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How To Dig Deep And Deal With Difficult Co-Workers

By Kourtney Whitehead

We’ve all worked with someone who makes us roll our eyes, cringe when we see their name in our inbox or dread an upcoming meeting. A difficult co-worker can be unavoidable, but you can gain new perspective on how to work with them.

According to a recent study which surveyed 2,000 working Americans about office annoyances, the number one source of tension was interpersonal relationships.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents claimed to have confronted their difficult co-worker either directly, through another co-worker or through a boss. However, a whopping 70% reported that the issue was ultimately not resolved.

Should you find yourself in this situation, here are five ways to make sure you’ve done all you can to turn these negative workplace interactions into positive and productive ones.

1. Look for root causes

When working with a difficult person, negative emotions may cloud your ability to make clear observations. This can be compounded if you find yourself surrounded by others that are quick to offer their own assessment of the person or explanations for the friction between you. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions about what is driving the negative behavior.

Spend time learning as much as you can about the life experiences and background of your difficult colleague. To do this, it is preferable that you engage in one-on-one discussion. But you can still learn a lot, even from a distance, if you are paying attention without the chatter of preconceptions running through your head. Observe the behavior and question the assumptions you’ve made about it. Behaviors that were previously interpreted as a desire to outsmart everyone may be masking a fear of being exposed or caught unprepared. Be on the lookout for these kinds of discoveries and shifts in perspective.

2. Deal with the truth

The people you like, like you in part because you like them. But guess what? The people you don’t like may dislike you because you dislike them. It’s impossible to identify who started the cycle with your difficult co-worker, but you may be able to stop it.

It’s not easy to like someone that is already annoying you and probably doesn’t like you either, but you can try to deal with your true feelings and attempt to shift from a negative disposition to a neutral one. Getting to neutral is your only hope at turning the relationship around. If you continue to dislike them, no amount of taking the high road or being cordial will change the dynamics of your relationship. What is true can go unspoken, but people still feel it.

3. Forgive yourself

Being kind to yourself and forgiving your own mistakes will make you much more forgiving of the accidental, and even deliberate, offenses that will come up in life and in the workplace. When you can forgive yourself for your previous stupid or selfish behavior, you can forgive others when they make the same mistakes.

It’s a win-win, really, but it’s often instinctual to hold on to the shame and internal punishment because you think it’s the right thing to do. You want to take responsibility and don’t want to let yourself off the hook. Yet, by punishing yourself, you never heal and are more likely to hold others to an unforgiving and rigid standard. Let it go and you will be a better colleague.

4. Explore the lessons

Sometimes, these difficult co-workers come into your life to show you something about yourself. Be glad this has happened because it’s an opportunity to grow emotionally. What is it about them that bothers you? Is it something you see in yourself? Often times, it is.

Spend time reflecting on this question with an open heart. If you feel strongly that there is nothing about this person that reminds you of yourself, then you are probably wrong. Strong emotions at the mere suggestion of similarity are a good indicator that you should spend more time exploring this point.

5. Question the culture

I saved this one for last because it’s important to do your own work before blaming the company for your co-worker’s bad behavior. But there are times when the company’s culture is to blame for an environment that’s less than collaborative and inclusive, and is potentially unkind.

Consider what rules and norms in your company have contributed to your co-worker’s behavior and question whether it is a place you want to stay long term. If the culture is to blame for creating, empowering or inflaming your co-worker’s hostility, you will continue to run into this issue whether this co-worker is there or not. It might be time to make a change.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from coaching hundreds of people through job changes, it’s that difficult co-workers can undermine your career trajectory as well as your job satisfaction. Choosing to work on these relationships can lead to improvements in your productivity and peace of mind. The work is an investment in your own well-being.


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