Working with someone you hate can be distracting and draining. Pompous jerk, annoying nudge, or incessant complainer, an insufferable colleague can negatively affect your attitude and performance. Instead of focusing on the work you have to do together, you may end up wasting time and energy trying to keep your emotions in check and attempting to manage the person’s behavior. Fortunately, with the right tactics, you can still have a productive working relationship with someone you can’t stand.
What the Experts Say
If you work with someone you don’t like, you’re not alone. The detested co-worker is a familiar archetype. Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule, says this is part of the human condition. “There are always other people — be they relatives, fellow commuters, neighbours, or coworkers — who we are at risk of tangling with,” he says. Avoiding people you don’t like is generally a successful tactic but it’s not always possible in a workplace. “Some people are there, like it or not,” points out Daniel Goleman, the co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations at Rutgers University and author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. Next time you find yourself shooting daggers at the person in the cubicle next to you, consider the following advice.
Manage your reaction
Your response to your dreaded co-worker may range from slight discomfort to outright hostility. Goleman says the first step is to manage it. He suggests that if there is someone who is annoying or abrasive, don’t think about how the person acts, think about how you react. It’s far more productive to focus on your own behaviour because you can control it. To handle your triggers, Goleman advises you practice a relaxation method daily. This will “enhance your ability to handle stress, which means the annoying person isn’t that annoying anymore,” he says.
Keep your distaste to yourself
While working through your displeasure, avoid the temptation to gripe with other coworkers. Don’t corner someone by the water cooler and say, “There’s something about Jessica I don’t like, don’t you agree?” Sutton notes that we all have a tendency to look for confirmation of our own opinions, but we should also resist it. “Because emotions are so contagious, you can bring everyone down,” Sutton says. Besides, complaining about someone in your office can reflect negatively on you. You may garner a reputation as unprofessional or be labeled as the difficult one. If you find you have to vent, choose your support network carefully. Ideally, choose people outside the office.
Consider whether it’s you, not them
Once you have your reactions in check, think about what it is you don’t like about the person. Is there something specific that sets you off? Is it that she’s just different than you? Does he remind you of your father? Do you wish you had her job? Jealousy and other negative emotions can cause us to wrongly assess and mistreat others. “When someone is doing better than us, we tend to scorn them,” Sutton says. Differences can make us biased. “Our favorite person in the world is ourselves. The more different someone is from us, the more likely we are to have a negative reaction to them,” he says. Focus on the behaviors, not the traits, that irk you; this will help you discern stereotypes from true dislike. “Start with the hypothesis that the person is doing things you don’t like but is a good person,” says Sutton. By better understanding what is bothering you, you may also be able to see your role in it. “It’s reasonable to assume you’re part of the problem,” says Sutton. Be honest with yourself about your share of the issue. And be on the lookout for patterns. “If everywhere you go there’s someone you hate, it’s a bad sign,” Sutton warns.
Spend more time with them
“One of the best ways to get to like someone you don’t like is to work on a project that requires coordination,” says Sutton. This may seem counterintuitive since you likely want to run from the room screaming whenever the person is there. But by working together, you can understand him better and perhaps even develop some empathy. “You might feel compassion instead of irritation,” says Goleman. You may discover there are reasons for his actions: stress at home, pressure from his boss, or maybe he’s tried to do what you’re asking for and failed. Spending more time with your foe will also grant you the opportunity to have more positive experiences. But before you sign up to lead the next task force with someone you don’t like, remember that there is one exception: “If it’s someone who violates your sense of what’s moral, getting away isn’t a bad strategy,” says Sutton.
Consider providing feedback
If none of the above has worked, you may want to consider giving your colleague some feedback. It may be that what bothers you is something that regularly gets in her way as a professional. “Don’t assume the person knows how they are coming across,” says Sutton. Of course, you shouldn’t launch into a diatribe about everything she does to annoy you. Focus on behaviors that she can control and describe how they impact you and your work together. If shared carefully, you may help her develop greater self-awareness and increase her effectiveness.
But proceed cautiously. Goleman says whether you give feedback “depends on how artful you are as a communicator and how receptive they are as a person.” If you feel he might be open and you can have a civilized conversation focused on work issues, then go ahead and tread lightly. But if this is a person you suspect will be vindictive or mad, or will turn it into a personal conflict, don’t risk it. “The landmine when giving emotional feedback is that they take it personally and it escalates,” says Goleman. You also need to be open to hearing feedback yourself. If you don’t like him, the chances are good he isn’t very fond of you either.
Adopt a don’t-care attitude
In situations where you are truly stuck and can’t provide feedback Suttons recommends you “practice the fine art of emotional detachment or not giving a s#!+.” By ignoring the irritating behaviours, you neutralize the affect on you. “If he’s being a pain but you don’t feel the pain, then there’s no problem,” explains Goleman. This type of cognitive re-framing can be effective in situations where you have little to no control.
Principles to Remember
Manage your own reaction to the behavior first
Practice emotional detachment so the person’s behaviors don’t bother you
Spend time trying to get to know the person and better understand what motivates him
Assume that it is all about the other person — you likely play some part
Commiserate with others who could be unfairly influenced by your negativity or may judge you for your complaints
Give feedback unless you can focus on work issues and can avoid a personal conflict
Read full article on the HBR Blog