July 2000 - Dealing with Co-Workers We Don't Like
Dealing With Co-workers We Donít Like
by Jonathan A. Hess, Ph.D. Asst. Professor of Communication, University of Missouri-Columbia
When we take a job with a company, we instantly develop a large network of new acquaintances. The relationships we have with co-workers are called "nonvoluntary relationships" because as long as we hold a job with that organization, we have no choice but to interact with the other people who work there.
As long as we like our co-workers, the nonvoluntary nature of these relationships is unremarkable, but for most of us it is inevitable that we won't like a few of those people. This can cause a difficult situation.
Relationships with co-workers we don't like are stressful. The stronger our disdain and the more closely we have to work with such individuals, the more stress these relationships cause.
How to Cope
So, what can we do about it?
Learning to like that individual is a noble avenue to pursue, and it is sometimes possible with the right attitude and positive treatment of the other person.
Sometimes just listening to that individual or getting to know more about her or him is enough to transform resentment into respect. After all, perceiving others as different from ourselves is one of the biggest causes of disliking.
If we can focus on ways in which we're similar with others we can often overcome hatred. Another useful approach is to try to understand the other person's feelings. It is difficult to hate a person when you empathize with the problems that he or she faces.
It is unrealistic, however, to think that everyone can just learn how to love every person they know. Suppose you try to like your colleague, and no matter how hard you try, you still find the person just as revolting as ever?
I believe that learning to like each other is a good ideal to work toward, but there is no shame in disliking some people, and disliking should not be an impediment to civil and effective work relationships.
What Research Tells Us
What does research about human behavior tell us about such relationships?
First, our most basic reaction to the stress of these relationships is to try to avoid the other person. This can be a good strategy where possible.
You might take your break at a different time than that person or eat lunch in a different location to avoid having to be around that individual. You should be careful, however, not to avoid interacting with the person on necessary functions of your job, because that can interfere with the tasks that need to be done.
Furthermore, there are other possible problems associated with avoiding a person.
For instance, Robert Baron contends that when supervisors avoid giving negative feedback to subordinates they may get into a cycle in which they let the resentment build up to the point at which they can no longer contain it, and then erupt by inappropriately lashing out toward the person.
As a result, the subordinate feels mistreated, and is likely feel resentment toward the company and may even try some form of retaliation.
What can you do to cope with stress without avoiding the person? In my own research, I have found that people do this by creating psychological distance between themselves and the disliked persons.
Psychological distance is a term referring to the emotional barricade we build to make ourselves feel like our relationship with that other person is not a close one.
What are some ways to do it?
Here are some of the most common techniques people report using:
Try to Remain as Neutral as Possible
It is best to avoid antagonizing the person you dislike because that can set the stage for retaliation on her or his part (with just cause!).
Beside, many of the people we dislike, don't feel the same about us. They may be ambivalent toward us or even think positively of us. Treating them with hostility will only serve to make them think less of us.
There is no point in making matters worse by creating an enemy where none previously existed.
Leadership Requires Mastering This Skill
Relationships with people we don't like are difficult, but for most people they are a necessary part of organizational life.
Developing an ability to reduce the stress such relationships cause us and to work productively with such people will make you more relaxed, increase your effectiveness on the job, and increase chances of promotion.
After all, one of the important aspects of effective leadership is the ability to work with a diverse set of people, and to garner support from all those people you work with.
If you aspire to be a successful leader and manager, this is a necessary skill to master.
© Copyright Jonathan Hess, 2000 Used with permission of the author. Thanks, Jon!!
Contact: web: http://web.missouri.edu/~commjh/ e-mail: HessJ [at] missouri.edu
Page updated: November 29, 2010 Institute for Management Excellence, Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved
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