Eight hours a day, five days a week, we are working alongside our colleagues. Where once we were attending conferences, meetings and lunches, we now have their names popping up on our emails, Zoom calls and messaging tools 40 hours a week.
We don’t choose our colleagues, and while we may often form meaningful relationships with them, sometimes that just isn’t on the cards. In theory, we should keep it professional at work. But in practice, we warm and cool to people all the same, and most of us have that one person at work who we just can’t stand. It’s nothing to feel guilty about, but it’s important to address negative feelings you may have about those you work with.
All workplaces are different. In some circumstances you may have the luxury of distancing yourself from someone you don’t click with, but in others you may not have that option. No matter what your situation, however, there is a way to handle it.
1. How to talk it out
If you are finding it difficult to work with someone, whether it’s because of a personality clash or a difference in working styles, a simple conversation might do the trick. If your colleague is getting under your skin, there is a good chance that they may feel the same about you. If you don’t address smaller irritations, they tend to fester.
Organise a meeting to discuss your differences in private. Try to set it up at a time of day when you feel most calm—whether that’s after your morning coffee or towards the end of the day—and go in with an open mind. Also keep notes of problems you have with the person in question and how you want to address them. Try to see things from their side as well, so as to prepare yourself for a constructive conversation, not a fight. The meeting may not necessarily result in the pair of you becoming best friends, but you might find a middle ground and realise where it is that you clash.
Cynthia, a financial planner, struggles with one of her colleagues due to their conflicting working styles. “I get frustrated with her. I think the root of it is that we work very differently and have different communication styles. I’m very blunt, direct and open. She is very careful and talks in circles, so I find her hard to follow. But I have found a way to work with her and appreciate our differences. When I’m pressing her to make a decision, she will ask me some questions that get me to pause and think about the best course of action,” she said.
“This sometimes saves me from making the wrong decision or acting too quickly. Conversely, I get her to take more risks and think outside the box. We have found some harmony in the way we work and are more tolerant of each other. As we work with others, we have to appreciate how they think and make decisions, and how it can help for a better outcome.”
You may not be able to completely avoid working with someone you dislike, but find ways to work around your discontents. This will increase productivity and workplace ambience. If you both know what it is that creates problems between you, it will be easier to work together in harmony.
Explore more in our section: Workers
2. What to do if you can’t talk it out
Not everyone is in a situation to discuss problems with colleagues. Maybe the individual in question isn’t very reasonable, or maybe the person is your superior and you don’t feel comfortable confronting them. Whatever the issue, it is ok to feel that talking it out isn’t an option, and indeed you may be right.
You may need to find ways of working around these people, and learn how to keep yourself calm and professional when faced with someone who raises your hackles. Mawii works at a women’s organisation. Her ideological beliefs differ from those of some of her superiors.
“Before I joined, I knew there was an ideological difference. They don’t think trans women are women, and I don’t agree with that. I didn’t know the extent of that before I joined,” she said. ‘‘When I hear people having transphobic discussions in the office, I won’t join the conversation. Sometimes that makes me feel quite sad because I’d like to be able to discuss things. But I feel like this isn’t something we are allowed to talk about. Others who brought it up were bullied and ended up leaving. My job is important to me and I don’t want to leave, so I have to be strategic about how I present my views.”
It may feel really hard, and even counterintuitive, to bite your tongue at work. There aren’t always easy solutions and sometimes you may be forced to find it in yourself to deal with colleagues you don’t like instead of facing the issue head on. Mawii says that discussing her feelings with colleagues she can relate to has helped.“I have a lot of solidarity from my team and other teams. There are a few women who I am really close to and venting to them really helps. You can see that you’re not alone,” she said.
Learn more about: Relations with colleagues
3. Should you contact HR?
If you feel you’ve exhausted all your options, and you trust your HR department, it might be time to get in touch. An HR professional can help you find solutions, whether it’s mediating a discussion, placing you on separate teams or disciplinary action. You may think that HR is a step too far, or that they can’t help. In fact only 15% of participants in a recent survey believe HR departments are on the employee’s side. However, there’s no harm in reaching out if a colleague is making you uncomfortable.
Frank recently left his job as a magazine editor. He says that he always stopped short of contacting HR when he should have. “I could have reported things so much earlier. HR would encourage me to report things, but I’d always hope that things would get better, but they didn’t,” he said. “HR is legally obligated to help you. I built up this idea that work was my enemy, but those people are actually paid to help out, so seek advice from them. There are resources to help you.”
Set up a meeting, and see what kind of options and advice they can give you. It may pay off.
4. Last resorts
An ideal compromise may just not be in the cards, especially if you are butting heads with someone in management. The reality is that many companies don’t provide the HR support you need to get through a situation like this, and not all people are willing to be reasonable. Three in 10 people report bullying at work, and for one in seven of those, the problem remains unresolved. So if work is affecting your mental health and you’ve exhausted all options in terms of working around a colleague you struggle with, consider planning how you’ll move on to another opportunity.
Frank clashed daily with his manager. He felt it had a heavy impact on him, both inside and outside of work. “My ex-manager was a very toxic person and she created a very difficult environment. My colleagues and I were all scared of being attacked. It was often random and quite personal. She created a culture of fear. Some people might think that’s normal but it’s not,” he said. “We talk a lot about toxic relationships in our friendships or love affairs, but we don’t talk about them at the workplace. They are actually quite similar. She really could manipulate me, and I was suffering. Slowly my mental health got worse.”
Although work is a hugely important part of our lives, we all have to learn when to throw in the towel sometimes. Frank decided that the job was not worth the detrimental effect it had on his mental health. “I think that it had an effect on my personal life and the next steps in my career. But I have realised that it wasn’t ok and I can’t accept that kind of behaviour,” he said.
“Listen to yourself. It’s scary to leave a job, I was nervous because it was a good job on paper and the money was good. In retrospect, I stayed too long and really damaged myself. You can move on to better opportunities.”
Of course leaving a job because of a bad relationship with a colleague is far from ideal, but it’s important to recognise it as an option when solving the problem is beyond the realm of possibility. There are many great job prospects out there, and not all of them involve working with someone who makes your life miserable. Make sure you know when the situation has gone too far, and be good to yourself. A job is replaceable, but your mental health isn’t.
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