4 People You Work With: Understanding Your Coworker, Boss, Customer, Subordinate


One of the things we all learn at some point, hopefully before even entering the workplace, is that other people do not think the same way.  We all have different outlooks, prioritize different things, and have unique viewpoints on what is and is not important.  Without actually sitting a co-worker, a customer, an employee, or even a boss into a chair and examining their inner thoughts, how do you figure out enough of what they are really like to best work with, for, or to get the best out of someone?

For an organization to succeed, it needs to set realistic goals and gain buy-in so that everyone is working towards the same goals.  Your decision to stay with a company should be based, at least in part, on your belief in the company’s direction, and the likelihood of the company achieving the goals it has planned for itself.

The Co-Worker

For co-workers, conversation and time will reveal who they really are.  There is a saying about co-workers that I have found to be true.  “You can fool the boss, and you can fool the people that work for you, but you cannot fool the people you work with.”  You learn a lot about your co-workers.  You spend a lot of time together, sometimes for years.  You go through the same challenges and struggles on the job.  I have co-workers who have become as close as brothers and many others who have become lifelong friends.  You get to know these individuals and what makes them who they are.

Some insights are gained out on a job together, some after work.  This moves beyond jobs and work inter-relationships and into life itself.  We are all shaped by those around us, those we interact and spend time with.  Be an encourager to others.  Grow and help others to grow.  You will spend more time with your co-workers than any other group listed.  Make it a positive exchange of ideas, positive interactions, and be there for one another.  We all have only one ride through life.  Make it a good one and be a positive influence as well as a dependable resource for those around you.

The Customer

For customers, observe how they interact with you and with others.  I recall when the Intelligence Community was a much smaller community.  Post 9-11 growth has resulted in massive increases in government and contractor positions. As the industry grows, so does the capacity for excellence, and for abuse. You will see both competence and incompetence.  When a contractor is deemed incompetent, all it takes is a phone call to the program manager and they are off the mission.  Contracting companies understand this and have clauses in work agreements to the effect that “You have a job as long as you keep your clearance and the government wants you on their program.”  On the government side, laws and regulations make it more difficult to remove the incompetent without months of paperwork, counseling, job reshuffling, and so on.  It’s just the way things are.

Here’s the other thing about understanding customers.  There are two primary types: those who are tied to and focused on a mission and those who may not have a mission, but are instead focused on the size of their department or personal advancement.  The mission-focused customer will not care who you are; what they care about, and care very much about, is achieving mission goals.  These are the absolute best government customers to work for.

Many government customers are not tied to specific operational missions.  As a contractor in this environment, you may get caught between departments fighting for budgets, numbers of personnel, egos and personalities.  As a contractor, you need to follow the terms of your contract and achieve the specified goals, but also keep your customer happy.  As a government worker in this situation, you are caught fast and just have to survive, while, you guessed it, keeping the boss happy.  To keep them happy with your work, you have to understand their goals.  Mission-focused customers are just easier to work with because you understand their goals which, by the way, typically align nicely with the contract.

The Subordinate

Here is where understanding personalities will provide the most benefit in the workplace.  By gaining an understanding of how your subordinates think, you understand what motivates them and how to get the best out of them.  This allows you to assign tasks that fit well with their strengths and capabilities.  You can even determine stretch goals that help them to grow as people and performers.  The best leaders will grow leaders.  To accomplish this, you need to understand your people.  You will never have the chance to understand your people if they are afraid of you or of interactions with you.  Your people will have to trust you before they will trust your leadership.  Open and honest dialogue, clear policies, fairness, and truthfulness will lead to the proper environment that will allow you to know and understand the individual personalities of your staff.  It will then be your job to mold this group into mission/goal achievers.

The Boss

Early in my career, my assumption was that the boss was in place because he or she knew more about the business, the customer, the assigned tasks, etc.  This is often, but not always the case.  Determine if your boss is competent.  Do they understand the business?  Does the direction they provide make sense?  When the direction is followed, are the desired results achieved most of the time?  Here’s a good question: if they are not completely competent, do they try and hide it, or do they listen to and respect the ideas of others?  Do they take credit for ideas, for success, or do they give it?

For me, the ultimate and best question to answer about a boss is this: what do they care more about more, their career (themselves) or the good of the company and the people in the company?  Look at how they interact with subordinates.  A good boss will ensure that he/she leaves an employee feeling more positive about their role and contributions.  A good boss will encourage better performance.  There are some things that I simply will not tolerate out of a boss.  Things like bullying, lying, throwing chairs, tearing people down, etc.  On the other hand, a boss who encourages performance, leads from the front, and builds people up, I will follow anywhere.

When you consider that successful organizations are the ones that achieve common goals, it stands to reason that the diversity in personnel and personalities work cohesively to achieve those goals.  Your own journey through the business world is made much easier when you understand where people are coming from, what motivates them, and what their goals really are.  Understanding others is critical in achieving goals that you set for your organization, keeping customers happy with your performance, keeping staff motivated, and bosses pleased.

Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.

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