Q. I started a new job 6 months ago, and I suspect that I rub one of my new coworkers the wrong way. I can see and feel the difference between his interactions with me and our other three immediate colleagues - how friendly he is, his tone of voice, how supportive he is of my ideas vs. negative reactions. I am mature enough to know that not everyone will like me, but I still feel a resentful about it and I find it affecting what I think about him and how much I want to interact with him.
He is younger than I am by 10 years or so, and I suspect some of his actions and inability to mask his feelings about me reflect his relatively young age. Our director is aware of some tension between us (she brought it up with me after an email response of his).
I've never had to deal with this before, and I am wondering if it would be appropriate to have a conversation with him about this: "I get the sense that I might rub you the wrong way and I wonder if there might be a misunderstanding between us or if there are things I could do to make working with me easier."
I'm not certain if I could gain anything if I went this route. I don't expect to be his best friend, but I'd like more camaraderie between us. I also wonder if my desire to talk with him is more of a petty nature - that I want him to just know that I know he doesn't like me. So what's the appropriate next step?
A. Relationships at work are at least as complicated as those in your private life, and often more so because of the amount of time you spend with these people, reporting relationships, or perhaps the dependence you may have on each other to do your job well. When these relationships work, people enjoy each other, most often their work product and productivity exceed expectations, and retention is another corporate side benefit.
When the relationships don't work, they can range from annoyance to dislike to avoidance and worse. Organizations do well to make sure any kind of hostility is recognized as totally unacceptable and not allowed to escalate.
I consulted with Kathleen Greer, president of KGA, a leading provider of Employee Assistance Programs. "It is a good practice to try and have a direct conversation with a coworker when this type of rift develops because nine times out of ten, the conversation will make things better. Try the simple assertiveness technique where you have a private conversation, describe what you've noticed, how you feel and what you want. Be prepared to repeat you observations and concerns if he gets defensive. It might not resolve the situation completely but it should alleviate some tension."
People are extra tense these days in most jobs because of the pressures associated with the economic downturn. Many employees are "doing more with less" because of unfilled vacancies. Still others are struggling with personal stress because of the fallout from the financial crisis. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt and reaching out to them to smooth things over will show goodwill during a bad time.
Managers and human resources leaders may also take the time to look at ways to alleviate stress, and support team development opportunities. These investments in employees can provide needed relief, and encourage a positive, supportive work environment.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
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