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Battling annoying colleagues

There could be better ways to tackle with the colleagues you think are boorish, say experts.
By Virginia Matthews (Guardian News Service) | None, London
UPDATED ON AUG 22, 2013 11:21 AM IST

Hate isn't a word that most of us feel comfortable with, particularly not when it concerns a close colleague. But despite the growing number of firms who spout platitudes about "happy ships" and their impact on productivity, a fair number of us will go to work this morning filled with dislike for our colleagues.

Julia, a 29-year-old market research executive whose antipathy towards her immediate boss was so severe that she quit her otherwise-satisfying job last Christmas, sums up the problem.

"I couldn't say I was bullied or harassed by my immediate boss, or at least no more than anyone else was, and perhaps if I had been, it would have been easier to get something done.

"Although I respected his professional credentials, he rarely smiled or communicated, and his constant mood swings soured the atmosphere of what could have been a fairly harmonious office."

"I'd dismissed my dislike of him and his rather penetrating voice as something that would go away with time, maybe as I got to know him better. But my initial antipathy turned into real hatred as the months went by and it became so severe that I had to get out for my own sanity."

Every office has its challenging colleagues - among them, the boors, the bellowers, the egotists and the mischief-makers - some of whom perform so well that management ignores - or even condones - their spiteful, personal style.

But if your own dislike of that insulting woman in the next department or her sneering assistant is now seriously affecting your performance and your health, there are steps - other than spending your evenings in the company of pins and voodoo dolls - that can be taken.

According to industrial psychologist Valerie Sutherland, it is important to realise that the only behaviour you have any control over at work is your own.

"It is how you react to any provocation like casual rudeness or lack of social grace that dictates whether a situation becomes serious or not, rather than what the other person does to make you flare up in the first place," she says.

"Difficult people are usually that way because they get a buzz out of making you squirm, lose your cool or rant and rave. If, however, you deny them that buzz and stay calm and courteous, then you have won."

If the mere presence of "Corncrake Voice" at the coffee machine is enough to make you hurtle towards the water-cooler, or the sight of "Toady's" brown lace-ups in a crowded lift has you running for the stairs instead, then the chances are that others are suffering too.

While Dr Sutherland believes that comparing notes about an obnoxious staff member can reassure you that your own compulsion to spit at them in frustration is at least shared by others, Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, warns of the dangers of mischief-making by colleagues.

"When I was at school, there was nothing we liked more than watching two boys knock seven bells out of each other and there is a similar feeling in an office where the antipathy between two colleagues is well-known."

"Even though other people may well share your feelings about a difficult person, their problem may well be less intense than yours. Rather than providing your department with endless amusement as you and the one you hate attempt to attend meetings together or produce a decent piece of work, it is far better to deal with your own uncomfortable feelings than seek reassurance that your hatred is rational."

So, instead of heading for the stairs when the object of your non-affection appears, try talking to them:

"In my experience, it is often possible to find common ground with someone you think you dislike, but you must be prepared to communicate with them and find something to like," says Prof Nicholson.

If mountings level of stress at work, soaring personal ambition and even deliberate "divide and rule" tactics by some managements have made it harder than ever to enjoy harmonious relationships with colleagues, then there is also the curious problem of instant dislike.

Although social psychologists accept that we make up our minds about a stranger within five minutes of meeting them, and rarely change our minds thereafter, it still isn't clear whether it's someone's pheromones, the pitch of their voice or even their facial characteristics that can be the trigger.

So. You've tried not breathing in, looking or listening, you've tried to be grown-up and civil, you don't take it personally any more and have even taken them to lunch for a good heart-to-heart.

You've re-read the important chapters on professionalism in that management book, you've tried for a transfer and now that happy, approachable smile is starting to crack. What's more, your fantasy of throwing your colleague out of the 10th floor window and laughing as he makes his descent is just as powerful as ever.

Maybe it really is time to quit. But not before you've pondered on this question: if you hate the person next to you so much that you are prepared to throw away a really good job while they stay and get promoted, then have you considered how they see the problem? Could it be that they hate you even more?

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