Learning to Live with Difficult Colleagues

by Bill Brenner on August 15, 2013

You see it in every office: People who become enemies because they can’t reconcile their conflicting agendas. I’ve allowed myself to get sucked into it more than once in the last two decades. But I eventually found another approach.

Mood music:

I used to let difficult colleagues get to me. If someone criticized my work or blocked my efforts, a spiral into long bouts of rage and depression came on, which usually gave way to illness. I clashed with one boss so badly that it drove me to the edge of a nervous breakdown. He may have been an asshole, but I lacked the tools to deal with someone like him.

Along the way, I’ve worked with other people who loathed co-workers. One such person would spend the first hour of the day detailing how this person and that person were out to destroy what our team was building. As she saw it, they were enemies, hell-bent on invading our little island and taking over with brutal efficiency. I never saw it that way, but it became increasingly difficult to keep the poison vibes from infecting me.

When your success or failure at work hinges on how well you meet the various goals bosses have set out for you, it’s easy to become that person. But over time, I’ve come to see that the people who seem to be against you aren’t usually acting out of malice. They’ve been handed their own list of goals and are just as worried about what will happen if they fail. They too have families to feed, college tuition to afford and debts to pay off. Some are also burdened with their own illnesses β€” physical, mental or both.

One eye-opener was in the last job, where one boss β€” a laid-back, friendly, kind soul β€” made an observation about difficult people that went something like this: “It’s all good. People with issues are always more interesting to me.” To him, dealing with difficult people was a worthy challenge, which might explain his decision to work with me. If you could work past the difficulties and turn adversaries into friends, you were onto something excellent.

With those words, I found my own approach changing. Instead of giving people with conflicting agendas the stink eye, I tried getting to know them. I sought out our common interests and used those to break the ice. Then we could get past our differences and find ways to compromise.

I’ve also worked hard to see the other person’s side of things: who their boss is, which goals they’re being judged by and where their goals can intersect with mine.

We’re all human. We all carry stress. No matter how much we love what we do, there’s still the occasional, nagging feeling that we might not succeed.

That uncertainty is a simple fact of life. Better to roll with it than drown in its depths.

Milton Holds

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Darius August 15, 2013 at 11:26 pm

“‘It’s all good. People with issues are always more interesting to me.’ To him, dealing with difficult people was a worthy challenge.”

Awesome thought. Thanks for sharing this!

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