6 tips for dealing with inflexible colleagues

Going head to head with colleagues isn’t always going to work, find a different approach for dealing with inflexible colleagues.

We’ve all come across them in the workplace – those zealous, diligent and systematic people who stick to the rules and don’t adapt to new ideas. They are often very good at their jobs, so how do you work with inflexible colleagues?

Inflexible co-workers may be efficient and reliable, or talented specialists, but their exactitude can make others anxious, slow down work processes and discourage innovation.

Change is a constant in large and small businesses, so someone who struggles to adapt to new technologies or approaches can be problematic, says Jeff Poe, director of Platinum Professional Training, an organisation focused on the accounting and finance sector.

“It can polarise people because there is always a group who prefer not to have change, and those people will gravitate together,” says Poe.

Inflexible colleagues can be great at systems and compliance

People who are inflexible have a high need for order and perfectionism, says psychotherapist Dan Auerbach, director of Associated Counsellors and Psychologists Sydney. They often do an excellent job of establishing systems and compliance, bringing considerable efficiency to an organisation.

There is a fine line between rigour and rigidity, however, and rigid thinkers can sap the enthusiasm out of a team by lessening people’s sense of personal power. They can stifle creativity and leave co-workers feeling hamstrung in their jobs.

Auerbach says opposing parties can get locked into a pattern where both refuse to budge, and the overall objectives of the business are secondary.

“In a world where people are attracted to systems thinking and exact answers, there will be a lot of resistance to change,” he says.

So is it possible to navigate around the inflexibility? The answer is yes, but it can take time to work through issues to bring colleagues around to your way of thinking. Be patient, and consider these six strategies for dealing with inflexible colleagues.

1. Expect resistance from colleagues; don’t be reactive

Going head to head with them isn’t going to work. Take a step back and use your emotional intelligence to find a different approach.

“Rigidity is defence of a position based on fear,” says Auerbach. “That might be anxiety or stress, but they are defending something they feel is essential. If someone puts up a wall, pushing it may only lead to a bigger wall.”

Instead, he says, keep your cool and invite your colleague to have a conversation to help you understand their position.

2. Listen to your colleagues

Once the discussion is opened, acknowledge their feelings and find out what is so important to make them resist change. Show empathy and ask what they think will happen if the change is made.

Auerbach suggests digging to find out what they are protecting: is it status or their level of control? Are they afraid of more stress? Are they worried they will become overwhelmed?

Help them see what is holding them back, and validate their right to their opinion.

“Sometimes once fear is understood and acknowledged, that’s all they need,” he says.

Professional Development: Leadership essentials: leading change, strategies for leading changes within an organization, including effective approaches to introducing and communicating change.

3. Drip feed the idea of change

Once you’ve found out how they think, Auerbach says it is time to reintroduce your idea in a way that marries with your new understanding of their concerns and answers their fears.

Can you copy them into all correspondence so they feel they still have control?

Poe says you may find it more effective to give someone a small morsel of information and let them digest that before providing more detail.

“Coming in more gradually with the seeds of change can help prepare them for it.”

4. Plan the framework for how you will deliver your message

Poe says the “key” is to find an angle that gets under someone’s hard outer shell. It is important to prepare your message well, especially the “why”.

He suggests explaining and demonstrating the urgency and importance of the change.

If you have taken the time to find out what drives a stubborn stance, you are better equipped, he says, to pick holes in the colleague’s argument and perhaps leave them with no choice but to go along with the new arrangements.

5. Make it personal when seeking change

When the person stifling your vision is your boss, Auerbach suggests trying to upwardly manage the problem by asking for some of your objectives to be included in a development plan.

Explain what you are looking to achieve in the development of your role or career and ask for their help to grow.

“This approach gives them back a sense of competency and control,” says Auerbach.

6. Pick your battles

Inflexible people can be dogmatic, insensitive and egotistical. They may be automatically defensive and sometimes rude in dismissing others’ ideas. Poe and Auerbach agree the outcome can damage workplace morale and outcomes.

Poe says it is important to pick your battles and stay respectful. 

“Don’t take it personally,” he says. “It is not necessarily about you; that’s just their psychological make-up. They firmly believe their way is right.”

You may reach a point where resistance will prove too hard to overcome. If you lose the fight, don’t stew over it. Agree to disagree and let the issue go.

“Don’t lose sight of the business objectives and that if the business is to move forward you have to continue to be able to work as a team,” says Poe.

Read next: 3 ways to encourage buy-in and improve results.

Like what you're reading? Enter your email to receive the INTHEBLACK e-newsletter.
October 2021
October 2021

Read the October 2021 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.