When a Co-Worker Makes You Miserable
I read a column in the New York Times last Sunday, called the “Workologist”. Readers write in questions about work problems. This week, a reader described a co-worker as a “narcissistic, selfish, and terrible manager”. He tried confrontation, but when that didn’t work, he attempted to make friends with her. She didn’t respond well. Frustrated, he finally went to her boss—no help there either. He is ready to look for another job, but in this job market, it won’t be easy. He wants to know what to do.
Unfortunately, this experience is not uncommon. We don’t get to choose our co-workers or our supervisors. Our work environment, like a trip to the supermarket, is filled with members of the general public. Sometimes, we get lucky and we are happy with all of our colleagues! But then, the person who works next to you gets promoted, and her replacement is your worst nightmare! It’s the luck of the draw. But your peace and happiness at work is significantly impacted by this good or bad fortune.
A difficult co-worker is one problem. But suppose you feel that your boss is a cousin of Darth Vader! That can be even worse! The wonderful manager that hired you is replaced next week by the supervisor from hell. These are the challenges that we all face from time to time in our work lives.
Most of us worker bees spend 8 hours a day or more at work. A difficult or tension filled relationship with a co-worker or manager is stressful. It can be a cause of real unhappiness.
Some years ago I had a strained relationship with one of my staff members (these problems go in both directions). She made it clear that she didn’t care for me. One day we had a disagreement and she yelled at me “I just don’t respect you!” I have to admit I was angry. I took a deep breath, and replied “Really, I don’t want to fight with you. I just want to get along better with you.” The tension broke, and we had a heart to heart discussion about what each of us could do to find more harmony. I can’t say that we ever became best buddies, but we both did find ways of getting along better.
In my experience, going to your boss or your manager’s supervisor, is generally a bad idea. I think most supervisors believe that interpersonal problems should be solved between co-workers. Employees come in all personalities and styles. There is no way to guarantee that everyone will get along! Furthermore, the problems that people have with each other are difficult, and sometimes impossible, for a third party to solve. If you do go to your boss with an interpersonal problem, you will probably be disappointed with their response. They will probably throw it back at you. The staff member is hoping that their boss will give their difficult co-worker a stern talking to—but that rarely happens.
So what can you do?
First, try to understand this person better. What is her job? What pressures does he have? How does he react to frustration and ambiguity (triggers for a lot of bad behavior)? What do you observe about her? All too often we draw conclusions about the other person (e.g. he is selfish) much too quickly. What may be alternative explanations for the behavior that we observe?
Get to know the other person. This is counterintuitive. If I have trouble with someone, I frequently invite them out for lunch. All too often, we avoid people we don’t like!
Ask yourself—what can I do to get along better with my co-worker? Commonly, we want the other person to change! Nice thought, but it is far better to ask yourself what you might do differently. This question, although difficult to consider, may open up new possibilities.
Find a way to talk to the person. I know, many of us avoid conflict. But this is a bad idea when it comes to a stressful relationship at work (or at home). Focus on specific behaviors that are challenging. Rehearse your conversation with a friend. Be positive, clear, and express optimism that your relationship can improve. But what if this doesn’t help? More on this topic in future posts.
What have you done that has helped you improve difficult work relationships?