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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Dealing With "That Guy:" The Co-Worker Who Rubs You the Wrong Way

In a perfect world, we all just get along. Dogs and cats play without incident, Republicans and Democrats engage in respectful discourse, and trips home to visit your parents go off without a hitch.

But, as you well know, the world we live in is anything but perfect, and your working environment is no exception. Enter the annoying colleague.

You know who I’m talking about. Let’s call him Bob from Accounting. Maybe there's nothing specific about him, just a general nails-on-the-chalkboard type feeling you get every time you’re forced to interact with him. Otherwise, he’s a perfectly nice guy, and he gets his work done. Which means, there isn’t really much you can complain about. It’s not like there’s a performance issue you can mentor around or discuss with your manager. And, if you reveal to your fellow colleagues—or worse, your boss—that Bob annoys the heck out of you with those awful sideburns, you’ll be the one looking like a jerk.

So, what do you do? You have to work with Bob, whether you like it or not, right? Follow these simple steps to deal (and—spoiler alert—you just might find he isn’t so bad after all).

Step 1: Conduct a Scientific Experiment

OK, maybe not an actual scientific experiment (unless that’s your job), but get technical with your skeeviness and figure out exactly what it is about Bob that gets under your skin.

The first colleague who drove me batty happened to be one of the nicest guys in the office. So, naturally, I assumed I was just being a jerk and told myself to get over it. But, when that didn’t work, Mr. Nice Guy eventually started to pick up on my annoyance. Not good. So, I decided to run a few “tests” to see what it was about him that really bothered me by measuring my reactions to various stimuli. On one day, I’d check out his hairstyle. How did that make me feel? Nothing? Great. Then I’d move on to something else.

As I soldiered through my little experiment, two things happened. First, I actually got to know the guy and discovered we had a lot in common. Over time, we even became friends. Second, after eliminating every possible trigger for my annoyance, I was left with one, simple reason: He had terrible breath. That was it! A little halitosis was all that was getting under my skin and keeping me from making a great new work friend.

While your annoying colleague may not have a trait so benign as bad breath, the important lesson here is that sometimes we can miss the true cause of an issue by failing to observe our interactions with—and reactions to—our colleagues. By taking a more detailed, scientific approach, you can dig a little deeper and find what’s really making your skin crawl. Once you know that, you’re well on your way to dealing.

Step 2: Try Behavior Modification

More often than not, an annoying colleague has no clue he’s being so annoying. (Think about it—you had to conduct your own experiment to figure out what was bugging you!) Which can make dealing with the issue pretty tricky: Even though we all say we want someone to tell us when we have something green in our teeth, it’s still horrifying when someone actually does.

Fortunately, changing behaviors—either yours or Bob’s—is a subtle way to help work around the source of annoyance so you both can stay productive and happy at work. For example, with my halitosis-inflicted colleague, I started carrying around mints and gum with me at all times. Whenever we started chatting, I whipped out a mint, apologized for my “coffee breath,” and politely offered him one as well. He picked up on it pretty quickly, and before long he was carrying around his own supply. Or if, say, you have a colleague who likes to lurk behind your desk and read over your shoulder, you can try twirling around in your chair and asking him point blank if he liked what you were writing.

Just remember, whatever the annoying habit or trait may be, empathy and compassion are of the utmost importance. We all have our own special quirks, so be mindful of how you’d feel if in the same position. You never know—you might have terrible breath, too!

Step 3: Create Your Own Management Training

I know. Sometimes, you just can’t put your finger on what exactly Bob does to make your blood boil—you just know you want to jump out of your skin when he’s around. Then what?

Well, if you work closely with Bob—and if offering him a mint or strategically avoiding him whenever possible isn’t realistic—I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re going to have to get over it. The good news is, I’ve had at least one of these kinds of Bobs at every job I’ve ever had, and guess what? Learning to work with them made me a better employee and a better person. Hear me out.

A few years back, I had a colleague I just didn’t like. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was about her—she just rubbed me the wrong way. We worked in a small group, which meant I had no choice but to deal with her (and my annoyance).

So, I started to view the situation as a training opportunity for myself. Every time I wanted to pull my hair out and scream at her, I imagined how I would react if I was her manager or if she were my client. When she’d start chatting non-stop about her weekend concert plans, I’d gently steer her back to work discussions. When she was in a foul mood and difficult to work with, I’d pretend she was a client, and empathetically try to understand where she was coming from—so we could get back to work. This tactic worked beautifully, and I found that, by dealing with her, I had learned valuable skills in negotiation, conflict resolution, and even networking.

While you might feel like you’ve been buried in a mountain of lemons with an annoying colleague, remember, those lemons can be transformed into all sorts of things, one of which just might be the garnish on a cocktail to celebrate your promotion.

Annoying people are everywhere, and if you happen to be stuck with one 40 hours per week, make the effort to truly understand what rubs you the wrong way and find ways to work around it. But more importantly, whenever possible, try using that time as training ground for your management skills.

Photo of annoying colleague courtesy of Shutterstock.