Studies have shown that the most important factor to job satisfaction for many people isn’t how much they make, or even if they enjoy the work they do, it’s if they like the people they work with. So it’s understandable that a toxic coworker can make your job feel unbearable.
This week, psychologist Art Markman helps a reader figure out how to address his coworker’s bad attitude.
I’m having problems with a coworker, and our manager isn’t resolving it. I work on a two-person team, so I work very closely with this person. We’ve worked together for years, and he actually recommended me for this job. But it makes matters worse that we know each other so well, because there really aren’t any professional boundaries.
He has an inconsistent work ethic, bad attitude, and combativeness when others disagree with him. I’ve gone to our manager many times, but she just tries to smooth things over and get us back to work. She doesn’t seem to realize the problem is bigger than a small one-off problem. I don’t want to go over her head, but I’ve had enough! What should I do?
At Wit’s End
Dear Wit’s End:
This is a surprisingly hard letter to answer, because it is difficult to get a handle on the problem. It sounds like you have worked with your colleague for several years already. The problems you raise are fairly general and suggest that they are part of your colleague’s character rather than new problems.
I frame the problem this way, because abstract labels for behaviors are often one interpretation of a behavior that might also be framed positively. Your say your coworker has a bad attitude. If you felt better about working with him, would you be likely to say that he is irreverent? He is combative, but under other circumstances you might call him spirited.
We tend to interpret peoples’ behavior based on our attitude about them right now. Classic research showed film clips of a Dartmouth-Princeton football game to students at each school. At Dartmouth, they interpreted their team’s play as aggressive, while at Princeton, they viewed the Dartmouth players as playing dirty. Same actions, different interpretation.
All that is to say that a lot of the issues you are raising here may say more about the overall work relationship you have right now than about the specific behaviors of your colleague. That may be why your supervisor is just trying to get you to get back to work.
Of course, just getting back to work doesn’t solve the problem, but the first thing you should do is think a bit about whether you are really concerned about the specific things your colleague is doing, or whether there is a broader problem in your work relationship.
If this is a symptom of a broader problem, then it is time to take your colleague out to lunch or coffee and have a real discussion about what is going on. Talk openly about your concerns and about what you would like to see happen in the future. Your work relationship will improve more if you take steps to fix it yourself, than if you try to get a supervisor to fix it for you.
By the way, when you open the door to discussion, remember that discussion goes both ways. You may find that your colleague has some concerns about you as well. You will be tempted to ignore those as retaliation for starting a discussion. Instead, listen carefully and take your colleague’s points to heart. You cannot expect him to treat your concerns with respect if you do not also respect what he has to say.
If you ultimately decide that you can’t work with your colleague any more, then you can discuss that with your supervisor. The aim, though, would not be to get your supervisor to fix your colleague’s behavior, but rather to be on the lookout for another position or pairing that might create a healthier work environment for you both.
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