How to deal with a horrible colleague

It’s unlikely that a loggerheads approach will get you anywhere
Find a common enemy, outsource your emotion, or take a leaf out of Abraham Lincoln’s book.
If there isn’t someone in your current workplace who irks you, chances are there has been in the past. A Conference Board research group study published in 2010 showed that just 56 per cent of people said that they like their co-workers, down from 68 per cent in 1987.
But there are ways to deal with the familiar archetype of the co-worker you can’t stand – and without forcing you to resort to snide remarks and a permanent state of semi-miserableness.

ACT LIKE ABE

Many have argued that having enemies can be played to your advantage – it just requires the right mindset. Abraham Lincoln famously made an asset out of personal animosity by inviting his enemies into his Cabinet. In her 2005 book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin argues that Lincoln’s presidency was stronger because he had his former opponents on side, marshalling their talents and creating one of the most unusual teams in history in the process.
Mike Michalowicz, chief executive of the Provendus Group, has used Goodwin’s book to inspire ways of dealing with your adversaries at work. He gives the example from his consultancy work of two sisters who ran a business. They spent much of their time stymying the prospects of their firm through finger-pointing. The pattern only broke when their father was diagnosed with cancer, giving them a shared, far greater enemy. “Seek to find a common enemy – perhaps a competitor – that you and the employee you hate can target together. A common enemy makes the best of friends,” says Michalowicz.
Also remember, he adds, that you don’t need to like everyone. It might sound obvious, but most managers believe they have to like the person they’re managing. This isn’t the case, he says. “The manager just needs to respect what the employee does. Stop trying to find things to like about the employee that you hate, just find something to respect.”

LAISSEZ-FAIRE APPROACH

The other route to go down is to adopt an “I don’t care” attitude. This is the advice of Stanford University’s Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule. When you find yourself in a position where you really feel stuck, and have no opportunity to provide feedback, Sutton recommends that you “practise the fine art of emotional detachment”. As with a bully, ignoring behaviour will, at least over time, minimalise the effect an individual has on you.
This approach will help you keep your thoughts to yourself, which Sutton also highlights as important. A whinge to fellow employees isn’t a way forward, he says. We have a tendency to look for confirmation of our opinions (“don’t you find Susan’s voice so incredibly annoying?”). But he adds that “because emotions are so contagious, you can bring everyone down”. And these situations can backfire: if someone else doesn’t feel the same way, your expressions may make you look like the unprofessional, tricky one. If you do need to talk about how you feel, consider doing so to someone outside your workplace.

THE BIGGER PERSON

Sutton also believes that there’s a lot of mileage in doing something counterintuitive: rather than avoiding the person you hate, actively find a way to work on a project that requires coordination. It’ll mean expending more emotional energy, but may help you to draw a line between their personal traits and aptitude in the workplace.
You may even find common ground. Lincoln worked extremely hard to bring William Seward on board during the American Civil War. And it paid off: he was closer to him than any other member of his administration, and Seward became one of the President’s most loyal supporters, frequently praising him in public as “the best and wisest man [he had] ever known.”

Finger on the pulse

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