Difficult Work Relationship

One of the common challenges many leaders face is trying to work with difficult colleagues. After all, it’s rare that you will click with everyone in your workplace. However, a poor work relationship can reduce your effectiveness, increase your frustration and potentially damage your leadership.

It’s also a lot more relaxing when you can come to work without dreading your interactions with certain people.

In this article, I’ll step through some ways that you can try to build better work relationships with your more challenging colleagues.

Why Do You Have a Poor Work Relationship?

If you’ve ever struggled with a poor work relationship, you’re not alone. Many times, it can be difficult to even understand how the situation has developed.

You probably feel like you’ve been doing a good job, and you’ve been friendly and hit all your targets. But there is that one colleague who doesn’t seem to like you.

Maybe she avoids you. Perhaps he talks down to you in meetings. Maybe she invites other people to meetings, but not you. Or perhaps he just doesn’t do that thing he’s promised you for weeks.

There could be many reasons for these types of interactions, so let’s look at this a little closer.

A Poor Work Relationship Might Not Be All About You

One important aspect to remember when dealing with a poor work relationship, is that it might not be all about you. That is, you may not have done anything obviously wrong to cause the friction.

Clearly if you’ve done something to offend your colleague in some way, then it may just be your fault. But often, poor work relationships are caused by fear, jealousy, insecurity, incorrect perceptions or a lack of respect.

You may not be causing these issues directly, but you may be acting in a way that contributes to the problem. Let’s look at some examples:

  • You’ve recently been making changes to improve the way things work. Your colleagues feel threatened because you might “show them up” or “make them look bad”
  • You were recently promoted to a new role and one of your colleagues missed out on the job. They blame you, so they’ve stopped speaking to you
  • Your boss likes you because you’ve been doing a good job. Some colleagues perceive this as favouritism from the manager, and they have stopped being friendly to you
  • You are always bending over backwards to be helpful to others, taking on extra work. This has now become a habit, and people give you their work because they know you’ll say “Yes”.

These are just a few examples where work relationships can become strained, but there are many others.

Next, we’ll look at some ways you can try to build up a positive work relationship with that difficult colleague.

How to Build Positive Working Relationships With Difficult Colleagues

Whatever the cause of your work relationship challenge, it’s time to put some steps in place to fix it. Poor relationships with colleagues are never fun, so let’s see what we can do about it.

1. Engage Consistently, Instead of Avoiding

When you need to interact with a difficult colleague, it’s highly likely that it’s uncomfortable. Instinctively, you’ll want to avoid the interaction. This is natural.

Avoiding a Difficult Conversation - Main

However, avoiding communication and interaction will usually only exacerbate the problem. When you’re not communicating, you’ll grow apart. Any rift that is in place will potentially grow stronger.

But the most important factor is that when you’re not interacting, it will be impossible to create a more positive relationship. You need to keep interacting consistently so that you have a chance to build the relationship.

Trust often builds over time, through small consistent actions. The more regular contact you have with your difficult colleague, the better chance you have of building a positive working relationship.

Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #50: Are You Avoiding a Difficult Conversation?

2. Include Others, Instead of Going It Alone

Many motivated leaders push ahead individually, instead of trying to enlist the help of others. This isn’t because they are necessarily glory seekers, but may be because they are intensely focused on their own goals. If this sounds like you, others may see you as a “lone wolf”, out to get all the credit.

If you can bring others on the ride with you and have them contribute, you may reduce the perception that you’re a threat. Collaboration can break down barriers, and help people to see that you’re not just going for your own personal glory.

Engaging your difficult colleague may feel uncomfortable, but this may shift their perception of you to a more positive place.

Learn More:  3 Ways That Leaders Can Improve Cross Team Collaboration.

3. Ask For Advice

Competent leaders often give the impression that they are self-sufficient and can do it all by themselves. This can be threatening to other leaders in the workplace.

One powerful way to break this perception is to ask for advice from the very people with which you have a challenging work relationship. They may not expect this, having gained a perception that you’re trying to do it all yourself.

