In the last few posts, we’ve been talking about the things people find stressful in their jobs. So far we’ve discussed low pay, the commute, and unreasonable workload. Most of us would add our fellow humans to this list, and we have the stats to prove it.
The Annual Work Stress Survey puts both your coworkers and your boss inside the top ten, but the rankings may surprise you. Ten percent of Americans who took the survey named “annoying coworkers” as their biggest cause of work-related stress. Only five percent said it was their boss.
Surprised? I was. A little. Sure, we have more coworkers than bosses, and we spend more time around them. In fact, most of us spend more time with our coworkers than we do with anyone else, including customers, family, and friends. But what does that mean for our stress levels? Here it is in plain numbers: your coworkers’ combined power to make you miserable equals twice that of your boss.
On the bright side, the reverse is also true: your coworkers can make you happy, productive, and in love with your job even when your boss does not. So, how do we put all that power on our side and use it to relax and enjoy what we do? Here are some ideas.
Look for a Culture Match
Culture is something you can’t miss. You catch the vibe instantly when you interview in person, or even when you browse employee profiles on the intranet. Notice how it makes you feel. For example, Google and HubSpot employees sometimes describe themselves as “googly” and “hubspotty.” If these adjectives turn your stomach, you’re probably not a good match for either of these fine employers: your coworkers will annoy you from day one.
The saddest story I’ve heard about a culture mismatch came from a woman with severe pet allergies who took a job in a dog-friendly office. Clearly, a bad choice. Keep in mind that your social phobias could be as debilitating as your allergies. Know what they are and stay away from companies that thrive on the kinds of people you find annoying.
If you are a hiring manager, ask job candidates what they liked about their previous jobs. What kind of work environment did they enjoy? What kinds of people did they get along with best? And, of course, if your company has oddball customs, like office pets or practical jokes, mention them to your prospective hires.
Get to Know Your Coworkers
That’s all good in hindsight. But what if you already have a job you like, save for a certain individual or two that drive you up the wall? Believe it or not, there is a way to dissolve all that tension. The trick is to make that person your friend.
How do you become friends with someone you can’t stand? Easy. Just treat him or her as you would someone you like. Give him some of your time and attention. Be curious. Ask personal questions. Find out why he does the things that annoy you.
I once worked with a woman, let’s call her Ashley, whose special talent was pointing out the obvious. That plus predictable, unfunny jokes made Ashley easily the most annoying person in the building. Her shrill voice seemed to follow me everywhere. The last thing I needed to hear on a Monday morning was a cheerful “It’s Monday!” every time someone stumbled in the middle of a sentence. But Ashley never skipped a beat.
One day I sat next to her at an office party, and we struck up a conversation. It turned out Ashley knew all sorts of personal details about our coworkers, down to the medical histories of everyone’s pets. I realized that she was an unusually caring individual. What I saw as pointless remarks was her way of making sure everyone was okay.
The following Monday, when she made her usual public service announcement—”It’s Monday!”—I couldn’t help laughing. What a relief it was to be in the same room with her without grinding my teeth! It was a typical day in the office; the only difference was that, in my heart, I gave Ashley permission to be herself.
If we are honest, it’s not other people’s actions that push us over the edge. It’s the stories we tell ourselves to justify our anger. The less we know someone, the more we’re willing to question his or her motives. A tribal instinct pushes us to divide people into “us” and “them,” lovable friends and worrisome strangers. Notice how easy it is to forgive someone once you admit him into your camp. Notice, too, that this happens automatically when we share personal details.
If you are a manager, it’s your job to get people to accept each other and work peacefully together. The easiest way to make this happen is to give them frequent opportunities to get to know each other. If this is your challenge, you might find some useful ideas in this article: “How to Get Your Team to Know Each Other.”
Upgrade Your People Skills
You probably guessed that it took me a few beers and a really dull office party to warm up to Ashley. Otherwise, I might have shuddered to this day whenever anyone jokingly said: “It’s Monday.” Luckily for me, I started my own company, and holding onto grudges and petty annoyances became a luxury I could no longer afford. I needed a more systematic way of making strangers into friends and keeping those friendships alive. Our company could never survive without the skills I’ve learned in the process and continue to learn every day.
These are not some advanced management techniques, but simple listening and conversation habits. Their purpose is to allow us to see the problem from another person’s point of view. They keep our tribal instincts at bay and help us join forces instead of attacking each other when we don’t see eye to eye. To see an example of what I’m talking about, read this article: “Hate your Coworkers? You’re in Good Company.”
An office feud can easily ruin your dream job. However, if you follow these three rules, the odds it will happen to you are low. Be selective about your future coworkers. Once you’ve accepted a job, make an effort to get to know your coworkers. Finally, invest in listening and negotiation skills. Not only will these tactics shelter you from annoying coworkers, but they will also help you cope with other workplace stressors.
If you like making friends at work, you'll like my book, because it will make you more popular with your employees.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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