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How to work with someone you can’t stand

It’s a problem most of us encounter at some point in our careers—and working remotely can exacerbate the issue.

How to work with someone you can’t stand
[Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]
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You can pick your friends, but you can’t usually pick your coworkers. Chances are you’ll work with someone you don’t like during your career, and there may even be someone on your team right now that you can’t stand.

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While working remotely limits the amount of interactions you have to have with the person, it can also limit information and make the situation worse, says Carlos Valdes-Dapena, author of Virtual Teams: Holding the Center When You Can’t Meet Face-to-Face.

“When you’re collaborating virtually, you can always turn off your camera, so you don’t have to look at them,” he says. “But working remotely also takes arrows out of your quiver. You don’t pick up on body language or could miss subtle cues, such as facial expressions and intonation of voice. You may be more vulnerable to misunderstandings that can further your negative feelings.”

Like it or not, your job and reputation can rely on an ability to get along with others. Valdes-Dapena says there are steps you can take to make the situation more bearable.

Recognize that It’s Your Problem

The fact that you don’t like someone else is not their problem; it’s yours, says Valdes-Dapena. “If I find you distasteful in some way, it’s because of judgments I’m making and reactions I’m having,” he says. “You have to own that they’re your feelings. The foundation begins with personal responsibility.”

It’s important to note, however, that dislike is different from distrust. “You can work with anybody as long as they aren’t crossing boundaries or violating workplace rules,” says Valdes-Dapena.

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Reframe your dislike

Dislike is an unhelpful and vague term, and several reasons can be behind it, says Valdes-Dapena. “Maybe it’s a behavior they have, it could be something about the way they speak, or how they deal with other people,” he says. “The idea is to manage your feelings, but first you have to understand them. Getting specific gives you a chance to do something with it.”

For example, you may discover that your dislike is due to disgust, distaste, resentment, or jealousy. Dig into your emotional reaction so you can manage it better. Valdes-Dapena admits he once had a co-worker he didn’t like, and he realized it was because she had a tendency to boast. “Once I got underneath it, I realized that part of my feelings were jealousy because she had done some pretty impressive stuff,” he says. “I was raised to be modest. I was making her behavior about me. Instead, I had to reframe her behavior as being quirky and off-putting, but not something I couldn’t work through. Reframing the dislike is the hardest part.”

Identify why it’s important to work with the person

To work together successfully, get clear on why the collaboration is important. For example, maybe you’ve been put on a high-profile project together. Or maybe you want to be seen as a team player by your manager. Use the reason to craft a purpose statement, says Valdes-Dapena. It can help to tie it to a mission statement or big picture idea to give it deeper impact. “A purpose statement helps you build an alliance around a shared purpose,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you have to be friends. It helps you get back to the purpose of the collaboration so you can focus on doing the work.”

Devise a plan to go forward

Share the purpose statement with the other person, and clear on your responsibilities as well as what you are doing together. Having a common cause can help you work together more efficiently. “Sit down and have conversation,” says Valdes-Dapena. “Say, ‘Here’s why this is important to me.’ And ask what the other person thinks.”

It can help to share some vulnerability, such as admitting where you may be weak in a project. Chances are, the other person may talk about their own shortcomings, says Valdes-Dapena. “The conversation can humanize the other person and help you reframe your feelings,” he says.

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Any time you feel the dislike starting to come up, refer to your purpose statement. You may also want to talk to a trusted friend or manager to seek out other perspectives in case you have blind spots. “Give the person the benefit of the doubt,” says Valdes-Dapena. “Remember, they are trying to do the right thing, and they were hired for a good reason. Take a moment of self-reflection when you need one. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t try. And you may end up with a productive working relationship.”