HR Advice

Asking for advice can make the other person feel valued, important and needed. They thought you had all the answers, but now you’re asking for their advice. Instead of feeling threatened, they may now feel more self-assured in their own capability.

Soon, you may just be engaging in a constructive and positive work relationship.

4. Set and Respect Boundaries

Some work relationships are damaged because clear boundaries aren’t in place. If you are constantly taking on more work than you can handle and bending over backwards for others, people may see you as weak and ineffective.

On the other hand, you may be stomping over other people’s boundaries too. If you’re taking liberties with other people’s time, you might be causing stress and frustration.

The key point here is that you must both set firm boundaries for yourself, and respect the boundaries of others. When you can do this, you have a good chance of building respect, which is the foundation of a positive work relationship.

To learn more about setting boundaries, read the related post below.

Learn More:  Setting Boundaries at Work: Why It’s Crucial.

5. Be Helpful

One problem that many ambitious leaders have is that they are consumed with achieving their own goals. This can alienate people as they may perceive you as dominant or forceful as you try to climb your way to the top.

Being helpful to others is a good way to temper this perception. This simply means directing some of your focus to helping others achieve their goals from time to time, without expecting anything in return.

Being helpful or asking for advice is not weakness. It is in fact, a helpful means of building workplace relationships which may just make your own life easier.

6. Improve the Work Relationship By Having a Direct Conversation

And now, it’s back to our old friend, the direct conversation.

Difficult conversation - 2 women talkingYes, these can be uncomfortable. And yes, they can be stressful. But sometimes, a direct conversation is your most valuable tool.

If you have tried other avenues and consistently applied them without seeing improvement, it might be time for a direct conversation.

A direct conversation simply means you tackle the issue head on, in private, with the other person.

Instead of dancing around the subject, being polite and friendly, you simply raise the topic candidly.

Examples of Direct Conversation Starters

Here are some examples:

  • I’ve noticed that you tend to speak over me in meetings. I’d just like to understand more about why this is, and hopefully we can put a stop to it.
  • You seem to be avoiding my calls. Is there an issue that we need to talk about?
  • I’ve noticed that we aren’t getting along as well as we used to. Can we talk about why this is, because we used to work really well together.
  • I’m not going to be able to keep accepting those extra tasks you keep giving me. Let’s have a chat about how you can get the work done, without overloading my team.

Wow! Heavy, right?

Yes, those sorts of conversations can be confronting and daunting. However, they have some really useful effects.

Firstly, they can provide a shock to the system. Many work conversations are polite and non-confrontational so these ones are very different. Your difficult colleague may not even realise they are being difficult, so this may actually raise their awareness of their behaviour, or how you feel about it.

Second, a direct conversation provides an opening for the other person to respond directly. Maybe they’ve been wanting to tell you something for a while, but they never followed through. Well, now they have their chance.

Having a direct conversation can be a valuable way of correcting assumptions, misunderstandings or perceptions that may be wrong. When people aren’t communicating, they make up their own stories about what is happening. A direct conversation can bring things out into the open, where it can be resolved.

You might find out something you didn’t expect. It may even be appropriate to apologise. But this is better than not knowing the reason.

Learn More: Want to be better at handling difficult conversations? Try the Difficult Conversations eBook.

The Goal Is Not Necessarily to Become Friends

Some people just don’t get along. However, I have found in my experience that it’s rare that someone just “doesn’t like you”. There is usually more to the story than this simple explanation.

Of course, if you’ve done something horrible to someone else, you can expect a poor work relationship and an apology is probably in order. Otherwise, it’s worth trying out some of these strategies to help to fix the issue.

Remember that the aim of the game here is not necessarily to become best friends with each other.

The aim is to reduce tension, conflict or avoidant behaviour which can reduce productivity and damage your leadership reputation.

It may also just make it more fun (or less stressful) to come to work each day. Wouldn’t that be nice?

One of the most common ways I help my coaching clients is to help them build better work relationships. If you need some help with this challenging problem, apply for your Discovery coaching session by clicking here. 📅 👈

Have you struggled with a difficult work relationship? What did you do and did it help? Let me and all the other Thoughtful Leaders know in the comments below!