Annoyed by Your Coworker?

Navigating the pen-clicking, loud-talking, over-perfumed world of office irritations
Annoyed by Your Coworker?
Image: Hendrik Wieduwilt / Flickr

After decades in the corporate world, I’ve encountered my share of office annoyances.

Tom had a habit of dominating meetings, cutting people off, or talking over them to make his points. I found Gary’s constant need for affirmation and promotion exhausting. Karen was very sweet, and so was her perfume, but it gave me headaches every time I came in close proximity. Rick liked to take his calls on speakerphone—I could hear the details of his conversations even through my closed office door.

The people and personalities that challenge us at work are the ones that offer the greatest chance for personal growth and missional impact.

I had plenty of wonderful, considerate colleagues, too, and when I look back, those are the people I think about most. But the people and personalities that challenge us at work are the ones that offer the greatest chance for personal growth and missional impact. Learning to get along with your coworkers (even, or maybe especially, the annoying ones) is a part of your Christian calling, and it also happens to be essential for your career.

Here are some ways to work through the annoyances and make the best of it.

Don’t stew. The typical office annoyance starts with something very small but can quickly escalate out of proportion. If something is bothering you at work, there are two basic options for handling it in a healthy way: you can choose to take action and try to work it out with the person responsible, or you can choose to let it go. You absolutely must choose. Grumbling about office annoyances to yourself (or others) only causes distractions and wastes precious time and energy. It also tends to harden your heart toward your colleagues.

Let a lot of things go. That guy clicking his pen in the meeting next to you? He is God’s perfect creation, and you are called to love him as Christ loved us. It is foolish to belittle one’s neighbor; a sensible person keeps quiet ().

I have a friend who hates the sound of people chewing, to the point where he sometimes has to get up and leave the room. He knows, though, this peculiar sensitivity is his problem and his responsibility, no one else’s, so he’s careful not to blame others for eating their lunches in the break room.

Are you extra sensitive to something? Consider whether your reaction to the annoyances in your office is being influenced by your own sensitivities, insecurities, or past experiences. Sometimes the things that make us the most uncomfortable about other people come back to our own issues.

Pray for clarity and humility to see if and where your own personal issues are impacting your perception of others around you. Learning to identify those boundaries might help you avoid potentially aggravating experiences, and it can also help you to be more forgiving when someone unknowingly pushes your buttons. Colossians 3:13 tells us to “make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.”

Recognize, too, that you have your own nervous ticks and annoying habits. Cut the people around you some slack, and hope they do the same for you!

Confront with grace. Sometimes you really do need to confront someone about something they are doing, especially if it is having a significant impact on your work. Try to approach those situations with grace and respect: “A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered” (Proverbs 17:27). Your words should be carefully chosen, delivered kindly, and properly motivated.

If your office neighbor’s perfume is giving you migraines, go to her directly, tell her about your sensitivity, ask if she will consider switching scents or wearing less, acknowledge the inconvenience, and be appreciative. There’s no need to apologize excessively—just be honest about the real problem you are having. Most people don’t want to bother or distract others and will work to help you—some people won’t. If the person is unwilling to adjust, you can try moving to another desk or raising the issue with your boss or HR representative.

That guy clicking his pen in the meeting next to you? He is God’s perfect creation, and you are called to love him as Christ loved us.

Respect your colleagues enough to go to them directly before involving other people. If you need to involve others, do so only as necessary. I’ve seen situations where people in the office complained to everyone except the person involved, to the point where the complaint reached his or her manager through another department altogether. A manager put in that position is almost always (rightfully) frustrated, knowing how much time has been wasted passing this complaint around the company when it could have been dealt with simply and directly.

Look for positive changes. If you do decide to take action, start by looking for positive changes that could resolve the situation. At Trammell Crow Company, I worked with a very talented salesperson who was so passionate making the sale that he sometimes seemed to disregard the people (me and my team) who would actually have to deliver on the contract. I found it infuriating and disrespectful. At the tipping point, I worked with our president to set up a “pricing committee” to keep everyone in the loop. The team that had to deliver the business, legal, financial, and risk areas of our business was on the committee and had to approve the deal before we entered into final negotiations. This solution turned a frustrating situation into a positive opportunity for collaboration.

Differentiate between the moral and the menial. It’s important to point out there are two categories of things people do that bother you at the office. What I’ve been talking about here are the small things that mostly come down to personality conflicts and tolerance levels. They are not moral issues involving something clearly wrong or unethical. If you have a colleague who is crossing a moral line, you have a duty not only to not accommodate the behavior but also to help put an end to it. Such behavior almost always comes to light, and it never reflects well on your firm. Fortunately, many companies have systems set up to deal with these issues such as ethics complaint lines and anti-retaliation policies.

Whatever may be bothering you about your workplace, be encouraged that the purpose of your work is not your own comfort but to serve God and his greater mission: “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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