Coworkers: The Good, the Bad and the Utterly Annoying

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison shares 10 tricks that will improve your workplace relationships.

Published: Nov 20, 2019

Bring five, eight, ten or more people together in the workplace, and it’s a crapshoot as to how well they’ll get along and function. The larger the group, the more difficult it becomes.

It really is like family—some you like better than others, and some not so much. Seriously, getting your colleagues to agree on something is like hosting a big family dinner for Thanksgiving. There are the traditionalists who crave turkey with all trimmings and need their pumpkin pie like every year. And then there are those who complain, “Didn’t you get my email about making Tofurky this year?”

And that’s before the table conversation heats up, with taboo topics left, right, and center.

The reason is everybody has their own “appetite”—their self-interest. Having different perspectives is great—that’s how we get to “collective genius.” But when people become entrenched in their self-interests, it becomes impossible to create shared interest, which is the lifeblood of teams.

No matter how much you might wish otherwise, you can’t fix other people. The only option is to become more self-aware to see how and where you can change yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to paste on a smiley face – just be authentic and straightforward.

Here are ten things you can think about today to deal with your colleagues—the good, the bad, and utterly annoying:

  1. Ego is not your amigo. Don’t waste your time thinking you have the power to “fix” others or contemplating how much better the world would be if you were in charge. It starts with you, modeling the behaviors you want to see in others.
  2. Hit the pause button. When you’re triggered by something that someone else says or does, pause between the stimulus and your reaction. Speak too fast and you’ll regret it later. And that goes double if you’re furiously thumbing an email or text to respond to the latest annoyance.
  3. Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Show a little humility and remember your humanity—even saying “good morning” or “thank you” goes a long way.
  4. Make others feel better after every interaction. Early in my career, someone gave me some amazing advice. People should always feel better after they’ve spoken with you, even if it’s a difficult conversation. Focus on the issues that need to be acknowledged and the problems that can’t be ignored. Seek out the opinions of others.
  5. Understand others before being understood. Among Dr. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of my favorites is “seek first to understand, then be understood.” What makes others tick? What’s important to them? View your coworkers through the lens of seeking to understand.
  6. Listen twice as much as you speak. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen to understand and take in information. Don’t rush to judge; ask questions if you need more clarity.
  7. Be open to feedback. In almost any workplace conflict, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. Maybe you didn’t start it, but if you complain to any and all who will listen and play passive-aggressive games, you are escalating the problem. These habits may be so ingrained, you may not even be aware of your own behaviors. Get feedback from a mentor or trusted advisor, especially if the conflict is with your boss.
  8. Stop the gripe sessions. What do you really get out of feeding the negativity? By talking about “what they said/did today,” you’re only increasing the stress for yourself and your coworkers. Unless there is a breach of ethics or integrity (which is a human resources issue), let it go and move on.
  9. Assume the better motive. Your boss gives you a last-minute assignment late on a Friday and needs it done by midday Monday. Your coworker announces there’s a major problem, and suddenly you’re dragged in to help solve it. This happens all the time in organizations. Priorities shift and things escalate. When in doubt, assume the better motive. 
  10. Ask for and offer help. Virtually everyone is good at something, and chances are the people around you have strengths that you lack—and vice versa. The more clearly you can see others, the better you’ll understand how to work with them. Working together, focused on a common problem, can help build bridges.

You won’t miraculously change your relationships at work—or around the Thanksgiving table. But you can become the change you want to see in others. Who knows: those “annoying” coworkers (and relatives) might stop complaining about you, too.    

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