People & Human Resources

10 steps to making peace with someone you hate at work

Eve Ash /

Are you in a nightmare situation where you’re feeling hate at work? You’ve been asked to “collaborate”, but now it’s become guerilla warfare. 

You took your complaint about the co-worker to HR, but got an annoying lecture not unlike the one you gave your toddler in the sandpit, and it was suggested you ‘patch up’ your differences. You smiled at each other in false amnesty while wondering how an invisible knife might be quickly patented for office purposes.

You content yourself instead with an inner vow of eternal vengeance, while assuming an amenable front. However, that co-worker continues to vex you in manifold directions. You have driven others mad by your stories and now you have an obsession about it.

It’s as though you never left high school. You’re all “adults” in a modern organisation, but virtually everyone reverts to type.

It could be the micro-managing “mean girl”, or the smart-ass who dominates sales meetings with his tacky know-how. Or the passive-aggressive knowledge-manager who finds a way to undermine your research, but is mysteriously unavailable to assist in other ways. Then there is Meticulous in accounts, who’s so process-driven it’s a miracle any decisions get the sign-off. Or the 20-year-old elevated to social guru status, whose eye-rolls are as eloquent as their tweets are fatuous and who insists you’re behind the times.

What about you? 

Are you on Facebook elaborating about your parenting skills, or answering emails while someone is trying to converse with you? Are you competitive rather than cooperative? Overly helpful but unable to draw the line when colleagues make too many demands? Precious about your expertise and unable to share or coach? Or constantly talking about the bad personalities in your team?

Given the many personality differences and areas of specialisation in most organisations, we are better opting for tolerance. But what does tolerance actually imply? It’s not just a cliché of “agreeing to disagree”, it needs some work on your part.

Have you tried to make work life more tolerable?

1. Look for a common position and focus on what you agree on, not on what you don’t  

Suggest a coffee somewhere pleasant, or lunch at a buzzy (but not noisy) place, and try to gauge a little more about that person’s motivations and goals. Be carefully open about yours. What is the higher goal you agree on? These might include staff safety, company loyalty, caring for children, risk management, even shared values. Say you want to work together without angst.

2. Use open questions to find an agreed position or path to work together

These work so much better than closed questions or judgmental statements, or even continually saying “Let’s agree to disagree” (which becomes meaningless without a context). Try these questions:

  • How do you think we should get this done?
  • What would work best for you?
  • What do you prefer to do next?
  • What would you like me to do?
  • How can we work productively and not drive each other nuts? Use some humour here about your approach – this may trigger humour in your adversary. Laughter is a healthy stress-reducer.

3. Say sorry if you can

Show empathy. Use the word “sorry” – “I am sorry you are upset”, or “I’m sorry it’s become so frustrating”. Maybe you are hard to work with. If you have been a cause of the issues or contributed: “I’m sorry I have contributed to making you upset”. But don’t say it like a child who has been ordered to apologise. Mean it. Your colleague will know, or convey they are sceptical of your intentions if you are insincere about causing them hurt.

4. Say what you can offer

Explain what you’d like to do to make it easier to work together in the future. See what they are prepared to come forward with as well. Note: if this person is demonstrably underperforming, the process of them being performance managed must start. That requires facts regarding them not achieving results. Be sure that you are very clear about the facts, and check that you have the support of management before initiating a performance management review. Do not make assumptions about “under-performance” it should be matched to a person’s agreed performance standards.

5. Seek help for the two of you

Ask for HR or a senior manager to mediate a big problem or role clash. At the very least, get advice for yourself. Choose an “umpire” who is capable of listening impartially and knowledgeably, and ask for a suitable timeframe in which this can be done. By doing this, you are putting the problem on record and giving HR/management a chance to defuse and rectify the issue.

6. Use “thought stopping”

When you start to feel angry about that person – the way they speak or act – stop reminding yourself how much you hate it/them. Hate is a horrible way to feel. STOP those thoughts. Stop wasting your precious brain space. Stop regaling others with yet another example of this person’s bad behaviour. You may have let it become an obsession, so tell yourself to be calm instead of frustrated. CALM. CALM. CALM. You do not want to resemble a Woody Allen character, whining about things all the time!

7. Change your focus

Usually the best way to change another person is not to focus on them but to change yourself. Remember we only live once and this is taking up too much energy. Your dislike of that person may be consuming you, even if their behaviour transcends all reason. Focus on YOUR goals and what you need to achieve.

8. Change your communication style

Imagine they are a customer and you want to provide good service. Better still, show you’re a great listener. (That doesn’t meant impatiently waiting until the other person has finished what they’re saying!) Think of the great interviewers you may have watched or heard – they not only asked questions, but really lock into the interviewee, honing in on key words and receiving them sympathetically and sincerely. Think of a kindly, clear-speaking judge: focus on the facts, not (your) emotions. It’s so much easier to change yourself.

9. Take a new perspective

Imagine you are a scientist or filmmaker, just observing the behaviour, recording it, but not reacting to it. Look for underlying reasons they are so upset. Why do they behave like this? Try to understand by imagining yourself in their position and chart your way forward from this.

10. If all the above fail, find ways not to work with them

Admit it – this is just not going to work. End this cycle of negativity. Look for alternate work in the company. Could you or they work from home? Can you work on different projects? Otherwise seek another job altogether.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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