How to Navigate Office Culture with Difficult People

People are difficult.

So, we find ways to not having to deal with them – we choose who we associate with and who we call our friends.  But then, there’s work.  At the office, you can’t control what type of personalities you associate with for a good portion of the day.  (Sometimes it may feel like you’re trapped in that endless group project from high school.)

This is where learning how to cope with difficult people comes in.  This is also where learning how to cope with anyone comes in, because oftentimes that’s what causes us to label people “difficult” – we don’t understand them.

First and foremost, learning how to properly interact with individuals should not wait until you’re thrust into a challenging situation.  Like in any part of life, the goal is to be proactive, not retroactive.  When you interview for a job, you’re already being viewed through a social lens of “would this person be a good fit?”  Your personality, but mainly your emotional intelligence, is a heavy factor that hiring managers take into account.  Emotional intelligence is self-explanatory (being aware of the effects of how yours and other people’s emotions play off each other and how you manage them).   Your skills and credentials help land you the interview, but your social skills and awareness contribute heavily to whether you’ll be hired or not.

It is paramount to be aware of how your actions, stemming from how well you manage your emotions, affect people.  Sometimes we don’t want to admit we are the difficult people that this article (or those books in the store or those witty Tweets and posts) is talking about.  But admitting it gets a little easier when we realize how it impacts our work and personal life.  Drama is not an attractive trait in either circle.

Being personally aware, acting and not immediately reacting, is an ongoing process.   It gets easier as you practice it, but it’s something that is never not needed.  Here are some ways to strengthen that foundation.

Listening

Yes, this seems so obvious, it’s almost offendable, but the obvious is not always done correctly.  It’s easy to listen to someone else; it’s easy to let them ramble.  What is not always easy is listening with intent.  It’s easy to tune people out that we don’t agree with, or we only tune in to certain parts as we form an argument against them.  We don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to argue our viewpoint (and win).  Listening with the intent to understand the view of the person you’re speaking with – that is what a conversation is.  Especially in terms of office life, your goal is to corroborate and create (or manage) the best product for your company.  A one-man army is not the goal when working with a group.  This type of behavior can also lead to you not rising to a higher position, because a manager knows how to delegate and listen to their employees for the best result for them and the company.

It’s Not Always about You

Another key to listening and having an open dialogue is realizing it’s not always about you.  This applies on two levels: one, like stated before, a conversation is with two people understanding if not necessarily agreeing with one another – not a forceful dictation from a soapbox. Two, not everything is a personal offense.  Especially in work and working with people you don’t really know, it can be hard to take constructive criticism, or have your ideas be discounted as “not the right approach” for a project, or you weren’t chosen to lead a group project – these types of interactions are not a personal attack on your character.  This is where being able to manage your emotions and actions is paramount; it’s important to know what is the truth.  If there is some truth to the constructive criticism, apply it.  If there’s truth to there being a better way to manage a project, find it.  It can be a painful moment of clarity, but it’s a personal growth that will show in the rest of your personal and work life. Being able to balance and be emotionally healthy (understanding why some things are bothering you; when you know your workload limit) will result in less stress.

Change Your Mentality

The easiest thing to do is to rely on your individuality as the reason why you’re right.  The other easiest thing to do is to forget that the coworker you dislike is also an individual that can rely on that same reasoning.  This foundation is the classic mentality of “us vs. them.”  That type of mentality? It gets you nowhere in life – either personal or professional.   Compounding on the lessons of listening with intent and realizing it’s not always about you, use those emotional insights to learn how to respect and compromise.  Office life will always have compromise because it is a group of individuals figuring out the best approaches for their company to flourish.

The real key to navigating office culture (and the world) is learning how to manage ourselves.  The goal is not to immediately react by not stopping to evaluate the situation, but to act only after we’ve measured the situation and our immediate response to it, because our first response is not always the best response.  Applying these tools and substantiating our emotional intelligence, like we do with work experience, will help in understanding our coworkers, resolve conflict, and be emotionally healthy in stressful situations.