Personality differences. Moral misalignment. Work style disparities. Character clashes. They’re conflicts in most workplaces every day.
Even HR pros have to work with people they dislike. But if you’re lucky enough to not be in that situation, you likely have to manage people who hate each other.
Aside from separating sparring employees – which can be difficult – you want strategies to make conflicting relationships workable. Here’s help from Amy Gallo, co-host of the Women at Work podcast, and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict.
Your gut reaction to a colleague who gets under your skin will likely be negative. It will also set the stage for how an uncomfortable conversation plays out – and how the situation moves forward.
So you want to manage reactions before you react to conflict. Think less about how your nemesis acts and more about how you react. Take the deep breath. Don’t speak until you’ve mentally worked out what you’ll say and prepared the calm tone you’ll use.
This is a critical tactic for leaders: Keep your distaste for coworkers to yourself.
It’s tempting to want to gripe to colleagues about people you struggle to get along with, but doing so is unprofessional and will hurt your authority and credibility.
Even worse, leaders who talk negatively about others set a terrible example for their employees – and can tarnish their nemesis’ reputation. If you must vent, choose a peer outside the office.
And when you need to get involved in employees’ conflict, lead by example. Ask them to avoid attacking people and personalities and focus on behaviors that cause issues – and can potentially be resolved.
It’s hard to be objective in a bad relationship. But it’s important to take a better peripheral view of the situation and ask yourself, “Could it be me?”
Consider what it is that you don’t like. Perhaps a:
- specific action that sets you off
- difference in attitude or values
- personality trait that reminds you of someone you don’t like, or
- position, possession or situation that makes you jealous.
If any are a factor, there’s a good chance you’re part of the problem. Try to identify your role in the tumultuous relationship, and work to clean it up.
Build on it
Try spending more time with someone you don’t want to spend any time with!
“One of the best ways to get to like someone you don’t like is to work on a project that requires coordination,” says Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule.
It’s not ideal at first. In fact, it’s probably the exact opposite of what you’d want to do. But researchers have found that people in this situation find themselves understanding each other better and developing some mutual empathy once they work more closely together. What often happens is they find another common like or dislike that bonds them.
If nothing else works – and you must work effectively with someone you don’t like – address it.
The key is to address what annoys you with a It’s-not-you-it’s-me approach. Focus on a behavior the person can control and how it impacts you and your work together.
For instance, “Tammy, I feel you try to one-up me every time we collaborate and our VP is involved. This behavior makes me reluctant to work with and sometimes speak to you. How would you suggest we proceed?”
Be prepared: Your adversary may get defensive, take it personally and escalate the situation.
If that’s the case, try this last tactic from Sutton: “Practice the fine art of emotional detachment or not giving a $h!t.”