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How to deal with difficult colleagues

Oliver Burkeman suggests ways to improve our working lives. Here, he focuses on toxic workmates

by Psychologies

The project

Every workplace has its obnoxious bosses, passive-aggressive colleagues and micro-managers – plus the lazy ones who never do anything to help out. The classic advice is to cut these ‘toxic people’ and ‘energy vampires’ from your life. But usually, in the office, you can’t simply choose to avoid them entirely. Fortunately, there are ways to find a little serenity nonetheless.

The aim

Try to shift perspective: put yourself inside the other person’s head, then ask why their behaviour makes sense to them. That doesn’t mean making excuses for them. But it’ll help you understand the ‘pay-off’– the psychological benefit they’re getting from being argumentative, rude or uncooperative. And that’s key to resolving the situation, or at least not letting it get to you.

The theory

The theory behind ‘pay-offs’ is that even our worst personality traits originally emerged to meet some need. Your office-mate might be passive-aggressive because she’s seeking a sense of control she otherwise lacks in life. Someone who picks fights may be driven by what the philosopher Idries Shah called ‘the attention-factor’ – we long to feel noticed, so if we can’t attract positive attention, we’ll attract hostility instead.

Once you’ve worked out someone’s pay-off, you can often see how to change things; perhaps find other ways to bestow attention on a confrontational person, to forestall fights. Even when you can’t do anything, merely understanding that toxic behaviour can make it easier to tolerate.

Now try It out

  • Try the ‘listen and validate’ approach. Life coach Gabe Nies suggests seeing what happens when you take a negative colleague seriously: make eye contact, listen carefully, tilt your head attentively. You needn’t promise to resolve the issue; often people only need someone to agree there is one.
  • Ask ‘Is this really my business?’ You may think it’s your job to help someone’s issue go away, but it’s often preferable to allow others their problems, says spiritual author Byron Katie. You might think you’re helping, but perhaps you’re being a busybody.
  • Use pre-prepared scripts. When someone pushes your buttons, use a rehearsed response to stay calm. Respond to demands from overbearing colleagues with ‘I need to check, then I’ll get back to you’. This buys you time to gather your thoughts and resist saying ‘yes’ when ‘no’ would be wiser.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: istock

More inspiration:

Read What can we learn from those colourful people who thrive, rather than simply surviving at work? by David Head on LifeLabs