How to Work With Irritating People

Dealing With Minor but Persistent Annoying Behavior

Greg grits his teeth and takes a deep breath. “Be calm,” he tells himself. “Don’t let it get to you. It’s just Carl being Carl.”

But Greg has been gritting his teeth for months now, and he’s finding Carl’s irritating behavior increasingly disruptive and distracting. There’s the frequent cursing, the “reply all” to emails, the smelly sandwiches, and the black hole of scattered papers that is his desk.

The Impact of Irritating Behavior

Irritating behavior can be defined as a person’s annoying habits that bother you often and, eventually, drain your energy and morale. Examples might include:

  • Talking loudly on the phone.
  • Always interrupting people.
  • Being disruptive during group sessions. Leaving it to others to clear away after a meeting. Failing to file documents correctly. Being persistently late
  • Eating loudly.
  • Taking frequent cigarette breaks.
  • Wearing inappropriate clothing.
  • Cutting or chewing fingernails.
  • Referring to people in terms they don’t like.

Often, these behaviors are perceived to be unimportant and so go unchallenged. You might feel that you’ll come across as a “killjoy” if you ask a colleague to change what they’re doing, particularly if it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else and it isn’t affecting his or her ability to work.

But failing to address such issues can leave you feeling helpless, deflated and miserable. Eventually, that niggling little habit can become a major distraction, and it may cause resentment and anger to build up. This can threaten personal and team relationships, and impact your productivity.

Dealing With Irritating Behavior in the Workplace

In this section, we look at seven tips for tackling a co-worker’s irritating behavior in a tactful but assertive way.

1. Avoid Gossip

It can be easy to vent your frustration about your irritating colleague by complaining about him to another co-worker. But spreading rumors

in this way can be divisive and destructive. Not only that, but you might find that it backfires on you, and you could end up looking like the “bad guy.”

Warning:

Gossiping can also lead to much more serious behavioral issues, such as exclusion, harassment, bullying, or discrimination

. These can result in formal disciplinary action, and even dismissal.

2. Assess the Impact

What we find irritating can be very subjective. So, before you decide how to approach the problem, take a step back and look at it objectively. How much does your colleague’s behavior really affect you? Do other people on your team seem bothered by it? Do you feel able to cope with it on your own? Or, do you need to refer it to your manager?

The level of action that you take should correspond to how serious you feel his behavior

to be. If he persistently talks loudly on the phone, for instance, perhaps you could just wear earplugs or politely ask him to “keep it down.” But, if you think his behavior is aggressive or damaging, then you’ll likely need to refer the matter to your manager or HR department.

3. Be Tactful!

It can be hard to keep your emotions in check when you’re faced with persistent, irritating behavior, and “bottling them up” can often make things worse. But, remember that it’s the behavior that’s the issue, not the person. Your colleague is likely unaware of the impact her annoying habit is having on you.

Keep your emotions under control when you confront her. Be tactful

, and make the conversation as work-focused as possible. Assert how you feel, but avoid making it personal, as this may cause her to become defensive or angry.

For example, you could say: “Hey, Dina, I love your taste in music but I’m on a tight deadline today and really need to focus. Any chance you could turn it down, just for a while, please?”

4. Consider Any Underlying Causes

Give your colleague the benefit of the doubt. A messy desk, for example, could be a sign that he is struggling to organize his work. Noisy phone calls could be the result of hearing loss

. And poor asset management could be due to a lack of training.

His behavior might be down to something you haven’t considered, such as cultural differences

. If so, you’ll need to tread carefully. You don’t want to come across as insensitive or discriminatory.

5. Be Open and Honest

Start a “savvy” conversation

with your colleague. Be open and honest with her about how you feel, but also show respect, and listen to her reply with empathy and without judgment. Savvy conversations are designed to enable people to talk freely with each other in a way that avoids conflict or distrust.

Tip:

If tensions do run high, try asking an impartial colleague to mediate

the discussion. Mediation is an informal conflict-resolution tool that can help to improve trust and team relationships.

6. Seek Support

If behavior shifts from being irritating to serious – in cases of persistent lateness or bullying, for example – it becomes a performance or disciplinary issue. In these circumstances, it’s best that you let your manager or HR take the lead.

7. Develop Coping Mechanisms

If you think that a colleague’s irritating behavior is unlikely to change, or you choose to ignore it, make sure that you have adequate coping strategies.

Try deep breathing exercises or mindfulness to help to keep calm and focused. Or, if it’s a “noisy neighbor” that’s the problem, you could try using earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. Perhaps you could change desks, or adjust your workstation to make his irritating behavior less visible or distracting.

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