How to Work With a Colleague that You Don’t Like?

By the time you’re an adult, you’re an expert at how to judge yourself and others. You’ve had years to gain clarity around the type of people you naturally get along with, as well as the ones you don’t.

At work, we’ve all seen how tense relationships can create conflict and negatively impact performance. Given that 70% of employees say that work friends are crucial to their happiness on the job, learning how to better navigate these tensions is a sound investment of your time.

There’s plenty of psychological research that explains why some relationships are easier than others. The thing about humans is that we’re complex social creatures with our own values and embedded beliefs about how people should behave, interact, and communicate. We all have unconscious biases that determine how we think and feel about everything, from gender to race. Many of these biases have a significant impact on who we get along with and who we find difficult or annoying.

At the same time, we have an innate desire to be both liked and respected. When conflict occurs, our first instinct is to blame the other person. If only everyone was like me, the world would be amazing. (False.)

The point is … we all want to work with people we like. But not everyone is like us. For new managers in particular, the thoughts that keep you up at night most likely involve people as opposed to strategy — especially the ones who you don’t get along with or find “difficult.”

So, what do you do when you’re stuck working with someone you dislike?

Consider implementing these tried and tested strategies the next time a relationship feels hard.

1 First, take a look at yourself.

Interestingly, we can dislike someone without even knowing why, and then look for evidence to make ourselves right. This is known as confirmation or myside bias. Our brain finds all kinds of ways to manipulate the truth under the guise of keeping us safe, which is one of its primary jobs. Our brain is also highly competent at storing memories about why a particular person should not be trusted. Once you’ve created a “file” on someone, it’s hard to adjust your view of them.

But here’s what we executive coaches know for sure. The most successful and happy people find healthy ways to work with personalities they wouldn’t otherwise choose to have in their life professionally, socially, and within their own family. They are very aware of how they invest their energy in terms of relationships. They adapt their strategies to get the results they need.

So, if you want that person in the office to be less obnoxious, or you want to stop feeling anxious whenever you have a meeting with them, you need to first take a look at yourself. Are you willing to do the work?

Imagine how different life would be and what you could do with all that extra time you currently spend being frustrated. This could be the greatest life hack of all.

2 Be the grown-up.

This is where you reflect on everything you’ve ever learned about emotional intelligence and consciously choose the meaning you’re giving a situation. For example, if someone is rude to you in the staffroom or in a meeting, do you assume that they don’t like you or do you remove yourself from the situation and consider that they could just be having a bad day?

Don’t succumb to childlike behaviors, like getting thoughtlessly defensive and ignoring that person out of spite. Rather than excluding them from a meeting in the future or sending a passive aggressive email, identify behaviors that will serve you (and them).

These include removing yourself (politely) from unproductive conversations, confronting someone respectfully and privately to discuss a problem before it grows, or setting clearer boundaries around your time and expectations.

If your colleague has a habit of demanding quick turnarounds on projects, for example, don’t avoid working with them. Pause, reflect, and ask: What is the most productive and respectful way to handle this scenario? You may find approaching them and explaining that you need X amount of notice in future to meet their deadlines improves the relationship long term.

3) Respect them for what they bring to the table. 

Find what you can appreciate about the person; after all, nearly everyone has strengths and skills that can be utilized. Maybe they’re really good at lateral thinking or have amazing attention to detail, or perhaps their strength is bringing humor to the room when people need it most.

Don’t dilute your own brand by being anything less than respectful to people who are different than yourself. The best employees recognize that diversity is key to solving difficult problems and innovating.

Show compassion to everyone you encounter. Being respectful means you can listen, reflect back the needs of others, adjust your own thinking, and add value to the conversation by challenge with group think. It means caring deeply for others. Esteem their ideas, opinions, and differences. The added bonus is that by respecting behavioral styles and thinking that are different to your own, your gain a multitude of new perspectives and can process information more carefully.

4) Don’t focus on the negatives.

If you’re holding a grudge against someone, expecting them to be late to meetings or to miss deadlines, you’ll likely find the evidence you’re looking for. That’s your confirmation bias at play.

When someone annoys you, rather than focusing on what they’re doing wrong, think about how you’re reacting. Are their constant interruptions driving you crazy because you were taught that talking over somebody else is rude? Is their “pushiness” towards promotion raising your hackles because you’ve been overlooked for advancement in the past?

Have a think about some of your triggers, writing down what you’re reacting to and why. Once you know what’s triggering you, you can decide if it’s something you can let go of, or if it’s something you need to address with the person in a well-thought-through conversation, in which you explain the impact they’re having on you. Just be sure to make it about how you feel, and not what they are doing. Finger-pointing never ends well. For example, instead of saying, “I’d like to talk about why you keep cutting me off in meetings” say, “When you cut me off in meetings, I feel like you aren’t respecting my POV. Can we talk about it?”

You could also consider approaching them one-on-one and brainstorming ideas around how you can best work together. Instead of saying, “You do X, Y, and Z,” say, “What can I do to make our working relationship more productive?” More often than not, there are changes that can be made on both sides to make things work.

5 Try to connect.

Look for the good in this person and try to initiate positive conversations with them about topics you can both contribute to, such as project achievements and organizational successes. Try to differentiate between the person and their behaviors. By focusing on the person and identifying a trait that you both value, like trust, you’ll be less inclined to dwell on the external behavior you dislike, such as their proclivity to interrupt.

This will enable a more respectful and harmonious relationship. Once you establish this relationship, you may find that you were judging them rather harshly, that they are not as “unproductive” as you once thought, and that their “mistakes” are ones everyone makes from time to time.

6 Be strategic.

Consider the outcome you need to reach and do what’s required to achieve it. Perhaps you need to change the way you’re working with the person, whether by spending more time helping them build a skill, connecting them with others in the organization, or giving them meaningful feedback on their work — even if you don’t feel like it.

Focus on the things you can do to help them succeed, keeping in mind that their success is your success. Top of mind should be the organizational vision and what’s needed to get there. Invest time in making sure that the difficult person knows their role, has a sense of belonging, and is clear about what success looks like for everyone.

7 Pick your battles.

There are certainly some battles worth fighting, particularly when they’re values-based. If something that you highly value has been wronged, then constructively find a way to share your view and speak your truth. Getting along with difficult people is not the same as justifying or turning a blind eye to what is unacceptable, such as bullying or discrimination. But if they’re simply rubbing you up the wrong way, offering viewpoints that are different to your own, or holding fast to an issue that will dissipate over time, you should probably let it slide.

In the end, we so often feel the need to be right. That’s our egos at play. We all have one. We want to look good, and we believe it’s always someone else’s fault. But there are occasions in life — especially at work and in the middle of a global pandemic — when showing compassion and flex in your own thinking is so much more important than proving you know better.

The key lies in being empathetic, looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective and being curious rather than judgmental. Take the time to consider the feelings, insecurities, ideas and experiences of whoever it is you’re clashing with. Maybe they ask all those annoying questions during a meeting to show they’re invested, or maybe they gossip about colleagues because they’re dealing with their own insecurities. Work on the basis that everyone has things going on and deserves some patience, tolerance and understanding.

Most people don’t come to work trying to be annoying. Ask yourself: What don’t I know about them?

Lastly, remember that not everyone needs to be your friend. We can indeed work well with, and respect, people we don’t like. Controversial, I know.