There are a lot of things you can control at your workplace, but a fellow employee is not one of them. You can somewhat control certain behaviors, especially if they are legally unacceptable, but you really can't control other people, only your reaction to them. This is a lesson that, if learned, could make the workplace a whole lot less stressful for many people.
I recently received a newsletter from Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting, and was struck by something he said about conflict in the office:
When people say (or don't say) things, or do (or don't do) things, we make meaning out of what we observe. Our observations are inherently incomplete, because we don't know what's actually happening for other people.
This is, on the surface, a simple observation, but if you think about it, it could be the root of a lot of issues between co-workers. What we often think is another's personality quirk may just be our interpretation of his or her behavior, based on our own emotional baggage.
For example, I think we've all worked with someone who seems to have an insufferable ego. It has been my experience, however, that much of the time the behavioral cues that seem to indicate a big ego come rather from a place of deep insecurity. Since it's really hard to further bolster someone who seems egotistical, we treat that person with a dismissive attitude in what we do and say. And that, of course, just makes the whole thing worse.
That's kind of a broad example but it's just the tip of the iceberg. You may work with someone who is very curt and impatient and you interpret that behavior as disrespect toward yourself. But maybe that person is battling a chronic health problem or is in the mother of all dysfunctional relationships and his or her outward behavior has nothing to do with you. (Now, if he's nice to everyone BUT you, it could be a different story. )
Also, how you interpret someone's personality can have a lot to do with your personal experience. Have you ever met someone who happens to look like someone else who you don't like very much? And something unconscious happens and you transfer the bad feelings to this new person who has done nothing but bear a physical resemblance to someone else? You have to consciously (at least I do) counter the gut feeling you have, and wipe the slate clean. You've heard people say, "I know her type" haven't you? It's the same kind of deal.
Since the workplace places us in proximity to people we may never get to know beyond a superficial level, you have to be careful of making any assumptions. This will also make you a happier person.
This blog post is also available as a PDF download.
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.