Whether it’s a co-worker who bulldozes us during staff meetings or shoots down every new idea, or several colleagues who make up a clique outsiders just can’t break into, we’ve all had co-workers we simply don’t like. They can turn a job you may otherwise enjoy into your own daily personal hell.
Some perspective is in order. While your co-worker’s behavior may feel like a personal affront you did nothing to deserve, he or she may feel affronted, too, says Andy Selig, Sc. D., a management and organizational psychologist who often mediates tense workplace relations. “Most of the time, all the protagonists involved feel like victims,” he says.So before moving forward, take a step back. “First look at yourself. Then look at others,” Selig says. “We can’t usually change other people, but we can change ourselves.”
Ask yourself some questions – they might reveal behaviors you can change to ease the tension. First, do you move too fast? This applies especially if you’re new to a job. Maybe you’re a real go-getter, and you wanted to hit the ground running – not always the best strategy. “Coming into a new organization is like a step-parent coming into a family. Come in slow. Don’t start parenting right away. We have to earn trust so people value what we have to say,” Selig says.
Also consider whether your ideas sound like criticism. Your job may in fact be to innovate, but new approaches must follow ample recognition of the work your colleagues have already done. “One of my clients had great ideas but didn’t give any recognition that there was a lot of good stuff going on there before she came in. Her co-workers felt criticized and undervalued, and they reacted to it,” Selig says.
Do you and your co-workers see your role the same way? While you’re just doing your job, if others don’t know what that job is, they may feel you’re stepping on their toes. “A lot of times these conflicts are a result of role clashes, more than interpersonal differences,” Selig says.
How about your interaction with co-workers – does it reflect the way they interact with each other? How do they share ideas, resolve conflicts, work together? Selig says it pays to be observant and practice “when in Rome.”
But, Selig advises, don’t go straight to the difficult co-worker or to the boss. Ask for feedback from a co-worker (or two) whom you trust but who also gets along with the pack. If this doesn’t resolve the situation, it may be time to approach the co-worker in question.
Try these strategies when you feel the need to talk with higher-ups or to the co-worker with whom you’re having a problem.
1. Count to 10. Never react to your co-worker’s most recent offense. Always move forward with a cool head. Go home, sleep on it, and plan what you’ll say and to whom.
2. Point the finger at yourself. Use “I” statements. Co-workers will be more open to dialogue when you’re asking for help rather than attacking or blaming. Consider “I think I may have gotten off on the wrong foot. Is there anything I could be doing differently?” versus “Why are you shooting down all my ideas?”
3. Keep it professional, not personal. This cuts the chances of defensive response. Try “Here’s what I think my job is, and here’s how I’m pursuing it. Is that what you and others expected of me?” rather than “No one is listening to me.”