How to Work With People You Don’t Like


Let me paint you a picture: You’re a badass member of your organization—pretty damn good at doing your job, meeting your KPIs, and managing your team. Your team or organization has built a culture of innovation, and you’re solving problems better than ever before. You are leading the charge when it comes to demonstrating the impact empathy can have. Overall, you’re feeling pretty good about what you’ve built.

Excited by your progress, your boss assigns you to collaborate with the head of another team. Within five minutes of meeting, this person is making your skin crawl. All you’ve learned—and taught—about the power of empathy at work is threatening to go out the window. What do you do?

We all know that empathy is a critical tool for success as creative thinkers, but we assume that we want to be more empathetic. Sometimes, we meet someone with whom we clash, and our desire to empathize disappears entirely. What’s really going on here? And what can we do about it?

What’s happening

You recognize some of yourself in this person and it makes you uncomfortable. A controversial response, we know! As Herman Hesse said, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself.” Just watch a Real Housewives episode and you’ll see this psychology in action.

You have completely different communication styles. When a former boss and I started working together, I was frustrated after almost every conversation—and so was he. I thought he was harsh and short-spoken; he thought I gave unnecessary context. Once I realized that he needed my communication to lead with the headline and action items and to follow with all the background—and I adjusted my communication accordingly—the prickliness subsided, as did my irritation.

You’re being evaluated differently. Ever work with someone you feel just doesn’t care about the thing that impels you to work day to day, and wonder how someone like that ever got hired? Maybe there’s a good reason that person doesn’t care. How we’re evaluated drives how we prioritize our work; the thing that keeps you up at night may not be relevant to others, or their boss.

You have different values. One of the things that makes this world a vibrant and varied place is the array of perspectives and experiences of the people that comprise it. Not everyone shares your values, and not everyone should.

Some tips

Great! You have to work with someone you don’t like, and now you know why. What now? Here are some tips for how to navigate this inevitability.

Pause and reflect. Take a breath and ask yourself what it is about this person that bothers you. Do they remind of someone from your past with whom you don’t get along? Often these responses are about us, not them.

Assume the best. Chances are this person is not trying to irritate you to death. Most likely, they are trying to do their best (just like you) and don’t even realize they’re grating on your nerves. Take a breath and try and remember this motivational quote from Socrates: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Pick one great thing. Everyone has at least one great quality. (Even sociopaths are charming!) Make it your job to identify one strength or asset of the person you’re struggling with, and compliment them for it. This will benefit you as much as it benefits them.

Ask them questions. Here are some favorites:
  • How do you like to work?
  • What’s the best way to communicate with you?
  • What are you most worried about? (Mutual worries are always a great way to bond.)

Buy them a coffee with no other goal than to get to know them as a human being. Empathy, not evaluation or competition, is the game here.

Articulate your hopes and fears. Try an exercise meant to improve team dynamics, and use it in the context of your work. It seems simple, but it provides a neutral and collaborative space.

Create a mutual mini-goal. An added KPI unites you in a common goal. Here are a couple to try:
  • 100% of our teams get positive feedback from someone else.
  • 100% of our joint project teams rates this project 4 or higher on “positive collaboration.”

Don’t assume you’re going to understand this person completely, or even like them in the end. The point is not to like them. The point is to work well with them by spending the time to take a peek into their psyche.

When all else fails

Sometimes, you just don’t click. But by being more intentional in trying to understand someone different than you, your work product will improve, you’ll create the earned perception that you’re a true team player and, perhaps most importantly, you’ll be happier at work.

My mom likes to say that some people are just jerks. That’s true, but remember: someone could be saying that about you. In truly rare instances, there is a toxic presence at work. Maybe your empathy can take you only so far, or maybe it’s not enough to excuse bad behavior. When this happens, you really have three options:

  1. Grin and bear it. It’s not worth agonizing over someone whose behavior indicates that they have their own issues and pain to deal with. Take a deep breath, acknowledge that you can only control your own behavior, and prioritize the project or the work.
  2. Talk to a mediator. In my experience, mediation is one the most underused offerings from HR departments. Ask someone to structure a conversation where you can raise your concerns and move towards a healthy working relationship.
  3. Be a smart giver. I’ll let the video do the explaining on this on.

When in doubt, a trusty reframe can always come in handy. Rather than asking yourself, How do I empathize with someone I don’t like?, ask yourself, How do I identify and leverage this person’s strengths so that we are all happier at work.

The Design Gym
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  • Laban Benaya Kilui
    Posted at 20:41h, 19 June Reply

    Quite enriching and insightful piece.. Could this be backed by more video games to exemplify the content even more?

    • Katie Duffie
      Posted at 13:55h, 28 June Reply

      Thanks for the comment! That’s an interesting prompt we hadn’t thought of. Do you have any examples of what you mean to help us better understand the question?

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