Can’t stand a co-worker? Here’s why you’re the real problem

October 3, 2016 Categorized in: Difficult People

Same old, same old: Carl down the hall is late once again with his weekly spreadsheet when he clearly has nothing else to do, and good luck getting an answer from Donna about Friday’s conference call—she’s out of the office for the zillionth time this month (probably because of her kid’s clarinet lessons). What is there to do but lecture your cubicle-mate once again on the shortcomings of these deadbeats?

Stop right there, rain cloud. The chances are very good that you’re missing the whole picture of the colleagues who are causing you to gnaw on your stapler. Ask yourself these questions before you launch your next hissy fit:

1) Do I have any real idea what my co-workers’ jobs are like? Unless you’ve observed someone for a full week as they wrestle with what’s on their plate, you can’t really know what they have to confront and resolve each day, and why your projects and priorities might not be as earth-shaking to them as they are to you. Try trusting that they’re actually busy, and like you, go home every night worried about something work-related.

2) Who are they obligated to please? Many of the things we do are at the behest of someone with the power to fire us. The expectations of the people above us shape our schedules, our goals, our task lists—pretty much every decision we make while we’re on the clock. If you’re not quite getting what you want from someone, it could be that they’re mired in the unfortunate position of having to sacrifice efficiency, protocol and even logic for the sake of appeasing a higher-up.

3) Is what they want from a job simply different from what I do? Not everyone is after a promotion, and not everyone wants to be friends with the people they work with. Workaholics often resent people they consider undedicated, and vice versa. No particular type of worker is right or wrong; they all simply bring different attitudes about the importance of what happens between nine and five. These attitudes were shaped during the long, complex lives your co-workers lived before you came along to complain about them.

4) Am I imagining behavior that isn’t really there? It’s all too easy to infer a nasty tone from email, or to perceive a comment during a meeting as a personal slight, if you go into work looking for it. Don’t fall into the common trap of slapping the “idiot” label on everything your enemies do in advance, causing you to spin their words and deeds negatively. That creates a permanently broken reality that makes it impossible for you to ever perceive someone accurately, and it rolls your emotional intelligence right back to the school playground.

5) Has their dependency on the paycheck distorted their behavior? Many of us are just in survival mode at work, acting not as we wish to, but as we must in order to make sure the money keeps rolling in to feed our families and pay the bills. Colleague behaviors that offend you would probably quickly disappear if the biggest decision they had to make during the day was which beach to lie on to soak up the best rays. The life of corporate toil is a mental crucible, so don’t judge people too hard for doing what they believe they have to just to make it to the next drizzly Monday morning.

And if these five questions don’t engender a little more empathy in your heart, you can always resort to this one: Am I such a pristine jewel of a worker myself?