My first boss disliked me so much I thought I had hurt one of her relatives.  She’d call me into her office and yell at me for dressing too casually, interrupting colleagues in meetings and other infractions real and imagined.  I didn’t know how to talk to her but I couldn’t stand the situation anymore, so I quit the job.

The next time I had to work with someone who was mean to me, I was stuck.  I really liked the job, and since he was an equal-opportunity offender, I knew his wrath wasn’t personal.  Others avoided him, but I sat down and asked how we could work better together.  My directness shocked him into better behavior from that point on.

Incivility on the Rise

In August, there was a flurry of press coverage around what the American Psychological Association deemed as an increase in “workplace incivility,” or a form of organizational deviance characterized by behaviors that violate respectful workplace norms – aka rudeness.

Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate’s Civility in America 2011 poll reported 43 percent of Americans as saying they’ve experienced incivility at work, and 38 percent as believing that the workplace is increasingly disrespectful.  Sixty-seven percent of respondents cited a critical need for civility training.

It’s a Jungle Out There

Civility training?  Is that a little extreme?  Not necessarily, as the workplace is undeniably rough these days.  Employees are doing the jobs of two, sometimes three people, and the environment is harried, stressful, and constantly changing.  Many haven’t received pay raises in a few years.  Unfortunately, employees are increasingly likely to take out their angst on each other. 

Psychological Consequences

I recently had the chance to chat with Bob Sutton, a professor of management at Stanford University and the author of “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” Bob assured me that he’d seen in his research that going through life angry causes long-term physical and mental problems, and that ridding oneself of dysfunctional conflict is a must.

How to Break Free

Bob explained that many difficult relationships are the result of a vicious cycle of offense and revenge, or one person trying to one-up the other.  He suggested that we stop trying to win, or get back at the other person for behaving this way.  We must not take the situation personally and look at it as another workplace problem we need to solve.

The most effective way to do this is to listen to the other person and put yourself in her shoes.  Determine what’s meaningful to her and help her find ways to get it.   If things have escalated to the point where every interaction is painful, take her to lunch and address the conflict proactively.  Tell her that the relationship isn’t going as well as you’d like, and ask what you can do to improve things.

Your Self-Worth is Most Important

Despite how hard you try, some difficult people will persist in their negative behavior.  If you constantly feel personally attacked and it starts to take a toll on your well-being, look for ways to get out of the situation.  As Bob said, some people are so toxic they’re not worth it.

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