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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Deal: Handling the Impossible Co-Worker

The other day, I decided to test out my office kitchen’s brand new toaster oven, so I popped in a bagel and went back to my desk. When I came back just five minutes later, expecting warm, golden deliciousness, I instead found—much to my chagrin—my bagel ripped out of the toaster, torn in half, and partially missing. The wrongdoer had thrown the un-eaten half back into the bag of bagels and fled the scene.

What kind of office criminal would do such a thing? Of course, hunger and laziness drove me to eat the stranded bagel half, but that’s another issue entirely. Bagel or no bagel, I was annoyed.

Unless you’re really lucky, you’ve probably experienced even worse in the workplace than my bagel tragedy, and you have at least one rude, ungracious, or otherwise difficult co-worker who rubs you the wrong way. But if neither one of you are going anywhere any time soon, how do you continue to have a professional relationship with someone with whom you just can’t get along?

1. Control What You Can

Remember that all you can really control are your own feelings. You can’t expect to change someone’s bagel-eating, you-know-what-kissing, idea-stealing, or other equally obnoxious ways, but you can manage your emotions and learn how to react in a way that won’t cause you further stress and anxiety or impair your ability to work. Whether it’s taking a deep breath or minimizing the face time you have with the offending co-worker, find ways that you can control the situations you’re in as well as your response.

2. Replace Anger with Sympathy

Instead of remaining angry with your co-worker for his or her shortcomings, try to replace that feeling with sympathy. Remove yourself from the situation and think of other possibilities for the person’s behavior: Maybe she’s going through a lot at home and is taking her problems out on her colleagues. Maybe he feels insecure about his work, and therefore doesn’t produce as quickly as other members of your team. There’s usually an explanation for bad behavior. If you can remember that and convert your frustration into understanding, you’ll go a long way in avoiding conflict.

3. Try to Work it Out

If your frustration doesn’t dissipate, see if you can speak to your co-worker in an honest and unemotional way about how you feel. Try to cite concrete examples of times that you felt anxious or upset and point out how those negative interactions are affecting your work and that of the team. You might find that your co-worker, in the stress of the workday, has not even been aware of how her constant interrupting people in meetings or her inability to communicate before noon is affecting her teammates.


4. Talk to Your Supervisor

If you feel that you’ve done everything you can to make your co-worker aware of your feelings, and if you have tried your best to manage your own reactions to conflict, then you may consider discussing the problem with your supervisor.

But keep in mind that speaking negatively about someone’s general personality will probably not reflect well upon you unless you can demonstrate that he or she is directly hindering your productivity. Keep the discussion short, focused, and fact-based, and offer possible solutions to the problem. If, for example, a more senior colleague likes to derail your meetings with off-topic discussions, suggest inviting another person that could help keep things on track.

Whether it’s a co-worker’s passive-aggressive attitude, a team member who fails to carry his or her weight, or, of course, a stolen bagel, there are plenty of opportunities for frustration in the office. But if you stay positive and rational, learn how to manage your own reaction, and refuse to adopt someone else’s problems, you’ll go a long way toward successfully overcoming co-worker conflict.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.