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How to reframe your thinking about your coworkers’ annoying habits

You can’t change their knuckle-cracking, loud-sneezing ways, but you can change the way you think about them. Here’s how.

How to reframe your thinking about your coworkers’ annoying habits
[Photo: Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash]

There are plenty of things to worry about at the workplace. Are your customers or clients satisfied? Are you meeting the critical expectations of your job? Will changes in the economy affect your business?

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But there are often things at work that bother you, even though they shouldn’t. And many of these involve annoying habits of colleagues that attract your attention and inflame your brain. That colleague who takes frequent loud personal phone calls may set your teeth grinding. The coworker who chews his gum loudly, or the one who shuffles her feet while she walks by may cause your blood pressure to start rising.

And these problems can really be magnified by open office environments where you feel you just can’t get a moment’s peace.

What can you do?

Seize control

A big reason why these small factors bother you so much is that they feel inescapable. Tons of work in psychology has focused on the concept of locus of control. An internal locus of control means that you feel like you are in the driver’s seat in your life. An external locus of control means that you feel like you are at the mercy of the events around you.

You get angry when sitting in traffic, because the events of the world have conspired to keep you from getting where you want to go. There is nothing you can do about it, but go with the (achingly slow) flow.

The factors that annoy you about your colleagues are typically things you can’t change about them. So, you may feel similarly stuck.

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To change your thinking, you can remind yourself that you do have agency. If you need to get up and walk around your office for a moment, you can. Just reminding yourself you’re free to get up and go whenever you need to can make you feel better. That reminder tells you that you are actually in control of the situation.

Another great way to seize control is to give that colleague a nickname you use for yourself that focuses on one of their positive characteristics. Instead of thinking of him as knuckle-cracker, think of him as donut-bringer. That way, when you see them coming down the hall, your first thought is about something positive rather than leading you to cringe with dread.

Change your motivational focus

Research by Tory Higgins and his colleagues points out that the human motivational system can be focused generally on either potential positive outcomes or potential negative outcomes in the world. Some of this focus is a matter of personality. Some people focus on positives as a trait, while others focus on negatives.

If you’re the kind of person for whom the negatives leap out at you, then you have to be mindful that the foibles of your colleagues will loom large in your consciousness.

That doesn’t mean that you are a slave to your personality, though. If you engage in a task that involves the pursuit of a positive outcome, that broadens your focus to positive outcomes in general and minimizes your attention to negative outcomes.

When you know you’re going to be around those colleagues who are frustrating you, see if you can find some goal to pursue that is aimed at something positive. That way, you’re helping to minimize the attention you give to the factors that you find frustrating.

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Focus inward

The aspects of other people that bother you are not typically behaviors you engage in yourself. If a coworker’s dragging feet bother you, then chances are you don’t walk that way.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have qualities that frustrate other people. In fact, it would be surprising if there weren’t at least a few aspects of your behavior that are capable of annoying someone else.

When you feel that frustration level rising, use that as a cue to think about some of your own behaviors that you are trying to change to be a better colleague. Redirect the surge of energy to focus on making yourself a better person.

The best part about this solution is that you ultimately have the annoying habits of others to thank for the improvements you make in yourself.

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