When colleagues wind you up

Roisin Woolnough finds out how to deal with office politics.

Roisin Woolnough finds out how to deal with office politics.

Winston Churchill knew what he was talking about when he said, "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."

Like many of the great man's quotes, people would do well to remember it, particularly when they run into problems with colleagues at work and tempers start to fray. Communication is as much about listening as it is about talking - something most people forget when their hackles are up.

Angela Baron, advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says it is a rare organisation that does not suffer from office politics. "It is naive to think people can always agree on absolutely everything, so it is important to recognise that other people have thoughts and opinions that are valid," she says. "You need to help each other, not work against each other."

It could be that you disagree with a colleague's way of working or feel that they are nabbing all the interesting jobs. Sometimes these issues are temporary hiccups that naturally resolve themselves. The real problems start when you fall out with a colleague and your professional relationship is affected. Once that happens, it can have an impact on your performance, how you feel about your job and the general atmosphere in the department.

David, an Oracle developer in the IT department of a manufacturing company, says his stress levels have soared because of two difficult colleagues. "We are only a small team - there are seven of us - and a couple of people are not pulling their weight and are always complaining," he says.

"The rest of us have to work harder because the work ends up on your plate instead. The project has been harder than it needed to be because of it, which means that we end up with extra stress and feeling resentful."

Team morale
Team morale was sliding and the situation became so intolerable that David no longer enjoyed going into work. "It got to the stage where, even though I love my job, I thought I might have to get a new one because I knew they were not going to leave."

The manager of the team was aware of the difficulties but did not confront the two people, so the situation was allowed to drag on for several months. In the end, David had a word with them himself. "I tried to be professional about it and hit them with the facts, and it seemed to have the desired effect. They are now moaning less and getting on with their work. And I feel much better."

Confronting the offending parties, as David did, can help establish what the problem is, what behaviour is acceptable, and clear the air - if it is done in a diplomatic, professional manner. But David felt this should have been done by his manager.

Cameron Bradbury, project manager at Getronics, certainly feels it is his responsibility to sort out any problems affecting the overall team dynamics. "I would handle the situation as I saw fit," he says. "It might be a misunderstanding that could be sorted quickly. If the problem escalated, then I would think about taking the people concerned aside and having a word with them."

A serious spat
If it is a serious spat, the input of an independent third party is usually the best solution. It may be that your line manager has a better idea of the overall picture and there is a reason why your colleague is behaving as they are.

It is far better to let your manager know what is bothering you than to get increasingly stressed and develop a negative attitude towards work. Otherwise, your manager and colleagues might start seeing you as the problematic person.

Sometimes these issues can be brought up at team meetings - just be careful to air your grievances sensitively and do not go on the offensive. "If it is a nice, open, relaxed team, you might be able to discuss it at a team meeting in a positive way," says Baron. "It might be that tasks within the team need to be reorganised. It is important to think of possible solutions and not just the problems.

"The other important thing is to do something about it before it escalates and people start talking about each other behind their backs. Unless it is addressed, a little niggle quickly becomes a major problem and factions are created."

This is something Shirley Hemstock, head of the business consulting team at network provider Avaya, is well aware of. As a consultant, in order to win people over to her way of thinking she has to exercise a high level of tact and be sensitive to people's concerns.

"I don't want to trample all over people and say this is the way of doing things," she says. "Otherwise, you can see the barriers go up. People have a sense of threat or fear of the unknown. We have to overcome that by explaining why we are there and what we do, and also by listening to them."

Hemstock has experienced instances when clients have been very prickly, constantly picking arguments and looking for faults. "There was an operations director who was very much on her guard, challenging every point and saying, 'Why do you want this information?' We needed the information but to get it we had to win the people over."

She did this by setting up a workshop where the operations director could talk about her concerns, and Hemstock and her team listened and suggested ways they could help.

It all comes back to Churchill.

What to do when workmates stress you out
  • Take a step back from the situation to get a clear view of what is going on

  • Do not let ill feeling fester or everyone involved will start feeling resentful, work will be affected and divisions will develop

  • Avoid it becoming a topic of conversation and badmouthing colleagues

  • Consider speaking to the person concerned or, if it would be more appropriate, talk to your line manager, human resources department or a diplomatic colleague

  • Listen carefully to their response.

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