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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Deal With a Co-worker You Don't Like—But Everyone Else Is Obsessed With

There she is again. That fake smile. That annoying laugh.

Everyone else seems to think she’s the second coming of Sheryl Sandberg, but she grates on your nerves like a fork dragging down a dry chalkboard.

You can’t put your finger on why, exactly, but your gut is telling you, “Don’t trust her.”

If you could, you would just avoid this particular colleague completely. The problem is, you have to work with her every day.

It’s bad enough to dislike someone that you have to see five (or more) days a week. It’s even worse when it feels like nobody else is particularly bothered by him or her. It’s just you.

As a psychologist and life coach, I hear a lot of frustrated diatribes about “that one person” at the office who feels like a prickling thorn, wrecking your workplace zen. Here’s my take on how to deal with a co-worker who you (ugh!) just cannot stand.

Remember That It’s Okay to Not Like Someone

Gasp! Really? Yes. A lot of people feel intensely guilty for not liking or thinking negative thoughts about a certain person. But actually, it’s perfectly okay to dislike someone’s personality. It’s no different than not liking a particular shirt in a clothing store, a particular fragrance, or a particular item on a menu.

You are human, and all human beings are wired with individual likes and dislikes. It’s okay for you to have certain preferences, just like your super annoying colleague has his or her own preferences, too.

Remember That a Feeling and Acting on a Feeling are Two Very Different Things

Privately not liking something or someone and thinking to yourself, “Nope, no thanks!” is not a problem. The problem arises if you act on your feelings in an outward, hurtful way. Like tossing red paint on the shirt that you absolutely can’t stand in the store, for example. Or treating a co-worker rudely and inappropriately.

Part of having your emotional act together is being able to feel a certain way without needing to act on that feeling.

Remember That Gossiping Only Hurts One Person’s Reputation: Yours

It can feel so tempting to chitchat around the proverbial water cooler about how awful that certain co-worker is. Many people try to use snarky gossip as a way to bond with their co-workers, earning their laughter and what they think is their respect. But engaging in that kind of behavior only makes you seem like an insensitive bully.

If you truly want to bond, ask people about their current obsessions (the healthy kind), their passions, the music they love, their secret dreams and projects—or stick with a simple get-to-know-you question, like, “What’s been the best part of your morning so far?”

Build a reputation as the most positive, inspiring person at the office—not the snarkiest.

Remember That When Someone Pushes Your Buttons, There’s a Reason for It

If someone profoundly bugs you, in a can’t-get-over-it kind of way, the emotions you’re feeling are not coming out of nowhere. It’s likely that this person reminds you of someone else who hurt you in the past.

Maybe the co-worker who drives you nuts constantly interrupts you when you’re speaking—just like your mom used to do (and still does!). Or maybe your colleague acts a certain way in one-on-one meetings with you, but then puts on a completely different face and demeanor for group meetings when the boss is watching. And this reminds you of your “perfect” older sister who always won everyone’s affection and praise, even though she was so mean to you when the two of you were alone together.

If someone at work irritates you, and the feeling of frustration is very intense and lasts more than 15 seconds, that’s a good sign that something from your past is being triggered. That something is often (though not always) connected to a situation from childhood. Do some soul searching or free writing to see if you can connect the dots, understand yourself a bit better, and ultimately, forgive whoever hurt you in the past, so you don’t have to carry around the burden of resentment any longer.

Remember That You Can Express Yourself Honestly—Without Being Unprofessional

If your co-worker is doing something specific that upsets you, you can—and should—have a civil conversation about it. Ideally, it should happen sooner rather than later, before it blows up into something irreconcilable.

Be specific, reasonable, and matter-of-fact with your request. If your co-worker is continually breaking promises or missing deadlines, for example, say, “Hey, I know you’re probably swamped with emails. I am, too. But when you say that you’ll email me your portion of the project by 4 PM, and you don’t follow through, it makes it tough for me to work efficiently and move projects forward on schedule. In the future, if you’re sensing that you won’t be able to send something on time, I’d appreciate a quick head’s up. Thanks.”

It truly is possible to talk about an issue without resorting to an accusatory tone, rudeness, or other unprofessional behavior. Model the kind of respectful communication and workplace conduct that you’d like to see. Rather than moaning, snarking, or gossiping, be a beacon of excellence—and that will inspire everyone around you to rise up, too.

Remember That Everyone Just Wants to Be Loved

D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “In every living thing there is the desire for love.” That’s the truth. Everyone—you, your boss, your favorite co-worker, and your least favorite co-worker—are all human beings who want to love and be loved, in one way or another.

We all try to get love in different ways (some of us, in not so healthy ways!). Your co-worker’s irritating need to constantly take credit for everything and be the center of attention might be born from a place of deep personal insecurity. In other words, her love tank might be running low and garnering external praise and attention is the only way she knows how to fill it.

In every situation, try to remain compassionate and remember that, ultimately, we’re all just trying to get our emotional needs met in the best way we know how.

Go forth. Do the best work that you can. It’s okay to not like someone—and it’s okay if someone doesn’t like you. It doesn’t make either of you bad or wrong. Just different people with different preferences and different skills and attributes to offer the world.

Nothing more—and certainly nothing less.

Photo of annoying co-worker courtesy of Shutterstock.