A surprising number of people just don’t get along at the office.
Recent research by The Creative Group found that nearly one-third of executives surveyed have had someone try to make them look bad on the job. This type of behavior can range from pointing out someone’s mistake to copying a coworker’s manager on an email criticizing a project the person worked on. In fact, April has actually been declared Workplace Conflict Awareness Month.
Sometimes, workplace relationships can be complex and confusing. Personality types combined with competitiveness and the desire to protect “territory,” in the professional sense of the word, can combine and create strange behavior. But what do you do when you encounter a coworker who just seems to have it in for you?
“It happens more often than you think,” says New York City-based executive coach Shefali Raina. And the negative behavior may range from simply being adversarial to full-on sabotage. To counter such a difficult coworker requires a combination of strategy and skill.
Fact-Check The Situation
The first step, Raina says, is to try to keep your emotions in check—and fact-check the situation. Having conflict with a coworker, especially if you feel you’re being treated unfairly, can be upsetting. But if you make assumptions about a situation or get angry over a miscommunication, you’re going to exacerbate the situation, she says.
“Ensure that your perception that the coworker dislikes you or is sabotaging you is factual and not imagined by you. Our brains have an incredible ability to create stories and connect the dots based on inadequate facts, so it is equally possible that the truth is something else and we are taking it too personally,” she says. Look at the facts objectively so you take the best next steps.
Share Their Perspective
Sometimes, you can understand another person better if you put yourself in their shoes, says Diane Domeyer, executive director of Menlo Park, California-based The Creative Group, a division of Robert Half International. “Some professionals, especially those in competitive fields, may feel pressure to set themselves apart from their peers to get ahead. Putting others down or taking credit for a teammate’s work may make them think they’ll be seen in a better light,” she says.
Consider your teammate’s motivation with empathy. Are you a newcomer who might be a threat? Did you recently get a promotion the individual wanted? Think about why the coworker may be acting like an adversary.
Getting into a tit-for-tat with your coworker isn’t going to do anyone any good. Avoid responding in the heat of the moment, Domeyer says. Wait until you are calm to start a discussion and always speak with an even, polite tone so the situation doesn’t escalate.
Make The Call
What happens next depends on where you land after you’ve gathered facts and objectively evaluated them. Domeyer says that TCG’s research found that 41% of respondents thought it was best to confront the individual directly, while 40% thought it was best to engage a supervisor.
What you should do really depends on whether you’re dealing with someone who dislikes or is threatened by you versus someone who is actively trying to undermine you or derail your career, Raina says. If the former, it may be a good idea to handle the situation on your own. If the latter—or if you’ve tried to confront the individual and it didn’t work or made the behavior worse—then you may need to engage your supervisor. However, if you can show that you tried to fix the issue on your own, that may show your boss that you made the effort to solve the problem first.
Engage In Respectful Confrontation
If you’re dealing with garden-variety jealousy or pettiness, engaging in “respectful confrontation” is usually the way to go, says human resources consultant Cornelia Gamlem, president of The GEMS Group, Ltd. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and coauthor of The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. When you’re sure you’re calm enough to not let the situation get heated, choose a time when you can have a private conversation with the individual who seems to be causing the problem. Using non-threatening language, state your concern over the tension or behavior the person is exhibiting. Remain respectful and continue to frame the conversation in terms of what you need or is causing concern, she says.
“It’s kind of hard to keep punching back if somebody’s sitting there saying, ‘Okay, I hear what you’re saying, but let’s take the time to really talk about what’s at the root of the problem,'” she says. Sometimes, people just want to be heard. Such respectful confrontation can help you both get to the heart of what’s bothering you.
Bring In Reinforcements
If the situation has the potential to be career damaging, document as much as you can and get help. “If there has been real sabotage, for example, you lost an opportunity or someone damaged your work or your reputation, confront it fearlessly and non-emotionally. In my experience, a coworker with a sabotage mind-set will not stop the sabotage if they feel they will get away with it,” Raina says. Bringing in a supervisor or HR person elevates the situation and can help you resolve it quicker.
Sometimes, you’ll need to accept that some people just won’t like you. But when a difference in personalities or styles becomes adversarial, career damaging, or prevents you from getting your work done, taking quick, decisive action is critical to mitigating potential damage.