When Colleagues Drive You Crazy

The people you work with just might be killing you. Those were the findings of a recent study. Now don’t get paranoid: Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that work-related stress—especially negative relationships among co-workers—could drastically reduce one’s life expectancy. In fact, middle-aged employees lacking “peer social support” in their places of work were 2.4 times more likely to die during the study.  

Tony Alessandra, a speaker and author who has written about how to use behavioral differences to build effective teams, recognizes the impact co-worker disagreements and friction can have. “One of the biggest reasons for employee turnover is not pay, but it’s the way they get along with either their colleagues or peers or their manager. A negative relationship can lower productivity and create turnover, mistakes and underperformance.”

Understandably, when you work closely with the same people day in and day out, certain individuals—that perpetual slacker, your control-freak boss, that brown-nosing sycophant—are going to push your buttons, sometimes bringing out the worst in you. But there is hope. Understanding why this friction occurs and identifying healthy ways of dealing with it can make your little corner of the world a much more peaceful place. Heck, it could even lengthen your life.

Why the Friction?

It’s a common office scenario: You work hard, you try to be considerate and you get along pretty well with most of your co-workers—with an emphasis on most. There may be one, two, even a handful of people in your workplace who rub you the wrong way; sometimes the reasons for your ire are obvious, and, other times, you’re just not sure why. What’s the source of all this negativity?

Connie Podesta, speaker and author of Life Would Be Easy If It Weren't for Other Peoplesays there are three main reasons somebody would seriously push your buttons: “Somebody could be exhibiting some form of manipulation, and we get it that we’re being somehow pressured and we feel pressured into doing something the way they want it to be done. So we resist that.”

True, malicious intentions could be behind the discord, but more often than not, people simply aren’t aware that they’re being aggravating. “Some people just don’t behave appropriately,” Podesta says. “They exhibit values that we don’t have. Maybe we’re hard workers and they’re lazy, and maybe we’re organized and they’re messy.”

Her third reason is a bit more surprising. “Maybe they’re too much like you, which is scarier. Some people push your buttons because they’re doing things just like you do them, and you don’t like it,” she says. “For example, if somebody is a very controlling person and they come up against somebody else who is very controlling, neither of them can stand that in one another.” And of course, the fight for control is epic.

Tony Alessandra would likely agree with that assessment. He argues that all workplace relationships—the good, the bad and the ugly—can be analyzed based on the types of workers who are involved and how those types interact. “The four different primary patterns of behavior are The Director, The Thinker, The Relater and The Socializer. Each has their own unique way of interacting with others and can very easily rub other people the wrong way and cause stress.”

He likes to point to two common sayings about how people get along: “Birds of a feather flock together” and “opposites attract.” “When it comes to personal and social interactions, when we’re having a good time, then birds of a feather flock together; people are drawn to like styles,” he says. “But, when it comes to a task or job-related activities, typically opposites attract because someone else’s strengths may compensate for my weaknesses.”

Say, for example, you’re a Director type, a no-nonsense, domineering, big-picture person. “The Director is always moving ahead so fast that she is not a great listener. The exact opposite of The Director is The Relater; they excel at listening…. When the two of them work together, if each of them understands what the other brings to the relationship and don’t criticize the other for lacking what each one has, then they can work very well together.”

So, while you can delve more deeply into this system of thought—and there are even online assessments available for determining compatibility between two people based on behavioral types—there are some simple lessons to be learned from Alessandra’s model. Every person you work with has unique strengths and weaknesses that may overlap with yours or be completely different. Work to identify what characteristics in others may conflict with yours and be proactive about not letting friction arise because of them. By striving to understand how we are all different—and learning not only to accept but anticipate our differences—we put ourselves on a collective path to collaboration.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

While it may be easy to blame those annoying personalities in your office for making your life miserable, it’s time to face the facts: It takes two to tango. “Most relationships are in somewhat of a dance together, a partnership. We can’t just look at the difficult person and say, ‘Why are they doing that?’ Because usually we play some part in it,” Podesta says.

It all boils down to what kind of reaction you provide to someone else’s behavior. “There are three kinds of attention a human can get: positive, negative and no attention at all, which is exhibited by indifference or ignoring the other person,” she says. A normal, healthy human being craves positive attention in any form, from a pat on the back to a promotion.

