Working Past Conflict with Colleagues
Updated: Jul 8
I have a co-worker who is assigned as my partner on a large account. We are supposed to work closely together every day to address this client’s needs. I have tried to be patient, but this other person and I just do not get along. It’s been amplified recently by our drastically opposite political opinions, which he chooses to be very vocal about. I’m considering asking to be reassigned, but I’m afraid of whether I’ll be thought of as a “complainer” who is difficult to work with, when in reality - my partner is the one difficult to work with!
Sometimes we just don’t seem to click with colleagues—to find a groove when working together. Challenging working relationships can arise for various reasons, such as:
One person feels he or she is working more/harder/more effectively than the other and feels frustrated or resentful.
Significant style differences: those differences clash, create obstacles, or more work is required to “manage” the other person’s style. For instance, one person may generate many ideas, but not be great on follow-through, placing a burden on the other person. Or one person might push for more change or more risk while the other wants incremental change.
One or both people don’t have good “soft skills,” inadvertently creating conflict or tension and straining the relationship.
A (perceived or real) lack of respect of one to the other, or both toward each other, creating fundamental problems for the working relationship.
Sometimes we read people incorrectly as negative and we respond in kind, creating a negative spiral of interactions.
It IS a risk to ask to be reassigned; as you note, it can have the effect of your being considered at least somewhat difficult to team with. Particularly if this other person has not had any other colleagues ask to be reassigned.
If you haven’t already done the steps below, it can be worth giving them a try:
Ask yourself whether there are any things about this person that you respect, admire, or appreciate in terms of his work. That is, separate out any style issues from the work itself. Why is he still at the company (and hasn’t been fired)? Focus on any positive aspects of his work performance and what he brings to the table for you and your client.
Consider whether you have been (inadvertently) disrespectful to him and the two of you have gotten into a negative feedback loop. If so, change your behavior to be more respectful. Notice how he responds when you make this change.
If you have been disrespectful in the past, consider apologizing (and then changing that behavior). Own your part of the interactive process.
Consider whether to put your cards on the table, respectfully: Explain how the working relationship has been challenging for you (this means you can identify the ways it’s been challenging!). Ask him how it’s been for him. Let him know you’d like to improve things and together brainstorm how to change the pattern that the two of you have gotten into so that you can both better serve the client and enjoy the work you do together.
Although having opposing deeply-held political beliefs can create tension among colleagues, there is no guarantee that you’d be reassigned to someone who agrees with you on your political or other deeply-held beliefs. If talking about politics creates more tension and both of you are not wanting to talk about politics, perhaps suggest that the two of you agree to disagree and leave it at that. If he brings it up, remind him that you prefer to focus on the work and change the subject.
Note: All of the preceding ideas presume that the other person isn’t malicious, vindictive, or other rare negative behavior patterns that would create a toxic working relationship. Rather, from your question, it seems that there is a “fit” issue.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.