Evolving Beyond the Neanderthals: Four Ways of Handling Business as Usual at Work

“My way or the highway.” – Common American expression among the inflexible.

I have family and friends in South Texas, and recently, I’ve learned that a remarkable little creature has taken up residence there. It’s called the giant cicada. These aren’t the ordinary “locusts” that fill Southern days with their gentle oscillating churr; no, la chicharra gigante has an extremely loud, strident call loud, strident call some have compared to a steam whistle—for good reason.

Some of your co-workers may be like this. They whine and wail any time you attempt to change a process for the better. They often cite best practice for their inflexibility, refusing to admit that best practices evolve along with work culture and technology. Best practices in the 1990s are not the best practices on the brink of the 2020s.

Albert J. Bernstein calls these individuals dinosaur brains. I think of them as Neanderthals, because they’re as old-fashioned as caveman clothing. Many of us have suffered at their hands. Sometimes they’re your boss, making life triply difficult. But there’s no need to throw in the towel and quit. Try some of these options instead.

  1. Manage them. Even at the lowest ranks of the workplace hierarchy, most of us manage the expectations and actions of our co-workers (and even our managers) in various ways. I believe in taking direct action to remove blockages in the workflow. But with the Neanderthal, this may not work. Even if you go in with a positive attitude, offering help, you may just end up doing more than your fair share without much of a productivity increase.  Ideally, you could calmly discuss with them how their behavior hinders your productivity… but this presumes they’re logical and misguided, or just in over their head. The truth is, Neanderthals may not care about how they affect your productivity.  If they responded to reason, they wouldn’t be Neanderthals.

    Argument doesn’t sway the Neanderthal, so if necessary, negotiate a compromise. You can’t easily change them, but maybe you can work out a deal so you both make progress you can show your manager. If the Neanderthal is the manager, do the best you can with your limited options. For example, some like to tell you to make every project top priority—obviously an impossibility. The easiest solution? Just pick one and do it first.

  2. Do it their way. Try the Neanderthal’s method, in hopes of maintaining some progress and keeping the peace. You might find it’s not so bad after all, allowing you to  maintain your high productivity. On the other hand, it may be so bad everything falls apart, a result that might prove to them (or their manager) that the Neanderthal is the problem. While perhaps a passive-aggressive solution, it does make the point—if they’re willing to accept it.

  3. Bypass the Neanderthal. Find a way to get what you need from someone else, and don’t even bother with the Neanderthal. Accept what they provide and work it into the final version if necessary. Be smooth, and try not to step on anyone’s toes.

  4. Go over their heads. Tread cautiously here. This is a last resort, because it can easily backfire. If nothing else works, arrange a meeting with the Neanderthal and his/her supervisor: your mutual manager if she’s a team member, or the person they report to if he’s your manager. See if the three of you can work it out together. If you must, go alone to her superior and discuss the situation. You may find the superior is aware of the problem but can’t do anything about it (due to union issues, for example), or just won’t (perhaps because they disagree or because the Neanderthal is a friend). The latter may hurt your standing on the team and accomplish nothing. Either way, when the Neanderthal discovers you’ve gone over her head, your work relationship could suffer.

The Horse Might Talk

Personally, I dislike maneuvering and workplace politics, but you may have to take part in both to make any progress at all if the Neanderthal block you. Over time, your workarounds they may become routine… or the Neanderthals may cease to be an issue. To paraphrase an old story, many things can change in a few years. The Neanderthal might leave the job or be promoted; you might leave or be promoted; one of you might die; the business might burn down—or, given enough time, the Neanderthal might even evolve into a reasonable human being.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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