How to handle an annoying colleague

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published September 7, 2021

Key Takeaways

  • Today's clinical care teams reflect a wide range of skills, experience, and personalities. You may not jibe with every individual on your team.

  • Learning to get along with a wide variety of co-workers is an important skill for all residents. Stay positive, be open to others' perspectives, and look at your own role in conflicts.

  • As a resident, it's important to know the difference between an annoying colleague and outright discrimination or harrassment. Learn when to take your concerns to a higher-up.

Clinical care teams in today's medical world involve a complex interplay between physicians, physician assistants, advanced practice registered nurses, registered nurses, and clinical pharmacists. Each professional has specific training and skills for high-quality, coordinated care that reflects the clinical needs of patients.

Much like the mythical Hydra, modern clinical care teams have many leadership heads. It’s human nature, however, that people have different personalities and styles.

Why can't everyone get along?

It's not realistic to think that everyone on a team will get along, have the same views, or even like each other. And that’s workable as long as the clinical care team can function with compassion, respect, efficiency, and efficacy. Meanwhile, learning the art of conflict can go a long way in creating an optimal work environment.

If you find one of your colleagues annoying, take heart, you can smooth things out and stay productive. Of note, there is a big distinction between dealing with an irritating coworker—one who doesn’t carry their load, talks too loudly, or rubs you the wrong way—and true workplace harassment or discrimination, which should always be reported to your supervisor and/or HR. For the purpose of this article, we are addressing the former, not the latter.

Related: Building a support system inside your residency

Tips from employment experts

Stay positive

First and foremost, a worker who can maintain a positive attitude and outlook despite the negativity of an irritating colleague will come out the winner, according to an article published by Glassdoor.[] Become the proverbial duck, and let the annoyance roll off your back. You can’t control the behavior of your coworkers but you can control your reaction.

Try your best not to let the negativity bring you down and distract you from work. Stay focused on the tasks in front of you and resolve to do the best job possible for your patients and team.

Be assertive

If someone is making your work life difficult, gather your courage and speak up, suggests an article published by Indeed.[] “When sharing how they make you feel, use ‘I’ language so they better understand your perspective. Using ‘you’ language may make it difficult for them to accept responsibility for their actions,” the authors wrote. For example, you could say: “I find that your behavior makes it hard for me to focus,” instead of, “The way you act is irritating.”

Seek out their perspective

Take the time to find out why a coworker you are at odds with sees things the way they do. “Sometimes getting to know your challenging co-worker's perspective can make it easier to get along with them,” the Indeed article continued. “After getting to know them better, you may realize that their background and life experiences shape their behavior and point of [view]. Although you deserve to be treated with respect, this insight may help you understand the way they see things.”

Turn the other cheek

Although it may rarely happen, sometimes a difficult colleague will try to challenge you. Although the comments may be irritating, enraging, or hurtful, it’s best to remain calm, smile, and walk away.  

By giving in and fighting back, you are playing their game. Instead, by ignoring their entreaties, the offender will likely give up.

Practice avoidance

This technique works on colleagues with whom you don’t interact as much. Although avoidance may seem like the easy way out, it is effective. Limit your interactions with an annoying colleague when you can. And when you do interact, be respectful and convey only as much as needed in a courteous fashion. 

Find commonalities

Sometimes an annoying colleague is just a friend—or, at least, tolerable acquaintance—in disguise. Find common ground. Perhaps a mutual adoration for the local sandwich shop or devotion to a local sports team. You’d be surprised how shared interests can open doors. 

Look at your own role

What is your own behavior with this coworker? “You may find that you both have developed a feedback loop of behavior,” wrote Indeed. “Be the person who breaks this loop and try treating them with kindness for a change. You may find that they return the kindness, and you both can move forward.”

Keep your opinions to yourself about a challenging coworker; this will help maintain a positive workplace. Find a family member or friend outside of work to talk to instead. 

Related: Establishing trust as a resident

Annoyance or harrassment?

If confronting the colleague in a calm yet assertive manner doesn’t work, it’s probably time to speak with your supervisor or clinic/hospital management. Another option is to approach human resources, however, depending on the situation, that may not be the appropriate response, and HR may not always take your side, according to an article in Forbes. Of course, HR will want to know about actions such as harassment, discrimination, or criminal or unethical behavior. 

According to the Forbes article, you can ask these questions to help decide if you want to take your complaint to HR:

  • If you are simply annoyed by a comment or irritating behavior on the part of a coworker, try talking politely but directly to your colleague. 

  •  If you are struggling to get along with a coworker or trying to find your place on the team, take your concerns to your practice manager or supervisor.

  • If the situation is so awful that you don’t want to come to work, are crying at your desk, or can’t get your job done, go to HR. 

  • If a coworker touches you inappropriately, threatens you, or exhibits any dangerous or harassing behaviors, go to HR immediately.

What this means for you

Annoying colleagues are a price we sometimes pay for teamwork. The best way to deal with a grating colleague is to remain calm, respectful, and diplomatic. Remember, your purpose is to provide compassionate care to your patients and respect and kindness to your colleagues.

Read Next: Understanding the key players on your team
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