There’s always one wasp at the tea party

Manchester, England, the early 1980’s. And my crusty old boss, Barry*. He was cantankerous and grouchy and barked at people – on a good day!

When someone he didn’t like was walking by, he’d mutter at me under his breath,

Wasp Tea Party“There’s always one wasp at the tea party”.

It was a regular occurrence. Barry didn’t seem to like people much; he thought of most people as irritants and therefore, “wasps at the tea party”. A different moment, a different wasp.

I witnessed how my colleagues in the office changed their behaviour around Barry. They’d be guarded about everything they did and said when he was in close proximity. And their behaviour seemed to fuel Barry’s perspective – confirmation bias – so his disdain towards my colleagues grew inch by inch until no one was safe from his wasp comments. Not even me.

To clients, he was all charm and helpfulness. But I noted that, like his co-workers, clients didn’t particularly warm to Barry either – despite his best efforts.

Barry and his mantra stayed with me. When I started delivering workshops on behavioural skill sets (conflict management, managing emotions, managing and supervising people) in 2008, I’d often start with the question: “Do you like everyone you work with?”

Allowing a few seconds for the question to sink in and for people to decide if the environment was safe enough for them to let their inside voices out, I encouraged people to be honest. And they were – as soon as one person admitted that, no, they didn’t like everyone they worked with, the rest of the group felt free to admit that they weren’t too keen on all of their colleagues either.

We’d agree it was normal. I’d then ask: “Does this person you don’t like, your wasp at the tea party, know you don’t like them?”

This question would be met with more silence and contemplation. Most people don’t consider the question – they don’t look at it from the outside in. It takes most people a few seconds to process this information and replay their interactions with their wasp. Some said ‘yes, they know!’

The context for the workshop could then be set: whether you’re dealing with a conflict, managing people, coping with a set of pressurised circumstances, how you respond to people, like them or not, says volumes about you as a professional.

I would share my Dad’s mantra: “No one is more important than anyone else”. I learned this from him when I worked at as a coat picker at the factory where he was an executive fashion designer.

My Dad was as respectful to us on the factory floor as he was to his colleagues and superiors in the boardroom. My colleagues respected my Dad for that.

And I couldn’t help but wonder… “does my Dad like everyone he works with?”

When I asked him he threw his head back and laughed. No – he didn’t like all his co-workers – “but should they know that?” he asked me.

The discussion we had about it has stayed with me since and it resulted in the development of one of my pillar beliefs – to be the consummate professional, we must treat everyone with respect, whether we like them or not. If it’s obvious to people you don’t like them, they will always hold something back; they won’t be able to bring their best to the party. You won’t create trust, and trust is the foundation of every relationship.

And as much as you may have one or two wasps at your tea party, as have I, have you thought that perhaps, you may be the wasp at someone else’s tea party?

*Not his real name