Working with people you don’t like

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We’ve all had to do it – work with someone we really, really don’t like. It can be both physically and emotionally uncomfortable working with people you don’t like. Dislike can be triggered by physical appearances, unconscious bias, attitudes or opinions, even the sound of someone’s voice. Generally speaking, we dislike what we can not relate to and what we do not approve. Dislike implies mistrust, and mistrust is deadly to good working relationships.

So what can you do? Abraham Lincoln said it best. “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Look beyond the surface of your dislike and spend some time getting to know the person for whom you have so much distaste. Start by taking a moment to reflect on any unconscious bias you may have. We hear a lot about bias concerning gender, race, sexual preferences. Consider two of the biggest areas of contention in our society today – politics and religion. Don’t forget bias about physical appearance (the way someone dresses, their weight…), accents, and other personal traits.

If you do detect an unconscious bias, now you can focus on turning it around. Now is the time to start looking for common ground. Of course, every human is unique, but we have more in common than not. Family, sports, hobbies – you can seek commonalities in an endless number of areas. I am a foodie, so when I’m looking to create a connection, sometimes I will ask about someone’s favorite recipe from their grandmother, and share my love of my grandmother’s recipe for stuffed artichokes and my mother’s recipe for pepper steak. This leads to great conversations about ethnic backgrounds and family, as well as delicious food.

Now you have found something you can connect on. Great. Equally important is to avoid confrontations around contentious topics. They aren’t going to disappear because you have connected. Indeed, even with our own loved ones, sometimes we love someone but like them not at all when they are demonstrating certain behaviors or spouting certain opinions. I’m not suggesting that you never stand up for your opinions and beliefs. There is definitely a time and a place for doing so. But work is not the place to argue about personal opinions. Sit out conversations focused on contentious topics that trigger your emotions. It is possible to NOT ENGAGE in these topics. If you are directly being asked to take part you can politely decline or simply share that you agree to disagree without discussing it further.

If you’re getting hot under the collar while others are discussing a trigger topic, take a break. Go to the restroom or out for a breath of fresh air. When I learned to walk away from useless disputes around opinions, it helped me to improve my personal and professional relationships. Avoidance is not always an acceptable strategy, but it can be exactly that – a strategic decision.

When you dislike someone because of a contentious attitude, take some time to better understand the person and the situation. What pressures are they feeling and how is their stress level and emotion impacting the situation? Are they feeling threatened in some way? Is it possible they have a personal issue? Do your best to work through the situation and understand from their perspective.

You may never learn to love people you once disliked. That’s okay. You don’t need to. All you need to do is get to a place where you can have a productive working relationship. It’s possible to do that in most situations. But some people are just toxic in nature. Toxic employees are negative in all situations and if you are not commiserating with them, you are the enemy. If your efforts to find common ground have failed and you think the person is toxic, check out my article on dealing with toxic employees.