You can’t pick your family, and it’s usually the same with your coworkers—it’s often just the luck of the draw whether you wind up spending your workdays with wonderful people or annoying ones. That means there’s likely to be at least one person in your office who sets your teeth on edge.
Maybe it’s someone with a strong opinion on just about everything who takes the liberty of voicing it all the time. Maybe it’s just their work habits—like sending a million emails to resolve an issue when it really only takes one or two. Or maybe it’s just the way they crack their knuckles, snap their gum, or hum to themselves while you’re trying to work.
When your biggest office distractions aren’t things like Slack or meetings or your own Facebook account but other people, your options for getting back on track may feel limited. The bad news is that they are pretty limited; when you get down to it, there are really only two potential courses of action open to you. The good news, on the other hand, is that you don’t need to learn a complicated mind hack to help you focus or to download yet another productivity app. Here’s a straightforward guide to prevent your irritating colleagues from driving you crazy.
Is It Just Annoying, Or Something Worse?
The first thing you need to figure out is how important your coworkers’ annoying habits really are. This isn’t the same as ranking how annoying they are: A colleague who talks way too loudly on the phone is pretty aggravating, but that distraction isn’t exactly dangerous.
The coworker who constantly shares her strong opinions, on the other hand, might be creating divisions in your workplace, which is a potential problem that goes beyond just your ability to focus. Someone who cuts corners on their work or harasses you or your fellow team members may be crossing the line into a serious HR issue.
It’s worth getting clear on this first because there’s a risk of overlooking other problems when your own immediate productivity is at stake. Feeling frustrated because you can’t get your own work done can sometimes cloud out other issues that might be more important. At any rate, it’s always worth thinking about what bugs you about someone before figuring out how to respond. If you’re creeped out by the way someone looks at you or stands around you, that might not be merely distracting. When in doubt, have a quick chat with a human resources rep, even if just to express your concern.
This Is Your Brain When You’re Irritated
Sometimes an annoyance is just an annoyance, though.
If the distracting thing your coworker keeps doing isn’t something you need to report, then it’s time to turn the focus back on you—which is to say, on your brain. Annoyance and frustration are simply the emotions you experience when you have a goal that’s being blocked and there’s nothing you can do about it.
This psychological process matters because it’ll dictate your response. Psychologists have a concept called “locus of control.” It refers to whether you think your own actions can affect a situation. When you have an internal locus of control, you believe you do have the power to change things; having an external locus of control, on the other hand, describes that feeling of powerlessness when you’re being buffeted by circumstances and can’t do anything about it.
And it’s this external locus that really causes you frustration, not your incessantly humming colleague. Their humming only grates on you because you feel trapped by it.
This may sound obvious, but breaking it down this way can help you see that there are really only two ways to make your annoying colleagues less annoying: Either reframe what they’re doing in a way that bothers you less, or seize control of the situation.
Option 1: Reframe It
The things that tend to bother us the most—including around the office—often have as much to do with ourselves as with other people. But it can take some real effort to see it that way.
So if your coworker is aggravating the crap out of you, make the effort to find something you actually like about them. Yes, this will be difficult. But it’s possible to do it without trying (and inevitably failing) to overlook their annoying habit. Whenever you encounter them, use their irritating behavior as a reminder to think about something you like about them. Think of the annoying or distracting thing they do like the bells on an ice cream truck, signaling that there’s actually something nice in the vicinity.
For instance, a colleague who spouts ideas that get under your skin can be frustrating to talk to. So use those discussions as an opportunity to learn about what people who are radically different from you actually believe. It’s frustrating when someone’s trying to change your mind and you know you’ll never agree with their stupid opinion. But when you’ve reframed those interactions as though you’re just doing anthropology, it can actually be quite interesting.
Option 2: Take Charge
If you can’t find any way to like (or at least not to hate) those aspects of your annoying colleague, then there’s really only one other thing to do: You need to seize control of the situation so you no longer feel trapped by it. Shift that external locus of control to an internal one.
One thing you can do is simple: Talk to your colleague. It may be that your coworker has no idea that the thing he or she is doing is annoying or distracting. Your humming colleague may not even realize other people can hear. Sometimes just having a discussion that might feel awkward can lead them to change their behavior.
Another thing you can do is to preempt the annoying behavior. If your coworker is constantly complaining, don’t give them the chance to start the conversation along a track that bugs you. Walk up to them with a big smile and tell them what a beautiful day it is and ask them what great things are happening to them today. Now you’ve taken the reins on the conversation and set the tone before they’ve had a chance to.
Finally, you can try to manage your environment a little differently. If you’re in an open office and there are sounds in the area that bother you, get a noise machine to cover up the random background noise that’s bothering you (with free sites and streaming channels like these, sometimes it’s as easy as plugging your headphones into your computer and opening another browser tab). Or just find another place to work when you really have to concentrate. Talk to your manager to find out what options you might have for quieter workspaces.
Annoyances may be petty, but they aren’t trivial—especially when they come from the people you interact with day to day. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re feeling frustrated, and there’s an added risk that you’ll start lashing out at your colleagues when your aggravation with them bubbles to the surface. But even if your options are limited, you still always have options. Remembering that is your first step toward making things a little more bearable.