Whether it's a co-worker who bulldozes us during staff meetings and shoots down every new idea, or several colleagues who make up a clique outsiders just can't break into, we've all had to work with people we simply don't like. They can turn a job you otherwise enjoy into your own daily personal hell.
Some perspective is in order. While your co-worker's behavior may feel like a personal affront you did nothing to deserve, he or she may feel affronted, too, says Andy Selig, ScD, a management and organizational psychologist who often mediates tense workplace relations. "Most of the time, all the protagonists involved feel like victims," he says.
So before moving forward, take a step back. "First look at yourself. Then look at others," Selig says. "We can't usually change other people, but we can change ourselves."
Ask yourself some questions -- they might reveal behaviors you can change to ease the tension. First, did you move too fast? This applies especially if you're new to a job. Maybe you're a real go-getter, and you wanted to hit the ground running -- not always the best strategy. "Coming into a new organization is like a step-parent coming into a family. Come in slow. Don't start parenting right away. We have to earn trust so people value what we have to say," Selig says.
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
Also consider whether your ideas sound like criticism. Your job may, in fact, be to innovate, but new approaches must follow ample recognition of the work your colleagues have already done. "One of my clients had great ideas but didn't give any recognition that there was a lot of good stuff going on there before she came in. Her co-workers felt criticized and undervalued, and they reacted to it," Selig says.
Do you and your co-workers see your role the same way? While you're just doing your job, if others don't know what that job is, they may feel you're stepping on their toes. "A lot of times these conflicts are a result of role clashes more than interpersonal differences," Selig says.
How about your interaction with co-workers -- does it reflect the way they interact with each other? How do they share ideas, resolve conflicts, work together? Selig says it pays to be observant and practice "when in Rome" behavior, going with the flow.
But don't go straight to the difficult co-worker or your boss. Ask for feedback from another co-worker (or two) you trust who also gets along with the pack. If this doesn't resolve the situation, it may be time to approach the colleague in question.
How to Talk About Workplace Problems
Try these strategies when you feel the need to talk to higher-ups or to the co-worker with whom you're having problems.
1. Count to 10. Never react to your co-worker's most recent offense. Always move forward with a cool head. Go home, sleep on it, and plan what you'll say and to whom.
2. Point the finger at yourself. Use "I" statements. Co-workers will be more open to dialogue when you're asking for help rather than attacking or blaming. Consider "I think I may have gotten off on the wrong foot. Is there anything I can be doing differently?" versus "Why are you shooting down all my ideas?"
3. Keep it professional, not personal. This cuts the chances of a defensive response. Try "Here's what I think my job is, and here's how I'm pursuing it. Is that what you and others expected of me?" rather than "No one is listening to me."
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