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How to deal with the coworker you hate as you return to the office

Think about this as a time to reset your relationship.

How to deal with the coworker you hate as you return to the office
[Source photo: YakobchukOlena/iStock]
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One of the nice things about the work-from-home environment is that you have a lot of control over your social network. Meeting with someone is an intentional act. You have to set up a time and mode for the meeting. You can choose the view you want on in videoconference software.

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When there is someone at work you don’t get along with, you don’t have to see them that often. You certainly don’t have to schedule one-on-one meetings with them (assuming they are not your boss), and you can mostly ignore them in group meetings. You may even have a work friend you text during meetings about them (not that I’m recommending that).

As more and more offices are returning to some in-person work, though, the haphazard encounters of daily life are likely to bring you into contact with that dreaded colleague. On top of that, your in-person reactions to other people have to hide that contempt you may be feeling.

Rather than dreading the return to work, though, think about this as a time to reset your relationship. To do that, you need to understand why you don’t get along with your coworker in the first place.

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They make you feel uncomfortable

The hardest colleagues to deal with are the ones whose behavior makes you feel uncomfortable. Perhaps they are dismissive of your opinions or try to take credit for your ideas. Worse yet, they might be emotionally abusive or engage in harassment.

These colleagues are ones that you should not deal with alone. For those colleagues whose behavior is nasty, but not abusive, you should find a good mentor. If you have a more senior colleague who can guide you, reach out. If not, consider working with a career coach to get advice on how to address the particular challenge of this colleague. You are guaranteed to have other colleagues who do not have your best interests at heart, so working out your strategies for handling these colleagues will pay dividends throughout your career.

For colleagues whose behavior crosses the line, you should reach out to an HR representative to talk about your options. If your organization is large enough to have an ombudsman office, start there to find out your options. If not, sit down with someone from HR. You don’t have to choose to file a formal complaint, but you should be aware of what you can do if inappropriate behavior continues. It’s important that you make other people aware of your concerns before heading back into your workplace.

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They’re a show-off

One of the more benign annoying types of colleague are the ones who are constantly calling attention to themselves. Often, these individuals come off as strivers who are trying to make sure they are in line for the next promotion or opportunity. It’s easy to want to run in the other direction every time they’re around.

There are actually two subtypes of showoffs: narcissists and impostors. Before you decide how to deal with your hated colleague, it’s worth trying to figure out which one you’re dealing with.

Narcissists are people who believe that they are truly wonderful and deserving of accolades and opportunities. For narcissists, everything is a zero-sum game. Their successes must come at the expense of others. That is, for them to win, others must lose.

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If the main vibe you get from your annoying colleague is that they are a gift to the workplace and they are constantly taking credit for other people’s ideas, then give in to that desire to run as far from them as possible. There is little benefit to your interactions with narcissists. They will be nice to you as long as there is something to be gained from the interaction, but not beyond that.

Many of the people who show off, though, are just compensating for feeling inadequate at work. There is rampant impostor syndrome in many workplaces—particularly among people who are fairly new to the workplace. Most people entering the workforce are not completely sure of what they are qualified to do, and are concerned that they were hired despite their lack of knowledge and not because of their potential.

One way for people to deal with impostor syndrome is to seek validation for their efforts. Showing off accomplishments is one way to do that.

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If you get the sense that your colleague is showing off mostly to stave off insecurity, it is worth getting to know them better—particularly if they’re actually good at their job. Chances are that as your colleague gains confidence, their tendency to flaunt their successes goes away. Ultimately, they may become a valued collaborator and even a friend.

They’re just annoying

Of course, there are some people who you just don’t like being around. Maybe they complain too much for your liking. Perhaps they have an interpersonal habit that gets your hair standing on end. Whatever it is, there isn’t a great reason for disliking them, it is just how you feel.

The thing about the personal foibles of someone else is that you can choose how you react to them. If you focus on what they do and stew over how much it annoys you, then it will continue to annoy you. But, you can also reframe what they’re doing more humorously. After all, every workplace sitcom has several characters whose habits and modes of interaction are played for laughs. Oddly enough, if you start treating those behaviors as endearing, you might just find that you come to appreciate them more over time.

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More generally, you cannot control what other people do in the office, but you can influence your reaction to what they do. To the extent that you give generous interpretations of people’s behavior and focus on the positive aspects of what they do, you are likely to remember the people around you more positively.

That can be hard to do. Successful people have to focus on what can go wrong with various projects. That means being aware of situational factors that might lead a well-planned project to fail, but also to think through the variety of ways that people involved in a project will fail to come through. At the same time, once you have analyzed aspects of the way your colleagues act that might create barriers to the success of a project, it is important to let go of those negatives and to enjoy your colleagues.

One final reason to focus on the positive aspects of your colleagues is that the tenor of your interactions with them can be self-fulfilling. If you anticipate having a bad interaction with colleagues, you’re likely to show some amount of dread or anxiety with your face and body posture, which will affect how you are treated by others. As a result, you may create the very reaction you are afraid of getting.