When you have a colleague who always plays "more cowbell".

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Perhaps you are familiar with the famous Will Farrell and Christopher Walken skit from Saturday Night Live where Farrell plays the cowbell along with the “band” Blue Oyster Cult. In case you‘re not, you have to see it. Just Google - "more cowbell".  

In this skit, he dominates the recording session by playing his cowbell louder than any of the other instruments (encouraged by the producer). As he does this, he annoys his band mates more and more with each take. Finally things come to a head and tempers flare, but in the end the band members resolve their differences. Farrell is allowed to continue his very over-the-top cowbell playing only because the producer wants – “more cowbell!”

This is a very funny skit, but what about in the real world? What happens when you have someone at work who is, shall we say, “insensitive” to the point of annoyance to others?  

I think we have all experienced someone like that. Often it doesn’t end so nicely.  Like in the video, this can cause a lot of tension, which usually leads to some animosity or dispute. 

But it has to be done and here’s why:

CPP Inc., the publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, commissioned a study on workplace conflict (add link) and they discovered that, in 2008, U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days. All of the sudden, the workplace “cowbell player” is not so funny anymore.

We all know this can be a delicate situation and, depending on your level of closeness with your workplace “cowbell player”, these situations can fester for a long time.

Interestingly, I had a real life “cowbell player" incident not so long ago.  

Occasionally I hold invite-only sessions for a group of potential clients.  I keep these sessions down to about 20 to 25 people so I have time to really meet everyone. 

One time, a former music school buddy of mine wanted to attend as well.  She was now working in the business world and was interested in my program.  I thought it would be great to have her there as she’d really help this group of “newbie musicians” sound great because of her advanced musical training. As we got to the last piece of my program, which involves the group improvising, she was, of course, playing the cowbell.  That should be no big deal, you’re thinking. After all, this was no novice, no rookie. She had many hours of ensemble playing experience and even lots of on stage performance experience.  

But there was a problem…she wasn’t exactly hammering it home like Will Farrell’s character but she was playing some very complex rhythms consistently over the top of the much simpler groove being played by the other participants. And while what she was playing was technically correct, it was very out of place with the group. This made her stand out quite a bit and also made the rest of the group a bit uncomfortable, as she became the focus of the piece.
This was a difficult situation both for me as the leader and the rest of group who were being put off by her obvious “facility” with the instrument. 

I had no choice but to intervene or the piece would have disintegrated. What I did was to strategically eliminate a few players one by one (of which she was one). This allowed other players to flourish, helped people focus more and caused a change in the direction of the piece.  I then slowly facilitated an instrument change for everyone and gave her an instrument that blended more with the whole group. Problem solved.
Now this was easy for me because this was only a couple of hours, but what about you? What if you had to deal with that type of situation every day? What if you had to work with someone who is extremely technically capable but totally insensitive to connecting with the group? How do you handle this situation?

How you can handle the situation:

It’s tricky.  If you’re lucky, you have a boss (unlike SNL’s Bruce Dickenson) who could speak to the person.  Presuming the boss is in your corner (unlike Bruce Dickenson), you and your co-workers could express your concerns to your boss and he or she could address the problem at a performance review (or sooner).   Hopefully the boss knows how to give good feedback (see my blog post on giving good feedback) and the situation can be mitigated. 

If for some reason your boss can’t (or won’t) help, then trying to deal with this type of individual as a co-worker will be challenging.  I would suggest that, rather than having it out like the characters in the SNL skit (which may feel good at the time but may cause irreparable damage), you should be more diplomatic.  You need to assess the situation.

You first need to be sure of their motives. People don’t necessarily mean to be insensitive to how they are connecting with their colleagues. They’re just unaware because no one has told them (just like my friend). Maybe they just can’t see it.

You could say things like:

1) “I really enjoy seeing how well you handle _____, but I don’t feel we’ve been quite on the same page recently and I wonder if we could find a way to make our work be more synchronized or cohesive.” This should open a conversation.

2) You could use another co-workers’ work as an example and casually say “I was really impressed with how (other colleagues name) handled their role in our latest project.  I thought they really worked well with the rest of the team.  Did you notice that they…”  This might be wishful thinking but worth a try.

3) You could try to get into their head a bit and say “ Wow, that was really interesting how you did _____. Can I ask why you did that that way?

I know, I know… easier said than done.  I am sitting here writing this post, not in the heat of the moment or having had to put up with this type of situation for weeks, months or even years, like you.  These types of situations can go on because nobody really wants to take on the difficult task of saying something, so it’s been festering and you’re past the point of being nice. 

What NOT to do – perhaps. 

Often when we’ve reached our boiling point, we are much more direct than we should be. I know, it happens.  We’re all grown-ups and relationships are complicated.  If you lose your cool and simply tell the person that they’re annoying by doing or acting the way they are, you’ll have to be willing to suffer the consequences because there will certainly be some. Some relationships can handle people being that direct, others can’t. You’ll have to judge.

Just remember: if someone is not in sync with the team on purpose due to massive ego or insecurity that’s one thing, but if they’re doing it and don’t realize it, that’s another.

Here’s something worth thinking about. What if it’s you who’s been the one playing the “cowbell” too loud?   Might be worth asking around, huh?

Maybe you don’t mean to, but it’s good to take a moment every once in a while to make sure you’re in sync with your colleagues and that there is the right balance on your team for the task at hand.

As for the program I led with my friend in attendance, when we debriefed about that piece I chose to talk about how we all come to the table with differing expertise and skill levels when we join an organization.  I explained that, no matter what our skill level, the goal is to see how we can best use our skill to reach our group goal.  

We then did another piece and my friend got it. This time she played very supportive patterns and really tried connecting with the other players. When she did that, the tension went out of the piece. People became much more appreciative of her presence.

So remember…

Things go a lot more smoothly when we use our abilities to support and enhance rather than stand out. It's good for all of us to keep that in mind for ourselves while were on the look out for ways to dampen the sound of our would-be workplace "cowbell player" !