How to cope with a co-worker you hate: very carefully

When you hate someone you work with, you must proceed thoughtfully and carefully as you try to solve the problem.
When you hate someone you work with, you must proceed thoughtfully and carefully as you try to solve the problem.Getty Images stock / Today

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By Kathy Caprino

Executive coaching clients over the years have come to me with a key dilemma: “What do I do when I hate someone at work and feel he (or she) is out to get me?”

So what do I advise my coaching clients to do about this situation? Here are four critical steps for dealing productively with an enemy at work.

1)  Get to the bottom of your beef with them and theirs with you

You’ve got to understand the context and systemic factors around the issue and the core conflict with the individual. It’s almost never what you think it is — there’s always something deeper. Before you approach the individual or try to handle the issue directly, take a critical step back, neutralize your emotions and uncover as best you can both your own issues with this person, and the problem they have with you.

As a trained marriage and family therapist, I learned this: We are 50 percent of a relationship problem — not more, not less. We’ve co-created and co-attracted this problem, and it’s vitally important to figure out how we’re maintaining it. In the case I mention above, my “enemy” was a beautiful marketing director who was the apple of my senior leaders’ eyes at the company. I was downright jealous of her because I felt she wasn’t smart or contributing enough to be achieving the recognition and promotions she received. In short, I wanted more recognition and accolades like hers. It stuck in my craw, and I truly couldn’t get over it.  But I can tell you this: When you hate someone, they’re most likely going to hate you back.

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If you are too emotional too see things clearly, ask for an outside perspective from someone you trust who can see more clearly what could be contributing to your problem with this individual and their hatred of you.

  The only condition that doesn’t fit my “we are 50 percent of the problem” rule is when you’re dealing with a full-blown narcissist — someone with a true narcissistic personality disorder. Unfortunately, narcissists are rampant in corporate America, particularly at high levels, and your best course of action is to: 1) identify when you’re dealing with true narcissist, and 2) if you are, get out of their sphere of influence as soon as possible.

2)  Evaluate the type of emotional conflict you have

There are many types of conflicts we have with co-workers, and we can categorize them by emotions or feelings they evoke in us.  Several primary categories are:

• Jealousy. You’re jealous of what they have and do.

• Insecurity.  They’re powerful in ways you’re not, and that makes you insecure.

• Anger. You feel they’re in your way somehow and blocking your success (as if success were a limited commodity and they’re hogging it).

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• Distrust. You get the gut feeling that you shouldn’t trust them or they give you evidence that they’re not trustworthy.

• Lack of commonality. They’re just so different from you that it’s hard to find any common ground, and that makes you uncomfortable.

• Disrespect. You don’t respect who they are and how they do what they do.

Figure out exactly what feelings this individual evokes in you, and most likely you’ll identify feelings and emotions they experience in dealing with you.

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3)  Assess the best options for handling the problem

When you hate someone at work, you have several options in dealing with the problem:

•  Just bury your feelings and get over it. This is not advised because most of us are terrible at suppressing our feelings; they just leak out.

• Do internal work to overcome your challenges with the person. This is always a good start place to start. Look at yourself first to determine how you are creating or maintaining the problem.

• Address the challenges directly with the individual. This is a good idea only under certain circumstances, such as when you’ve worked out your messages clearly and effectively and when the individual is reasonable, open, communicative and flexible enough to hear what you have to say and do something constructive with it.

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• Get someone else at work to step in as a mediator. This might be called for when the individual is at a higher level in the corporate structure  than you and you need their support to get your work done.

Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages. Get some outside help – from a coach or a mentor or sponsor — to determine the best approach that fits your particular circumstances. Don’t bring it up to your boss or others in your organization until you’ve done all you can to address is proactively and responsibly.

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4)  Find a way to shift your anger or insecurity

I tell all my clients that, in the end, if you are having problems at work, you must make the internal effort now to create a shift within yourself if you want external change. If you don’t change, the problem won’t change, and it will follow you around wherever you go until you resolve it. First, you need to understand that hating this individual is not in your best interest — it’s doing harm to your well-being and your potential success at the organization, even if you think it’s justified. Your hatred is sucking precious time and energy from your day, and most likely giving you a bad reputation as someone who has problems with others. To truly resolve the problem, you have to be ready to release your hatred. You have to believe that letting go of this anger and shifting it to something more positive will indeed help you succeed in your life and career. Until you can accept that (and stop making this individual wrong and the bane of your existence), it’s unlikely you’ll ever come to a satisfactory place with him or her.