(And People Who Dislike You)
Sometimes you don’t like your co-worker or boss.
Other times, they don’t like you.
How do you make it work?
Life would be so much easier if we were able to choose the people around us. We would interact with people we liked - at home, school, work and play. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose in most circumstances. We engage with people we like and dislike to varying degrees almost every day.
We spend about a third of our waking hours at work. We go into every new job hoping we’ll like the people we work with or for. Sometimes we get lucky and everything falls into place. Other times, the co-worker lottery passes us by. We’re left working with one or more people we simply don’t like. It’s even more difficult if we happen to be the one that isn’t liked by others.
Finding advice on how to manage these situations is an adventure. You’ll hear everything from “just choose peace” to detailed tactics about how to discredit your enemies. You may even be told that it’s all about the work and it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike those around you. When you can’t get along with a co-worker or boss, it can be overwhelming. It’s not about finding bliss or about destroying others. It’s about understanding conflicts in the workplace and learning how to handle them when they occur. Only then can you be both successful and satisfied at work. If only it were as easy as it sounds.
How do you work with people you dislike or who dislike you?
1. Get to the source.
It’s easy to decide you dislike someone “just because.” If one of your co-workers dislikes that person too, you feel vindicated and decide that the person is simply unlikeable. You may even develop proof points in your mind, real or contrived. We’ve all done it at one time or another. If you want to dislike someone and it isn’t impacting your performance or job satisfaction, go right ahead and consider it a guilty pleasure. (That is, assuming you aren’t misbehaving, showing disrespect, or undermining that individual. That’s a topic for another day.)
If, on the other hand, you dislike someone and it’s impacting your ability to be successful or satisfied in your work, you almost always benefit from a closer look. The following questions are helpful in identifying what it is you dislike, and why, so you can address it. These questions are also useful in trying to understand why someone doesn’t like you.
The Mirror Affect:
a) Do I know or sense that this person dislikes me and I’m responding to that?
b) Does this person remind me of someone else I dislike?
c) Is my issue with this person, or what they stand for or represent?
d) Is this person strong in an area where I’m weak?
e) Am I jealous of this person or how favorably others perceive them?
f) Does this person favor others over me for reasons I don’t understand?
g) Is this person offensive to me in their behavior or habits?
h) Do I know enough to dislike them or is it based on stories I’ve heard?
i) Am I just going along with other people who dislike this person?
j) Has this person done something to harm me or someone else I care about?
k) Do I perceive this person to be a weak performer?
l) Am I reliant on this person and impacted by a poor working relationship?
Sometimes just understanding the reason why you dislike someone can disarm the situation and help you build greater tolerance. In all cases, it gives you guidance on ways you can improve the situation. If you can move beyond tolerance to improvement, it’s generally worth the investment. Sometimes you have to change your mind and sometimes you have to change your circumstance.
2. Adjust what’s in your control.
With a better understanding of why you dislike someone and how it may be impacting your success or satisfaction, you’re well equipped to improve the situation. It’s always a good idea to adjust what’s in your control before you try to adjust the beliefs or behaviors of others.
You may have discovered that you may have a ‘mirror affect’ in play. You may dislike someone because you believe they dislike you. Perhaps they remind you of someone or something you don’t like. As hard as it may be, it’s 100% within your control to view the individual in a different light. If you disassociate them from a perception that may or may not be true, you can see the individual more clearly and make a new assessment. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt seems contrite, but sometimes it really works. Our filters can be very powerful manipulators of reality. You may end up right where you started, but it doesn’t hurt to validate.
Jealousy issues are equally within your control. Sometimes these are hard to admit, but the more honest you can be if there’s a hint of jealousy the faster you can turn it around. It’s easy to dislike someone because they make you feel inferior in some way. What we often don’t realize is that someone else feels that way about us too. The grass is always greener for another whether it’s physical attributes, personality, or skills. If you embrace the jealousy and instead watch, learn, or appreciate the distinction you’ll be much more gratified in the relationship. Jealousy almost always breeds bad behavior.
Finally, if you’ve been slighted by someone and can’t let it go, you may want to make a different choice. A one-time event that causes a splinter in your relationship with another may warrant forgiveness. Consider letting go of perceived injustices just to gain relief. Be sure to keep your eyes open moving forward, though, so you can see potential trouble coming.
