Co-Worker Driving You Crazy? Here's What to Do

ByCharlie Herman via via logo

March 21, 2006 — -- With more than 134 million Americans in the work force, at least one of them will inevitably drive you crazy at your place of employment.

Coping with these co-workers can be a job in itself, whether the objectionable person is self-centered, manipulative, ill-tempered or just plain stupid.

For that reason, nearly every employed person may want to peruse "Working With You Is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself From Emotional Traps at Work," a how-to guide for dealing with those lovable folks commonly called co-workers.

"Most books are talking to the leaders, 'How to be Great Leader,' 'You're a Leader,' but no one is really talking to that middle guy," says co-author Kathi Elster.

Elster, 54, and her business partner, psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, 48, wrote the book over the past seven years. They drew from their nearly 20 years of experience as human resource consultants at hundreds of companies, where they interviewed thousands of employees.

From their research, they developed a series of steps for dealing with irritating colleagues, all centered on the idea that people become "hooked" in emotional traps at work.

Their first suggestion: unhook physically. Is working with co-worker Dan getting you tense? Does Eric make you clench your teeth? If so, the authors say there may be some things you can do independently to lessen your frustration.

The first step requires you to release pent-up frustrations by doing something physical -- a trip to the gym or a simple breathing exercise can do the job. The important thing is to stop focusing on what frustrates you.

"I wish people would stop keeping the story alive, the frustration, and take time to relax," says Elster. "I think that would change a lot."

Next, the authors suggest you unhook mentally. Ask yourself, what's happening here? What are the facts? What is the annoying co-worker's role in the situation, and what is mine? What are my options?

"If you are hooked emotionally, you can't hear a rational discussion," says Crowley. Once you analyze the situation coolly, you can move on to the next step.

And once that mental hurdle is overcome, it's time to unhook verbally. After calming down and thinking with a clear mind, find the right words to explain how you feel, and then say them directly to your co-worker. But keep the big picture in mind.

"It's taking the high road," according to Elster. But that doesn't mean making everything nice. Confronting a co-worker is about communicating effectively, even if the information is bad news.

Finally, unhook with a business tool. Whether it's a written document like a job description or a meeting schedule, these items create objective goals that remove personalized agendas anyone may have.

The steps may sound easy, but not when the five "fatal attractions," as Crowley and Elster call them, can be found lurking in a nearby cubicle. There are many personality types in every office, and the authors outline what they believe to be the five most threatening:

The Exploder: Charismatic and charming, but a power keg ready to explode.

The Empty Pit: This co-worker has lots of personal problems, and they lean on you and make you feel guilty if you refuse to help him.

The Saboteur: A friend. A fan. Perhaps even an admirer -- yet all the while this person is twisting the knife in your back.

The Pedestal Smasher: This one puts you on a pedestal, only to find ways to chip away at it and bring you down.

Finally, the Chip on the Shoulder: Smart, capable and bitter. This colleague is convinced that he or she is being treated poorly by everyone.

As for the corner office, the two authors also address how to "manage up" and take control when your boss is a "controlling egomaniac" or a "charming, cheating liar."

Most of all, Crowely and Eslter say they hope their book helps people accept that they need to change if they want the situation to change.

"Really, where most people get stuck is waiting for the other person to change," says Crowley.

"What we like to say is we are helping people be more responsible for themselves," Elster concludes. "There is too much blame going on, it's about everyone else …"

While it may seem counterintuitive, Elster says that if you change, "it actually is what changes the other person -- you changing your reaction."

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