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Dealing with an annoying colleague without losing your cool

We’ve all had days of tearing our hair out over a colleague who has annoying habits. But there are ways to avoid the suffering.

So… you have an annoying colleague (or two). Who doesn’t?

The fact is that we don’t choose our colleagues and, unless we plan on changing jobs, we have to learn to get along.

But working with difficult people can be a major cause of dissatisfaction. It affects how we contribute to our teams, it impacts productivity, and it can sour otherwise pleasant working experiences.

The good news is, if you’re someone currently gnashing your teeth over a co-worker’s irksome behaviour, there are ways to lessen your frustrations and get your daily work back on track.

Step 1: look in the mirror

This may seem like a confronting first step, but analysing how we approach the people we are having trouble with at work can help us find solutions.

Dr Amanda Ferguson is a Sydney-based psychologist (MAPS) and organisational psychologist (FCOP) who is also the host of the popular weekly podcast Psych for Life.

Ferguson says that after the pandemic experience, many people are depleted of their usual bounce-back energy reserves, so it’s not surprising colleagues may be getting under their skin more than normal.

‘Our resiliences have been worn down,’ she says. ‘So if you’re finding yourself annoyed by people at work, it may be a good time to ask: “am I OK?” and “am I burnt out?”.

She says that pausing hard on these questions allows us to see there is something else in our lives leading us to feel more rattled by people than we normally would be.

If that’s the case, it’s time to schedule some time off to reclaim our well-being.

‘It’s about taking a breath to make sure you are getting the right amount of sleep, sun, exercise and play time,’ Ferguson advises.

Step 2: work out your weak spots

Another useful benefit of self-reflection is that it can help us recognise potential chinks in our armour where people’s behaviours are needling through.

‘Annoying behaviour triggers us,’ Ferguson says. ‘So, if someone’s annoying you, it’s because they may have crossed one of your boundaries – they’ve triggered something in a sensitive area.

‘In those cases, you need to put firmer lines around those areas to protect yourself,’ she says.

‘For example, if a colleague is asking for constant updates on your work and it’s annoying you, you could agree to some protocols around those processes so that this behaviour doesn’t trigger such a strong emotional response.’

Step 3: take action

While it sounds straightforward to talk it out and negotiate with a colleague, in reality, these situations are intimidating and challenging for most people.

Ferguson says that to help overcome such uncomfortable feelings you can devise your action plan with two key factors in mind.

'If someone’s annoying you, it’s because they may have crossed one of your boundaries – they’ve triggered something in a sensitive area'.

‘For example, it would be tactful to kick and scream if someone is attacking us, but it’s not if they are waving at us. So, think about how your expression of anger is tactful and will fit the situation.

‘And with timing – if we are trying to explain something to an enraged or bullying person, it’s not going to work out well. It’s better to do so when they are calm again or in a more respectful or formal situation.

‘If the person is enraged, the timing is right to try to diffuse, or to walk away,’ she says.

Once we realise the value of tact and timing, they can be strategically applied to some classic annoying workplace behaviour.

Here are some common archetypes we may encounter:

For the person who dominates every conversation: On handling people who are constantly steering conversations to suit only their own ends, Ferguson advises: ‘If someone is dominating, you can dominate back.

‘You could say something to them like, “Yes! that’s a great idea! And, hey, I thought of x, y and z…” So, you’re asserting yourself into the picture and pushing back against their dominance in a way that’s win-win.’

For the person who tries to drag you into workplace gossip: In response to a person’s speculative musings or personal comments about co-workers, a light and breezy tone is a great way to smoothly guide the chat in other directions.

Ferguson suggests: ‘You could say things like, “oh, how about that?”, and “there you go”, and then quickly change the subject.’

For the inconsiderate person: It may be the colleague with the smelly lunch who insists on eating at their desk. Or the one whose personal phone conversations can be heard a mile away.

In these cases, start by asking nicely for small changes to be made (remembering that tact and timing are vital to your approach). But if they are aggressive or resistant to polite suggestion, the next best solution is avoidance.

‘It’s up to you to find some workarounds and ways you can change the set-up to alleviate your annoyance,’ Ferguson says.

For extremely difficult people: Hopefully you will never encounter these people in the workplace, but unreasonably difficult personalities exist (they may have a personality disorder), and dealing with them can be tough.

Ferguson says one thing you can do in these cases is use it as a chance to build your ‘dealing with difficult’ people skills.

‘You’re bound to run into another person like this at some stage in your life,’ she says.

‘So use the time to hone those skills and master them, because they will be great assets for you throughout your career.’

However, Ferguson says if you are totally worn down by a difficult colleague, it’s important not to try to soldier on.

‘If you’re burnt out, take some time off first. Get your sleeping and relationships and energy back,’ she says, adding that having a breather can give you the perspective you need to carry on.

‘It’s not uncommon for people who feel like they are not able to deal with their difficult boss anymore to take stress leave for a week,’ she says.

‘They may extend their leave for another week, but after that, they are able to come back and say, “OK I’m sleeping again and my marriage is fine now, so let’s go! I’m ready to learn how to deal with this difficult person!”.’

So, if you’re on the brink of losing your cool over the behaviour of a colleague, there are generally strategies you can utilise before you completely explode.

Wherever possible, use these scenarios to your best advantage by learning new skills and honing techniques that add value to your career in the long term, and hopefully you can preserve your passion for your work along the way.


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