The Zen of Working With Irritating People

tenseEditor’s Note:This is a guest post from Christopher Wallace.

Like it or not, we often spend as much (or more) time with our coworkers as with our families. When we’re in close quarters with anyone for a long period of time, we start to notice their eccentricities. More often than not,  these eccentricities shift from being “quirky” to downright annoying all too quickly when we are subjected to them on a daily basis.

There are dozens of reasons a coworker might irritate us, from poor work performance to generally noisy behavior. It’s easy to respond in turn; lashing out on the offensive by annoying them right back.

When we’re angry and frustrated, a first response is often to express this by going on the attack. And, yes, silently and passively aggressively waiting until you reach a boiling point before talking to your colleague about the annoying behavior counts as an ‘attack’. But as anyone who grew up with siblings can attest, fighting fire with fire generally leaves everyone burned and the issue unsettled.

No matter what the issue you’re facing with a colleague, make a point of addressing it with a smile. Most psychologists will tell you that the majority of our complaints about other people stem from insecurities about the same behavior within ourselves, but there’s no need to bring Sigmund Freud into your office life. Just remember that nothing defuses a festering bomb like a good dose of positivity. You are more likely to get a positive resolution to the annoying behavior  if you raise the issue respectfully and ask for a specific behavior change rather than going on the offensive, “fighting fire with fire”, or focusing on the person rather than the behavior.

Here are a few common workplace examples of conflict between employees, and how to deal with them head-on:

The Annoying Co-Worker

These come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe the person in the cubicle next to you is particularly long-winded and loud-voiced on the phone. Perhaps someone on your team perpetually sucks up to the boss and takes credit for work you’ve completed. An annoyance could be as simple as someone who constantly prints out hundred-page documents, tying up the printer for everyone else.

Over the course of my career, I’ve personally dealt with handfuls of coworkers that frustrated me for small reasons; mostly for making too much noise. The solution can be as simple as a new pair of noise-cancelling headphones ( for the offender, not for you — although if you’re easily distracted, that may help too).

To address a problem with an annoying co-worker, follow these steps:

Step 1: Ask yourself if this is an issue worth fixing. Can you avoid this coworker if you try? If you work closely with them or in the same room, continue to the next step.

Step 2: Depending on the issue, the solution can be as simple as a quick conversation at your coworker’s desk or in the break room. For more complicated issues (or something that requires talking outside of the office), suggest that you meet right after work in a neutral spot where you can both feel relaxed.

Step 3: Consider your approach before jumping in. People naturally go on the defensive when confronted, so begin your conversation with a compliment or by saying something nice. Proceed by simply laying out your concerns. Don’t ‘beat around the bush.’ Address the problem, keep a smile on your face and don’t go on the defensive yourself when they react.

It’s not uncommon for close friendships to find their roots in once-strained relationships. By laying out your concerns with candid honesty, you actually build a foundation of trust and understanding.

The Demeaning Coworker

Confidence is one thing, but deriding coworkers for their work is another thing completely. Whether it’s a manager or a colleague, nothing damages the collective mood like belittlement.

Remember that people with this tendency are encouraged by the reaction they get. When people respond with subservience instead of politely standing up for themselves, the problem person is likely to continue.

Wherever you work, the employees should work together for the greater good of the company. Treat ‘mean’ people with kindness while letting them know that you don’t appreciate their condescending attitude.

The Lazy Slacker and the Overbearing Micromanager

On opposite ends of the spectrum, employees that under-work and those that over-manage can be equally frustrating.
If someone consistently underperforms and it’s dragging your work or the company down, address the issue in incremental stages.

First, ask how you can help them complete their job to an acceptable level. If your good example doesn’t work, let them know that you’re frustrated by their lack of work ethic and the product they’re producing. In the rare case that these steps don’t have an effect, let them know that you’d like to schedule a meeting with your manager to discuss your collective work flow problems (if the boss hasn’t already noticed their lazy employee without you pointing it out).

A boss or team member that scrutinizes every detail is oftentimes just as difficult. Respond to these situations by asking a person directly what you can do to ‘get it right the first time.’ This shows your passion for your job and creates trust. If the colleague still keeps their hands in everything you do, double-checking your work, point it out in the same ways you would deal with an annoying colleague.

Your Turn

What other examples of irritating colleagues have you experienced, and how have you dealt with them? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Christopher Wallace is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Amsterdam Printing, one of the nation’s largest providers of promotional products for businesses large and small. Amsterdam specializes in custom pens and other promotional items such as calendars, laptop bags and T-shirts. Christopher regularly contributes to Amsterdam Printing’s blog.