By Alexadra Levit. I often tell the story of my first boss, who hated me so much I thought I’d unknowingly committed some grave offense. She’d call me into her office and yell at me for dressing inappropriately and offending colleagues even though in my opinion, I looked and acted just like everyone else. Feeling helpless against her wrath, I simply quit.
Years later, I was again forced to work with a difficult person in the office, but this time I didn’t have the option of running away. Others avoided him, but I sat down and asked how we could work better together. My candidness shocked him out of his irritable stupor, and he was always civil — and even occasionally nice — to me from that point on.
Given the current state of affairs, people in the office are more stressed out and fearful than ever, and unfortunately, employees are likely to take out their angst on each other. If you’ve been saddled with a work relationship that’s making you miserable and if looking for a new opportunity right now isn’t feasible — as it won’t be for most people — how can you transform the situation so that it’s more productive for everyone involved?
Chelsea Grayson, 37 years old, was an associate at the law firm Jones Day in Los Angeles when she was placed on a series of deals with an ornery senior partner. “He was very intimidating,” she says. “He’d give me these unrealistic deadlines, saying sarcastically that there were 24 hours in a day. He never smiled, and I just thought he didn’t like me.”
Ms. Grayson resolved the situation by making an effort to look at it from the senior partner’s perspective. Nearing retirement, he was under pressure to train the next generation of lawyers while making sure key clients were always happy. “Once I understood his motivation, I decided to take responsibility for changing the dynamic,” she says. “I demonstrated interest and enthusiasm whenever we’d interact, and eventually he became my mentor.”
Why is taking action to diminish workplace conflict worth your while? “Research shows that going through life angry causes long-term physical and mental problems,” says Bob Sutton, an author and professor of management science at Stanford University. “Ridding yourself of dysfunctional conflict also means that you’ll have more friends to support you as you move forward in your career.”
Dr. Sutton suggests that many difficult relationships are the result of a vicious cycle of offense and revenge, or one person trying to one-up the other. “Stop trying to win, and treat it as a problem-solving exercise,” he says. Like Ms. Grayson did, he recommends assuming the best about the other person’s motivation, and then delivering on what the boss needs. “Sometimes it also helps to have a sincere conversation, in person rather than over email.”
Despite your efforts, some difficult people will persist in their negativity. If the bad situation continues and involves personal attacks, look for ways to remove yourself from the person’s reach. “Some people are so toxic they’re not worth it,” notes Dr. Sutton.