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Jody J. Foster, MD, MBA and Michelle Joy, MD 
Jody J. Foster, MD, MBA and Michelle Joy, MD 

Understanding Difficult Workplace Relationships

Becoming aware of the roles we each play

Early in my career as a psychiatrist, I had a lot of trouble treating deeply egocentric patients — until I looked inside myself. I learned that when I felt that there was a patient I simply couldn’t treat, I needed to figure out why. Most often, the person’s behaviors reminded me of someone in my family. Worst of all, the person was often acting in a way that I myself did – and hated. Through this process of reflection, the feeling of vexation moved squarely onto me. I realized that, in some way, I was guilty of the very things that bothered me in these patients. Indeed, I suddenly felt I had a window into the patients’ feelings, I found empathy for their distress, and I was able to form more fruitful working relationships.

In my work as a consultant to organizations from Fortune 500 companies to major hospitals, I know that a similar perspective is important to undertake in the workplace. When having interpersonal difficulties in these settings we must ask ourselves what, if any, contribution we may be making to the situation.

I would like people to become more aware of the role we each play in creating and maintaining difficult relationships at work. Instead, what usually happens is that we come to label coworkers as “jerks” or “schmucks” because they make us mad and the workplace seems disrupted. The problem must be them, we think. However, the individuals who are characterized as problematic people are most likely not intending to be rude or difficult and may not even knot that their behavior is considered difficult at all.

As we attempt to understand conflicts in the workplace, it is important to recognize how much of creating a healthy environment lies with each of us. When someone’s behavior upsets us it's important to ask, Why is this behavior affecting me in this way? Why am I bothered by it, and is there something about me that I can look at to understand this person’s behavior?

If in workplace after workplace, you can’t get along with your coworkers, something is wrong. Maybe it’s the office culture, maybe it’s the field itself, but whatever it is, you’d better take a look inward. Perhaps you feel you get along with people just fine, but coworker after coworker complains about an inability to get along with you. Go get the mirror. Hurry.

A trick of the trade boils down to this: if a person or type of person chronically gets under your skin, get away from the situation, sit down, and take a look inside yourself. The intensity of your emotion is a hint you can use to realize that it’s time to do this— something about your interactions with this person is rousing anger or fear or hatred in you. If you can be honest and thoughtful, it works every time. Does this person's behavior remind you of someone else from your past? Do you notice that you can’t stand it when you feel some of the emotions that seem to make him act out? Is it possible that you don’t like this about yourself, either?

No one of us is perfect. We all struggle with things. Certain situations, interactions, and types of people elicit feelings in us that the next person might not feel. Take clues from your surroundings to learn about yourself. The better you know yourself, the better chance you have to find the right job, the right partner, the right social circle, the right environment at work.

When we work on learning about ourselves, the traits in others bother us less and less. When someone's behavior does bother me, for example, I have learned to call it out in the moment or soon thereafter, directly and honestly, telling the person what happened, why I thought it was wrong, and how it made me feel. I’ve found that the directness of my communication leaves little room for argument— you agree with me or you don’t, but you most certainly know my position on the matter and you learn something about me. People often shy away from addressing conflict directly and, in so doing, may propagate it by allowing misunderstandings to seed, difficult behaviors to continue unchecked, and our anger and frustration to grow.

Workplace relationships are just another type of relationship between people, and they need to be built on honesty and communication. In understanding ourselves and in understanding others, in embracing them, and in finding empathic strategies to work with them, we help to propagate better and better relationships and, in turn, our own success and happiness.


About the Author
Jody J. Foster, MD, MBA and Michelle Joy, MD 

Jody J. Foster, MD, MBA, and Michelle Joy, MD, are the authors of The Schmuck In My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work

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