Principle 1: Focus on what you can control
The author to be honest doesn’t fully agree with the oft-given advice: “You can’t change another person.” She has seen many professionals who successfully persuaded a passive-aggressive peer to be more direct or convinced a colleague who played the victim to take responsibility for their failures. But if getting along with your colleague entirely depends on your ability to convince them to become a different person, you’re taking a big risk. They may not have the capacity to change, or they might not want to. The only control you really have is over yourself.
Principle 2: Your perspective is just one perspective
There’s a concept from social psychology called naive realism that explains just how different our perspectives can be. Naive realism is the tendency to believe that we’re seeing the world around us objectively, and if someone doesn’t see it the same way, they’re uninformed, irrational, or biased.
Naive realism is connected to another relevant cognitive bias: fundamental attribution error. This is the inclination to observe another person’s behavior and assume it has more to do with their personality than it does with the situation in which they find themselves. So if your colleague is late to a meeting, you might presume it’s because they’re disorganized or disrespectful, not because they were caught in traffic or in another meeting that ran over. But we do the opposite when it comes to ourselves. When you’re running behind, you probably focus on all the circumstances that led to your tardiness, not the idea that you’re fatally flawed.
It’s important to remember these two concepts in your dealings with your coworker. You’re likely making assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. The divide between your perspective and theirs can feel insurmountable, especially if you insist on a single view of what’s happened and who’s to blame. You can spend hours debating whose interpretation is correct, but reaching agreement on the “facts” is very unlikely. Instead of rehashing the past—a tactic that usually leads to nothing but hard feelings and deadlock—try to focus on what should happen going forward.
Principle 3: Be aware of your biases
There are two specific types of bias that are particularly helpful to understand when it comes to navigating difficult relationships: affinity bias and confirmation bias. Affinity bias is the unconscious tendency to get along with people who are like us. In other words, we gravitate toward people with similar appearances, beliefs, and backgrounds. When colleagues aren’t like us—perhaps in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, education, physical abilities, position at work—we are less likely to want to work with them.
Another form of prejudice that often seeps into workplace relationships is confirmation bias. This is the tendency to interpret events or evidence as confirmation of existing beliefs, and it plays out with vexing coworkers in two ways. First, if your view of a colleague is negative, you are more likely to interpret their actions as further evidence of your belief about them—they’re not up to the task, they’re unkind, or they only care about themselves. Second, if you’ve started to believe that your coworker falls into one of the eight archetypes—or a different category altogether—it will be increasingly difficult for that person to prove you wrong. You are preprogrammed to see “jerk-like” behavior from someone who you already think is a jerk.
So how do you interrupt these biases? There are a few things you can do: 1) Get to know your biases. Taking a quiz online to get a better sense of your susceptibility to hidden biases is a good place to start. 2) Explore different perspectives. There are lots of exercises you can do to help elucidate implicit assumptions. Listen to podcasts or read articles and books written by people who aren’t like you. Learn about different cultures by doing your own research or attending educational events in your area.
Principle 4: Don’t make it “me against them”
If it’s “me against you,” the situation becomes polarizing. There’s someone who’s being difficult and someone who isn’t, someone who is right and someone who is wrong. This type of storytelling is part of our brain’s natural response to negative emotions like anger, fear, pain, or defensiveness. The narrative of “victim versus villain” can be comforting, but it’s rare that we are blameless.
To get along with your colleague, you need a different mental model. Instead of seeing two opposing factions, imagine that there are three entities in the situation: you, your colleague, and the dynamic between you. Maybe that third entity is something specific: a decision you have to make together or a project plan you need to complete. Or maybe it’s more general: ongoing tension between you or bad blood because of a project gone wrong. Either way, this approach separates the people from the problem, which is advice you might’ve heard before; it’s one of the Harvard Negotiation Project’s core principles for handling difficult conversations.
Principle 5: Rely on empathy to see things differently
For starters, we often perceive slights to be worse than they were intended to be. This is what Gabrielle Adams, a professor at the University of Virginia, found in her research. People who feel like they’ve been wronged by a coworker overestimate how much the wrongdoer intended to harm them. As Adams explained to the author, “We imbue others’ actions with a lot more intent than is usually there.”
This goes both ways. In another study, Adams found that both the “transgressor” and the “victim” are liable to assume the worst about one another. As she summarizes, we all “make erroneous attributions about each other’s intent to do harm, how much harm was caused, how severe the issue is, how guilty the other person feels, etc.”
Telling yourself that your politics-playing colleague meant to take credit for your work (and is therefore undeserving of your empathy) is not only potentially unfair to your colleague, but it nudges you toward wallowing, revenge, or other unproductive responses rather than getting along.
It’s far better to give your coworker the benefit of the doubt. Assume there is some rationale behind their prickly behavior (even if you don’t agree with it). What might they be thinking? What are they trying to achieve? What pressures are they under? What else do they have going on—at work or at home? Seeking compassionate explanations for hurtful actions (even if they’re not 100 percent true) will give you the space—having deescalated feelings of threat—to respond thoughtfully.
Principle 6: Know your goal
Whenever you’re trying to address an unhealthy dynamic between you and a coworker, it’s important to be clear with yourself about what you want. Identifying your goal will help you avoid getting pulled into any drama and stay focused on constructive tactics.
Don’t let your hidden agendas throw you off course. For example, in dealing with your overly political colleague, you may say that your goal is to stop worrying that they’re going to undermine you. But what you really want is for them to pay: to be fired, or to feel as miserable as they’ve made you feel, or to be recognized by everyone in the organization as the dishonest manipulator they are. Ulterior motives often color your interactions, causing you to use language or a tone that is excessively critical or condescending, compromising your ability to achieve your stated goal. It’s important to be aware of your secret (or not-so-secret) motivations, so say them out loud or document them, along with your other objectives. Then try to put all ill intentions (no matter how justifiable they seem) aside.
Principle 7: Avoid gossip, mostly
Here’s a secret about gossip: studies have shown that it can actually deter people from behaving selfishly. If a team member knows that others might talk badly about them if they’re uncooperative or rude, it can prevent them from misbehaving in the first place. Does that mean you should talk behind your coworkers’ backs? Well, not so fast. There are dangers as well.
First, it could make you more susceptible to confirmation bias. Sure, Michael may be exasperating sometimes, but once you and your work friends start talking about it, you’re more likely to interpret his future actions as negative. Occasional missteps start to get painted as an inherent trait and the “Michael is difficult” storyline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When others are invested in a particular story about a colleague, it’s exponentially harder to change the narrative.
Additionally, gossiping often reflects poorly on the gossiper. You may get the immediate validation you’re seeking, but you may also garner a reputation for being unprofessional—or end up labeled as the difficult one. Before you start spreading rumors about how incompetent your boss is or how unbearable it is to work with the tormentor who heads up your department, think about your goal. Whether it’s to improve your relationship, feel better, or get your job done despite resistance, ask yourself whether gossip will help or hurt the situation.