“A happy life requires that you receive positive attention,” Podesta says. “So, if we do a certain behavior and get positive attention, the brain files that away and says, ‘That was great, do that again.’ If we do something that gets negative attention, it says, ‘Don’t do that again.’ ”

Above all, nobody wants an indifferent reaction. “Indifference is about the worst, because most of us would rather have negative attention than none at all. And that’s what makes somebody a difficult person. If you see somebody and go, ‘I can’t believe they act that way,’ or ‘Why do they keep doing that?’… this is why.”

So let’s go back to that perpetual slacker in your office (and believe us, every office has one): She comes in late, takes a long lunch and leaves early. And nobody says or does a thing, not even her boss. By allowing that person to keep her job and go about her daily routine like nothing is wrong, her bosses and co-workers are giving her positive reinforcement for her behavior, and she’ll keep doing it.

Podesta says we have three choices of how to respond: “You give them positive, you give them negative or you don’t respond at all. In any type of situation anywhere, anytime, with any type of person, those are the only choices you have.”

If someone is pushing our buttons and really making our lives difficult, we need to give them a negative response to stop the behavior. But there are two types of negative responses: aggressive and assertive. We’ve all seen the former. It involves screaming and temper tantrums and doesn’t do much to solve the problem. But the latter is much less common.

“Assertive is respectfully letting someone know that the way they acted isn’t acceptable or appropriate. That’s the only response that will give you any chance of creating a better relationship,” Podesta says. “You try to keep the relationship win-win.… It comes down to having crucial, important conversations with people.”

Some people think workplace harmony can be achieved simply by practicing the Golden Rule, but Alessandra says that thinking is flawed. “In today’s world of increasing diversity, we have the obvious gender divide, generational, ethnic and regional differences—I learned that firsthand.”

Born and raised in New York and New Jersey, Alessandra moved to Southern California and realized that the Golden Rule doesn’t always work. “I treated people in San Diego the way I wanted to be treated. In other words, I treated them like a New Yorker. I came off too strong, too fast, too aggressive. I created interpersonal stress.”

Instead, he preaches the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Treat others as they want to be treated. It’s nothing more than the age-old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Again, it comes back to understanding the differences among us and trying to accommodate the dynamics that occur among personality types. Alessandra calls it adaptability: “It’s your ability to change your approach or strategy depending on the person you’re dealing with.”

When Tempers Rise

Despite our best efforts to be patient and understanding, sometimes a team member irks us so much that we need a sort of release valve for the pressure, especially in a heated situation. Let’s say you’re in the middle of an important meeting, and your saboteur team member throws you under the bus. How can you shift mental gears so you don’t lose it?

Alessandra suggests an oldie but goodie: Count to 10. “When someone is pushing your button—and you can feel it inside—and you want to blurt something out, start counting to 10. Once you get to 10, odds are that, whatever you were going to do, you’re either not going to do it or you’ll have toned it down.” He says the same approach can be helpful for handling nasty email or voicemail. You may instinctively want to fire off an equally heated response. “Just save it for one day; just sleep on it overnight,” he says. “I guarantee that, when you read it the next day, you’re going to tone it down.”

But then how do you deal with that saboteur who was so blatantly in the wrong? “The ideal is never to call out a person in front of others because all it will do is prompt the person to defend rather than truly listen and hear things from your point of view,” Alessandra says. “If at all possible, get them aside and use this technique called an empathy statement.”

An empathy statement has three steps: 1. Make a tentative statement. 2. Define the feeling that you think the other person is feeling or conveying. 3. And then put that feeling into some context. Alessandra gives this example: It appears to me—that’s a tentative statement, not definitive—that you are very frustrated because—that’s defining the feeling—the project isn’t progressing the way you’d like—that’s putting the feeling into context. Then conclude by reaching out: Perhaps we could sit down and you could share some of your ideas about how things might work better.

Essentially, you’re demonstrating to the person that you identify with how they’re feeling and offering a bridge to discussion and reconciliation. It’s a verbal olive branch that could make all of our lives easier if we reached out and extended it once in a while.


Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.

Leave a Comment