For a better workplace, focus on fixing problems, not personalities

Your interpersonal skills may be so strong and your relationships so solid that you didn’t start the New Year thinking about what you could do to improve them.

However, you may want greater satisfaction and success from work, which you can achieve largely through new habits with people.

Caryl Ehrlich, the founder and director of The Caryl Ehrlich Program in New York, says you have to have a deep, abiding reason to do so.

“Identifying the problem is half the battle,” Ehrlich says. “Then it may be easier to develop a new habit.”


If you’re motivated, capture the opportunity to build or enhance relationships as soon as conversations begin. Denver’s Morag Barrett, founder of the international human resources consulting firm SkyeTeam, approaches working as a team sport.

She says she discovered that in financial services that “people in high-performance teams in other companies asked others, ‘How can I help you be successful?’”

By helping others succeed, they’d succeed, too.

However, Barrett says, you have to mean that you want to help when you say you do. False interest announces itself clearly to people who are paying attention.

Barrett separates transactional from enduring relationships. Find out if you can count on a person to do something proactively or whether operating quid pro quo or transactionally is your only alternative. Then, find allies you need for good and bad times.

“Get to know and care for the person,” she says. “Focus on an enduring relationship based on trust.”


When employees are going their own direction, conflict arises, even in the best workplaces. Business coach Brian Ford, founder of Blessed with Business Growth in Greensboro, N.C., taught himself some years ago how to separate the problem from the individual.

Ford attributes his belief that people are good to psychologist B.F. Skinner, who came to see that you can’t fix the person, but you can fix the issue.

An organization with a two- or three-year history of employees not following accepted guidelines brought him on to redirect them.

“I sat down, listened to gain perspective of people with the issue to make sure that it was relevant and I could separate the two,” he says. “I gained the trust of the entire staff and developed a plan, without making judgments.”

The problem evaporated in about two weeks.

The method works by focusing on the problem.

“Slow down; gain perspective; and try to disconnect emotionally without passing judgment,” Ford says. “Fixing the person is a job that takes forever.”


Almost every workplace has complainers and gossips. When those in your workplace start to sap your productivity and energy, don’t sit back. Free yourself to work on new habits that will draw you into better relationships.

“Complainers and gossips are usually just bored with their work or life,” says Jacqueline Wolven, owner of, a business and small-town marketing consultant in Eureka Springs, Ark. “They get into a rut. You can ignore the complaining, redirect conversations or excuse yourself from them altogether.”

Finally, if you habitually retreat from other people, develop yet another habit. Go up to at least one person a day and ask how he’s doing. You might be able to help while helping yourself.

Dr. Mildred L. Culp of WorkWise® welcomes your questions at © 2014 Passage Media.