Dealing with a Coworker You Can't Stand
If you worked with someone years ago who was highly unlikable, it’s natural to assume that the person is just as unappealing now. If circumstances bring you together again, it’s unlikely you’ll find the person tolerable. You might as well expect the worst because once a jerk, always a jerk, right?
Well, not necessarily. I recently encountered a team that was going to be briefly in contact with Ted, a fellow who had triggered intensely negative feelings when they’d worked together years earlier. In that long-ago project Ted was, to hear them tell it, aggressive, pushy, and highly opinionated. He was a bully, they claimed.
Dealing with abrasive coworkers is miserable. Still, as the date of their re-meeting approached, members of the team who hadn’t met Ted were puzzled by the level of animosity expressed by their coworkers. Isn’t it possible, they asked, that Ted had changed? After all, that offensive behavior was years ago. But no, they were sure that Ted would be every bit as obnoxious as he’d been in the past.
You don’t need a crystal ball to guess that Ted proved to be nothing like his earlier incarnation. He was mild-mannered, respectful, interested in the team members, and altogether a pleasant person to be with. Maybe he’d never be their BFF, but neither was he off-putting.
Team members talked to him, tentatively at first, and then with what appeared to be genuine engagement. They reminisced, at times smiling as they talked. They even laughed together. One team member admitted to me, “He seems to be a nice guy.” Even the team member who’d been the most vociferously negative about Ted found him tolerable, if not downright likable.
Of course, this situation could have gone in a different direction. Ted might have turned out to be the same boorish bully he was seen to be in the past, and team members would have later regaled each other with “I knew it!” But when people anticipate negativity, there’s a chance they’ll see it even when it’s not there, so it might be better to approach a situation like this with an open mind—or at least not to precede it by building a pile of pejoratives.
It’s possible to acknowledge what a jerk someone was in the past while remaining curious about the person’s current personality. After all, as this team discovered, just because someone was once a jerk, they need not always and forever be a jerk.