The unbearable colleague: 5 traits to recognize and avoid

Oct 05, 2021 - updated Apr 24, 2023

4 mins

The unbearable colleague: 5 traits to recognize and avoid

“Check out my sister’s baby! He weighed 2.5kg at birth. Can you believe it? She was really tired for a week, but she’s fine now. She’s recovering pretty quickly.” You may not have noticed, but the colleague you’ve been inundating with photos of a—for them—random newborn has just rolled their eyes. The truth is we’re all seen as annoying by some people at some point. The workplace is no exception. No matter how pure your intentions, certain attitudes can be irritating. They can sometimes even cause irreparable damage to professional relationships. Here’s a quick look at some of the most tiresome types you meet around the office. If you think you recognize something of yourself here, don’t worry—we’ve all been there. Avoiding these traps will stop you from becoming persona non grata at each and every coffee break.

Type #1: The eternal optimist

You know the type. This colleague has a permanent grin on their face and just got “YOLO” tattooed on their shoulder to remind everyone that “you only live once”. Their motto? “The glass is always half full.” While a heady dose of positivity can do wonders for the daily grind, this colleague offers the same refrain each time you need a good bitch session. Instead of coming up with solutions, they are more likely to try to reassure you by parroting self-help platitudes. Downplaying your struggles in this way tends to minimize the seriousness of the problem and it can get ignored.

“When people are optimistic, it’s often because they are afraid to criticize others. But criticism is useless because it is directed towards the past,” said Nathalie Hammou, managing director at Interactifs France, a coaching consultancy specializing in social intelligence. Instead of fake reassurance, it is better to offer a sympathetic ear and help get to the bottom of things. You might even think of a valuable solution. If nothing else, this attitude will make them feel listened to and understood. It’s really that simple!

Type #2: The one-upper

This one always has something to say and it all revolves around their achievements. Whatever you’ve done, they’ve done it better—and more often. They also have a magical ability to turn every comment into a springboard for self-praise. It might sound like this: “Yesterday I signed three contracts in one day. The first one wasn’t easy but I managed to nail it,” or “Speaking of contracts, I’ve signed five already and it’s still just Wednesday!” You’ll quickly learn that this master of the art of interruption prefers the sound of their own voice.

While this unabashed one-upper has a way with words, they aren’t interested in the give-and-take of balanced conversation. “A relationship is like a dance. To keep step, you must first listen. If you don’t, then you aren’t entering into a relationship,” said Hammou. These colleagues can make themselves less annoying by boosting their self-awareness and learning to take the back seat on occasion. By giving others more air time, their communication style will become more harmonious. Listening is just as important as talking, if not more so!

Type #3: The secret advice columnist

The wise words of this colleague could easily be gathered into a self-help book entitled: “365 Days’ Worth of Advice.” Much like a sage elder, they know how everything works behind the scenes—and they aren’t shy about telling you or anyone else. When does good advice turn bad? When it’s unsolicited. You might well be stressed about a pressing issue, but that doesn’t mean you need to be told how to do your job.

“This usually goes into moralizing territory,” said Hammou. “And who wants to be lectured? Nobody.” To avoid coming across as sanctimonious while expressing ideas, Hammou recommends making sure colleagues want the advice in the first place. “Explaining your intention to give advice and asking for permission helps to get the other person to listen. But if you force it on them, they become an unwilling partner,” she said. And sometimes others don’t need advice, but rather a sense that they are being heard and understood.

Type #4: The oversharer

Avoiding this one around the office can be tricky. Like an open book, the oversharer jumps at the chance to recount yesterday’s news in terrifying detail. “By 11 pm there was no more alcohol, so we stole some bottles from behind the bar and I ended the night off my face, but with my head in the toilet.” Who’s listening? It’s likely the newest hire didn’t sign up for an earful of this—they’re just trying to enjoy the free breakfast muffins in peace. Talking about yourself and your private life is a great way to bond with colleagues but it’s better to share gradually and avoid spilling the beans to whoever happens to cross your path.

“Building a relationship by discussing your personal life only works if the other person wants to listen to you,” said Hammou. Before launching into details of a visit to the dentist or talking non-stop about a current crush, oversharers should first make sure their audience is not only available but a willing participant in the conversation.

Type #5: The amateur psychologist

Concerned that you’re looking a bit out of sorts, this one wants to get to the bottom of why you look so tired. Now. “Oh, you’re not well. I can tell. Come on, tell me! Is it insomnia? Relationship issues? Family problems? Digestive troubles?” Their concern for your wellbeing may seem real but is it? This amateur therapist can quickly become intrusive with colleagues and force them onto the proverbial couch. But the office shrink should first make sure that the other person wants to open up before asking intimate and potentially unwelcome questions.

If someone around the office looks worried, no 5 can start by asking a simple, “How’s it going?” Depending on the answer, the “psychologist” can ask colleagues if they feel like sharing their problems, be they professional or personal. And if the answer is no, that shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Stop there and let the person deal with their worries quietly and on their own terms.

“Whatever the relationship, the message should be simple and straightforward, yet respectful. This is all the more true in a professional setting, where the quality of relationships has a real impact, said Hammou. To avoid this pitfall, don’t force close or intimate relationships on your colleagues. Always make sure they are comfortable with opening up. If you don’t, you could find yourself becoming the new office outcast.

Translated by: Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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