest of your life.”
It has now been several years since Toby has worked with this difficult manager. “The funny thing is, I really respect the guy,” Toby admits. “I have called him for advice on several occasions and have even had a chance to go and visit him. Do I want to work for him again? No thanks. But I can truly say that I am a better person and a better professional because of the things I learned when working with him.”
*Name has been changed to protect the innocent