3. Be creative in managing personality conflicts.
Sometimes your challenges with an individual are very real and tangible. Personality conflicts in the workplace can be highly disruptive and aggravating to all involved. Whether it’s a personal habit that drives you crazy or a communication style you find challenging, it can feel like a personal assault in the close quarters of your workplace.
With matters of personality conflict, you can always start by trying to maintain a cordial, but distant relationship. This approach works if you have no critical dependency on the individual and can get by with infrequent contact. One of my former colleagues calls this the “just walk on by” approach. You can also pursue avoidance as a strategy, asking to change teams or otherwise find relief by creating distance. This is also a valid option in some circumstances.
If you can’t create distance, however, you should address personality conflicts. This is particularly true if other people are impacted by the drama that comes from two team members who don’t collaborate well. Remember that personality conflicts reflect poorly on both parties, regardless of who’s “right.” Below are a few options to manage these situations.
a) Learn more and find common ground.
It’s possible that if you get to know someone better, you’ll find redeeming qualities currently hidden by the flames surrounding your hot buttons. Maybe he or she has a personal or professional challenge you aren’t aware of that impacts their behavior. You may discover a sense of humor you’ve yet to see. You may have common interests or connections in your community. Ask a question about something work-related to open a dialog; it often helps build a bridge to tolerance.
b) Agree to rules of engagement.
Sometimes you just have to be direct. I was once in a situation where it was obvious to everyone that my peer and I didn’t like each other. The situation impacted everyone around us to some degree. Here’s how I handled it and to my surprise it worked. It’s now one of the tools I use regularly to help others who have these challenges. I scheduled a private meeting with the following message:
“I don’t particularly like you. I know you don’t like me. We don’t have to like each other, but we have to be able to work together. It’s impacting how others view us individually and it’s preventing us from achieving our objectives. We need a cease-fire and to find a way to work together. What can I do differently that would make our working relationship better? I have ideas as well.”
These are hard conversations. Your stomach will be in knots. Despite the anxiety that comes from having a direct dialog, this approach can serve you well in dealing with personality conflicts. The goal is to acknowledge the truth and find a way to work it out productively as adults. The trick? You may have to be the adult first.
c) Ask for help in coming to agreement.
Managers exist to manage the business and ensure objectives are achieved. Part of that responsibility is managing the people trying to do the work. You can ask your manager for advice in working more effectively with someone you dislike, or you can even ask the manager to intervene and help you and your co-worker figure it out. Either way, letting your manager know you’re interested in being collaborative and cooperative is a good thing. Chances are they’ve heard about the personality conflict even if they haven’t yet mentioned it to you. Sometimes, your manager can actually help.
Note: It’s generally accepted that you’ll get further in your career if you’re well-liked by others. This is the concept of catching more flies with honey than vinegar. I subscribe to that philosophy and do my best to be a person worthy of being liked by others in the workplace. I encourage you to do the same. But sometimes, other people just may not like you. The guidelines above also help when you find yourself on the receiving end of dislike.
4. Take respect issues seriously.
It’s one thing to dislike someone and tolerate personality conflicts. It’s another thing entirely if you dislike someone because you feel he or she has done something to harm you, is showing you disrespect, or is undermining your effectiveness in the organization. When you dislike someone for these types of direct causes, it’s no surprise. They clearly dislike you and represent a threat to you and your success.
Experts in business say that it’s more important to be respected than to be liked. I happen to believe they’re both very important, but without question if you fail to earn respect within an organization you’ll likely fail. If someone is attempting to impact your achievement in a negative way, you shouldn’t just decide to respond in kind. In nearly all cases, you should address it directly. This is also true for situations where someone’s performance is inhibiting your ability to be successful. Here’s my recommendation for taking on these difficult situations. Be thoughtful about what approach will work best for you based on your personality, that of the other person, and the degree to which your relationship is challenged.
a) Call it out and seek to change behavior.
Schedule a private discussion with the other person. Prepare your thoughts in advance to you can speak with clarity and confidence. Tell them you’re reaching out because you have a serious concern. Express your concern directly with regard to the behavior you’ve observed or what you’ve been told. Tell them you believe their actions are either disrespectful or undermining your ability to be successful and why. Outline the behavior you would expect or prefer to see instead. Explain why you believe it’s important to show each other respect and collaborate. Ask for their response or agreement. If they interrupt you before you can deliver the core of your message, ask them to please let you finish and that you’ll give them the opportunity uninterrupted as well.
