Keeping It Collegial with Coworkers Who Grate Your Nerves

06/28/2017 01:02 pm ET

Adapted from Is This Working?: The Businesslady's Guide to Getting What You Want from Your Career by Courtney C.W. Guerra (Businesslady). Used by permission of the publisher, Adams Media, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

Maybe they’re the worst, or maybe they’re just weird. Here’s how to stand up for yourself while remaining polite and profesh.

“What the hell is wrong with you people?”   — good ol’ Tom Smykowski
Office Space (1999), Mike Judge
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” — good ol’ Tom Smykowski

Every Little Thing They Do Is Maddening

For every delightful person who imbues your life with joy, there’s an equal and opposite person who seems scientifically engineered to aggravate you. Let’s call these Newtonian anomalies the Irritators.

Irritators are everywhere, but you don’t always realize it. It’s only once you’re forced into close proximity with them that you’re able to observe their infuriating habits. So while they might seem to disproportionately populate your workplace, that’s just an illusion.

Every office has its share of people who are stressed, sleep-deprived, and/or quietly trying to manage personal issues. Sometimes, those people will be you. Whenever you find yourself getting impatient with a colleague, try to be understanding. Think of it as building up karma for the instances when you (yes, even you) are someone else’s Irritator, purely due to circumstance.

Being the Bigger Person

Listen: there’s a certain baseline of politeness that you have to maintain with coworkers. Of course you can mentally deride their fashion choices or odorific lunchtime meals, but you have to keep those thoughts separate from the part of your brain that controls public declarations. Unless Irritators are interfering with your work (because they’re your boss or because you’re getting implicated in their screwups), focus on whatever good qualities they have and do your best to curtail your aggravation.

Even if someone’s an unequivocal jerk, don’t sink to their level. At best, snarking back will be a temporary victory that reinforces a poor standard of interpersonal conduct—and at worst, it could get you in trouble with supervisors who don’t agree that your snippy tone was warranted. If you’re relentlessly pleasant, you can be confident that your own behavior is beyond reproach.

Help Me Help You Help Me

Remember, this “get along with your coworkers” stuff isn’t just about following the rules of professional conduct—it’s crucial when you need to collaborate with people and even more vital when asking for a favor.

So how do you keep it cordial while still holding folks accountable?

Let’s say a report is due to your boss at the end of the day on Friday, and your coworker Tim is responsible for the charts that you’re supposed to include. He swore he’d have them on Wednesday, but it’s Thursday afternoon and they still haven’t materialized (...ugh, classic Tim).

It’s tempting to send him an email like “Hey jackass, wanna send me those charts or should I tell Sharon it’s your fault that the report’s not done?” It’s also tempting to just send the incomplete report, copying Tim: “Dear Sharon, Sorry this report doesn’t have charts—Tim never finished them.”

But unless you’re planning on leaving the workforce immediately following this project, that’s only going to cause problems for you—problems that go far beyond whatever momentary shame you manage to cultivate in poor Tim.

Whenever you have to call out a colleague, adopt the “hate to tell you this” vibe of alerting someone to the errant spinach in their teeth. Stick to the facts—and don’t editorialize about your coworkers’ productivity or work habits. It’s a manager’s job to make sure everyone’s pulling their weight. Your job is to...do your job.

So in this example, you email Tim: “I just wanted to confirm you’re still working on those charts—Sharon’s expecting the report by Friday, so I need them by lunchtime at the latest.” If you don’t get a prompt response that assuages your concerns, follow up a different way—phone call, IM, or good-ol’-fashioned desk-stopping-by.

If that doesn’t work, and it’s now Friday morning, then go to your boss: “Sharon, I’m still hoping to finish that report on schedule, but I don’t have charts from Tim yet. If they’re not ready by the deadline, can I get you everything on Monday?”

She’s not an idiot—she can figure out the problem here. But you’re not overstepping your boundaries by critiquing anyone’s performance. And if Tim got pulled into an even higher-priority project that took up all his chart-making time, you won’t have to backpedal your more aggressive approach.

Backpedaling Your More Aggressive Approach

There are going to be times when you inflict a less-than-stellar version of yourself on your coworkers—ill-advisedly pressing Send on an angry email or being cranky when you’re caught at a bad moment. Just like that, suddenly you’re the Irritator! But you can do damage control by at least being self-aware about it. As with any professional mistake, the quickest exit route is a sincere (not drama-laden) apology and a concerted effort to avoid replicating the problem. If you can maintain a baseline of friendliness—or at least a convincing facsimile thereof—you’ll help keep your office a pleasant-ish place to be.

And if you’re lucky, maybe you can even remove that “ish.” But let’s not get carried away.

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