No matter your role in an organisation, work can become stressful when you have a difficult coworker. Historically a workplace has been a place to go for teamwork, conversations around the water cooler, and a sense of connection. However, with more people working from home, an increased competitiveness in a world filled with overachievers, and an increase in technology over personal/face-time interactions, workplaces may not feel so supportive. Even worse, offices can lead you to feel downright miserable.
The following are five strategies to help ensure that a coworker who may be bringing you down doesn't become a problem.
Problems with communication can stem from a lack of clarity. If both parties are speaking and no one is listening this can be problematic. A team may have a common goal that everyone understands but individuals will have different ways of prioritising actions on the way to that goal. Frequent check-ins and strong methods of communication are one method to alleviate difficulties. Remember, just because you are speaking doesn’t mean you are being heard. Ask your team members to repeat back what has been said in one-to-one meetings. Follow up verbal directions with an email. Create milestones along the way to ensure that everyone’s understanding, motivation, and enthusiasm stay strong.
A wonderful way to begin a conversation is with an “I” statement. This is a way of taking responsibility and ownership over your actions. Two examples are: “When you change the due date of a project I feel stressed out” or “When you use phrases like ‘I've told you that before’ or ‘we already went over this’ I feel as though you think I'm stupid.” The use of “I” sentences allows you to share what you're feeling without blaming the other person for making you feel that way.
Repairing an ailing relationship with a colleague at work is more difficult than tending one before it breaks down. Much like when the weeds get overgrown in your garden, regular effort and attention is a lot simpler than a complete garden overhaul. If you know you have a coworker who has different beliefs than you (politically, religiously, or other non–work-related topics) steer clear of these topics. If you notice that you and your colleagues have different strengths, praise them for the things that you see them doing well. Ask for their help in areas where you know that you could improve. This is like putting money in the bank—just like you can’t withdraw before you deposit, it is wise to compliment prior to critiquing.
And remember to begin any conversation from a place of curiosity and with an open mind.
Start the Day Grounded
Every day is a clean slate. Make sure you begin with a morning routine that supports you through the entire day.
- Fuel with healthy foods
- Move your body
- Connect with your family or friends
Each of these routine items help you start your day on solid ground, putting you in a positive place from which to interact with your colleagues.
Leave Work at Work
Devices have made it virtually impossible to work a “typical” 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day. This doesn’t mean that you can’t draw boundaries. Let your colleagues know when you will respond to calls, emails, or texts. Use devices to support you—create an auto-responder, work set hours, and draw boundaries about how and when you will communicate outside your set hours. Then use the time outside work in ways that fill your cup, let off steam, and allow you a break.
Making sure that you are giving and receiving regular feedback from anyone on your team is important. Tools that help you understand your communication style can help you to understand the different styles of individuals. Some people are fabulous with big ideas and making plans but neglect the small details. Others feel those small ideas are a better use of their time than spending time considering the big picture. Some prefer strict guidelines and others feel strangled by them. Teams become frustrated when they disagree on how to get something done even if they want the same outcome.
You have probably heard that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Look at who you're spending time with at work and decide if you need to make changes. If there's someone who causes you to feel less productive, more uncertain about your role, or angry when you're at work, you probably want to downgrade that relationship.
Making sure you don't internalise the stress or negativity that you are feeling is also important. Talk directly to any colleague with whom you have problems. Even more importantly don't be tempted to go over their head. According to Radical Candor podcast host Kim Scott, the biggest mistake you can make is talking about a coworker to their boss. If you feel a need to get help from your manager the best idea is for both coworkers to approach their manager together.
Make a Choice
If mediation doesn’t work, then what? Here’s the real conundrum, according to spiritual growth teaching and Carl Jung’s famous quote: Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
For those who approach all aspects of life as growth opportunities, the challenge can be what to do when a coworker is/continues to be underhanded, mean spirited, or just plain contradictory. Use the following as a lens through which to decide: Does continuing to work in your current role with this person feel expansive or contracting?
If the answer is expansive, as in there is a way you are growing by learning to overcome or, alternatively, the rest of the work is great, then stay and learn. If you feel that continuing to work with this person won’t help you to expand then your choices are:
- To change the way you work together by drawing new boundaries and lessening interactions
- Transferring to a new role within your current organization
- Moving to new opportunities elsewhere
You probably spend more time with your colleagues than you do with your family. If you invest a little effort in relationship building, it can only be to your benefit!