What not to do? This is the hard part. Don’t be emotional or inflammatory in your choice of words or tone. Avoid bringing other people into the drama. Under no circumstance should you threaten. Just stick to the facts and attempt to negotiate a change in behavior. If you are unsuccessful in gaining common ground, let the other person know you’re concerned enough that you need to escalate to your leadership team. And then do it.
b) Escalate it.
I don’t recommend you escalate without first attempting to resolve issues yourself, unless you feel you have no choice. Maybe you don’t believe the person will agree to meet with you. Certainly don’t engage in a direct discussion if you have concern for your safety or you fear repercussions. If for whatever reason you aren’t able to address these issues directly, you should escalate to your manager. Even if your manager doesn’t engage to assist you, you’ll be on record that you raised the concern in case the situation impacts your performance long-term. With any luck, your manager will facilitate a discussion with the other person (and their manager as appropriate) to help you come to agreement.
In the end, it's not about winning or gaining a moral victory. It's all about ensuring you can deliver what's expected of you to the benefit of the business. It's hard enough to be successful without allowing others to undermine you. Be sure to earn and deserve respect through your decisions, actions and behaviors. Only then can you expect it to be given and address it when it isn't.
5. Use Diplomacy When Your Issue Is With Your Manager.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re having challenges with your manager, know that diplomacy is absolutely essential. I’ve made the mistake of believing that being “right” (by my own assessment) was more important than showing deference to my boss. It’s a hard lesson, but there’s really no circumstance where it’s okay to openly disregard your leader. This is true whether you dislike them or they dislike you. This is a lesson most of us learn over and over again as we experience frustration with our leaders and respond without thinking through the ramifications.
All of the ideas presented earlier can be equally effective when used with your manager as with a co-worker. Just acknowledge that your boss may choose to continue their behavior without consequence. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find common ground. You’ll improve your situation more often than not. Here are some additional ideas on how to improve the relationship between you and your manager.
a) If you dislike your manager, acknowledge their strength(s).
Just as you can find common ground with a co-worker, you can usually find common ground with your manager. When you dislike your boss, it generally comes down to your level of respect for them. Your manager may not be who you’d like them to be, and they may not fulfill every need you have as a member of their team. But in most cases, managers are chosen because they have a core skill that’s valuable to the organization. Sometimes just reminding yourself of their skill(s) helps you tolerate areas of weakness. Tap into what’s good, ask for what you need (even if they should know without you asking) and keep a professional boundary on your relationship.
One exception: If your manager is disrespectful to you or inappropriate in any way, you should have a discussion about how you feel when situation a, b, or c occurs. Be honest, but well-mannered, and make it about your reaction vs. their behavior. If things don’t change, you can choose to escalate to human resources, talk with your boss’s boss, or look for a potential move to another leader’s organization. If the situation doesn’t improve over time, don’t stay too long in a situation where you’re miserable. Sometimes bosses come and go, but sometimes they last a very long time.
b) If your manager dislikes you, evaluate the role you play.
It’s very difficult to gain favor with a boss who doesn’t like you. In situations where you have a personality conflict, challenge yourself as to the role you’re playing in the relationship. If you don’t respect your manager, they won’t respect you. If you don’t keep your commitments and earn their trust, they won’t trust you. If you disregard their direction, they won’t engage you in decision-making. If you don’t have their back, why would they have yours?
If you’re able to acknowledge the role you may be playing in causing your manager to dislike you, you can adjust and adapt to improve the situation. Remember that you don’t need to be friends with your boss. You just need to be personable enough to maintain a productive and professional relationship.
If you invest all you can to no avail, you either have to accept that your success may be limited if you work for this person or choose to move on. If you stay, protect yourself by making sure all expectations are documented in writing and that you deliver on them. Document your performance results often and ask for feedback in writing.
Challenges between people in the workplace can’t be avoided. Anytime you bring people together, conflicts arise. You won’t like everyone at work and they won’t all like you. That doesn’t mean you should accept things as they are. Get to the source to understand what’s behind the relationship dynamic. Change what’s within your control to improve the situation. When a change in your perspective isn’t enough, don’t avoid taking it one step further. Invest time and energy in coming to an understanding. Remember that you’re not seeking world peace, but simply a productive work environment.
You spend a lot of time at work. Tolerating relationship challenges, vs. working to improve them, is rarely the best course. Sometimes it’s all you’ve got, so developing patience helps too. But don’t let fear stop you from working through challenges directly and productively. In most cases, you’re only as successful as your ability to work well with others. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth the pursuit.
My best to you.