Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

When A Coworker Is Getting On Your Nerves

There are many civil ways to say "Stop." Part of maturity and effectiveness at work is learning to deal with (translation: Smile, grit your teeth and tolerate) the behavior of others who have different styles, traits, habits and perspectives than yours. However, there comes a time when a coworker is negatively effecting your work or your mental or emotional state or when you are making unreasonable adjustments for their benefit. What can you do then? The answer isn’t the same in every situation, but some guidelines can be applied:

1. Make sure you aren’t part of the problem.  Could it be that the irritating behavior of others is a reaction to your own quirky behavior? If others have hinted to you or joked about something you do or say, or if you are well known for an approach that is irritating to others, face up to the fact that you might be part of the problem. Work to change before you work to change others. You may want to acknowledge your part of the problem to the other person and negotiate what you will both change.

2. Consistently and appropriately be clear about what what is bothering you.  Don’t expect someone to know you are upset if you ignore it most of the time, laugh or joke about it sometimes but only now and then act upset.

3. React in a way that is appropriate for the situation. Don’t react in a way that is rude, disruptive or hurtful.  When you fire back a nasty retort, use obscenities or rude gestures, or gossip and complain excessively behind somone’s back, you become the problem as well–and you lose the support you might have had. What you say or do will depend upon the severity and impact of the actions of the other person. You may say something with a reproving smile and gentle tone or you may have a frown and sound briskly adamant, according to the situation.

 Trying to suggest phrases is always difficult because there are so many verbal nuances that are missed, and you have your own verbal style. However, here is a mix of  mild, moderate and strong responses you might make.

“Stop. Stop. Stop.” (This can be said with a smile, a frown, while holding up a hand or while leaving the conflict, according to the situation. When you have the attention of the other person, talk directly but courteously about what is bothering you.)
“Uh oh, that’s getting close to being over the line!”
“Don’t.” (You may have to say it more than once, but often it is all that needs to be said.)
“That’s really distracting. Would you please stop?”
“Lisa, what caused that tone of voice?”
“I don’t understand why you did that. Tell me.”
“You sound upset, but I don’t know why. Are you?”
“How did you mean that the way it sounded?”
“You said that jokingly but I think you were serious. Were you joking or serious?”
“Greg, please don’t do that anymore.”
“That kind of remark makes me feel (how?).”
“Tricia, what would make you think I would respond well to that? I don’t. So don’t do it again.”
“That approach doesn’t work well with me, so you might as well stop it now.”
“Matt, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt about your motives, but this has got to stop. Now.”
“OK, I can see this isn’t going well. Let’s talk to (the supervisor or manager) and get this worked out, now.”

3. When your direct, appropriate communication doesn’t help the situation, get assistance. If you have communicated about a problem clearly and the coworker is aware of your feelings, but continues to do the same disruptive things, go to your manager, Human Resources section or someone else who can either advise you or assist you.  Don’t complain incessantly, vow revenge, play dirty tricks or seethe inwardly. Go to your manager and ask for advice or make a formal complaint, according to the seriousness of the situation. You will get stronger results if you write your concern or at least ask for a formal interview time with your manager, rather than complaining in a general sense but not asking for action to be taken.

 Be prepared to hear your manager sound less concerned than you are.  However, if you are told to continue to accept the behavior of the other person, courteously stand your ground and insist something must change–unless you feel you have no other choice in order to stay out of trouble yourself.  Many (if not most) managers hope a conflict or problem will go away so they don’t have to deal with it.  They are more likely to take action about something that effects work performance than they are about behavior. So, link the behavior to how it is effecting your work and the work of others or to the final work product.

Until you have directly talked to your manager, don’t make the assumption that nothing will be done. If you only complain in a general way or if you are a big part of the problem, you are less likely to get action.  But until you have tried to get help from a higher level, you don’t know for sure what will happen.

4. If the action continues, escalate your complaint but still stay appropriate. If you believe the situation merits it, write a strong letter requesting your manager investigate and intervene to ensure the behavior stops. If that doesn’t work, go higher. Take it as far as you need to take it, within reason for the situation. (Just make sure you are being a valuable employee at the same time.)

 The bottom line: Most problems between coworkers are never confronted openly and courteously, they are only complained about. Or,  the complaining employee will covertly sabotage the work or reputation of the other employee.  That is how conflicts develop and why they continue and get worse. You don’t need to be harsh to get your point across to a coworker whose work style or habits are bothering you. On the other hand, if you never say you are bothered, why should the other employee be concerned? As usual, honest but appropriate communication is the key to making things better.

Do you work with someone whose manner or actions disrupt, irritate or disturb you or make work more difficult? The situation won’t improve on its own, so do something effective about it–or at least try.

December 2nd, 2009 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Personal and Professional Development, Service to Customers, Clients and Coworkers | 5 comments