Idiopathic mutual irritation, or IMI, is a phenomenon I see so often in my mediation practice that I had to give it a name. “Idiopathic” means something that happens from an unknown cause or that arises apparently spontaneously. IMI is a situation in which two reasonable, professional and mature people annoy each other, without an obvious reason; that’s the idiopathic part. What’s more, they can’t or won’t do the obvious and minimize contact with each other. In fact, they seem to seek each other out.
IMI can happen to any two people, of all ranks in an organization, levels of experience, and degrees of professionalism; even to people who barely know each other. It doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with either person. All it means is that the two have the reverse of what in actors is called “chemistry.” Think of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” movies. IMI is negative chemistry.
Take, for example, two people I worked with, a lead programmer and a web interface designer, who were both excellent at their jobs, had excellent team leaders, and were led in their current project by a capable project manager. Everyone on this team got along with everyone else, and engagement was high, except between these two people.
Often, IMI can be recognized in pre-mediation phone conversations with the parties. If each of them tells me that the other person gets under their skin, is irrational or immature, can’t hold a conversation without snide remarks, is difficult to work with, diminishes their engagement, or similar things along those lines, but doesn’t link these feelings to particular incidents, they’re almost certainly experiencing IMI.
In the case of the lead programmer and web interface designer, I could tell early on in the mediation that I was right, they were experiencing IMI. I stopped them during a snippy exchange, described IMI, and asked them to consider it as an explanation for why they didn’t get along. Sometimes this is better done in caucus, i.e., private conferences with the parties, but in this case I could tell they’d be receptive. As the mediation continued, they communicated better and better. A few times their IMI flared up again, but I reminded them of it, and their irritation subsided.
In the end, the solution to the problems between them turned out to be much simpler than they’d thought. Aside from a few substantive issues, most of their agreement was that they’d give each other the benefit of the doubt, be willing to interpret communications as being without ill intent, and make sure they communicated with each other professionally and courteously.
When I checked in with them after a month, both reported that they were working together well. Team morale and engagement were higher, the project was back on schedule, and management was pleased.
If you and a coworker can’t get along for no apparent reason, or two people on your team mutually irritate each other without obvious reason, the problem may be idiopathic mutual irritation. Alleviate the problem by acknowledging it, remind yourself of it whenever it flares up, and get on with your work and your life.
Louise Penberthy is a mediator in Seattle who specializes in work with tech and IT companies.