Whether you currently have a difficult boss, or team members and colleagues you don’t mesh well with, most of us know what it’s like to experience negative relationships at work. 

After all, everyone has different work ethics, plus leadership and team dynamics aren’t always going to be right, even if you all “fit” in the same culture and follow the same business mission.

Sometimes negative workplace relationships are a relatively minor concern, and other times they’re impactful enough to make you want to leave your job. And while you’re never going to get on like a house on fire with every single colleague, struggling with poor workplace relationships has detrimental effects on your satisfaction at work, as well as others’.

The good news is there are practical steps to turn negative working relationships into positive ones.

Get to the root cause of the negativity

There are many reasons why you and a colleague or manager might not get along. 

Whether you don’t gel with their personality, or feel like they rub you the wrong way or vice versa, look for possible causes that could be leading to a discordant professional relationship, such as:

  • Not communicating effectively with each other – including withholding information or over-communicating
  • Mismatched or clashing working styles or personalities
  • An unfair delegation of responsibilities
  • Being ‘too close’ with one another
  • An overly competitive attitude
  • Bad managerial or work habits

Once you’ve identified the main drivers of negativity between yourself and your colleague or manager, you can start looking at ways to improve your working relationship. 

And this might even be a simple fix – such as sharing responsibilities more fairly or adjusting your communication style to suit your colleague. Or it might be the catalyst to try to distance yourself from the relationship as much as possible and bring your focus back to your work.

In any case, figuring out what’s causing the negative workplace relationship is an essential first step.

Encourage an open dialogue

Often, a breakdown in communication at work can lead to a much bigger problem if left unchecked.

Make sure you listen to your colleague, and if it’s you who feels as though your voice isn’t being heard, take the opportunity to express your point of view at appropriate times. 

If you’re finding it difficult to get a word in edgeways with a colleague, set up a formal time at a meeting where you have a chance to drive the conversation. This isn’t about playing the blame game or airing grievances, but rather encouraging a transparent conversation where you can both share your opinions and hopefully come to a resolution.

If you feel like a one-on-one with your colleague isn’t going to make an impact or could be taken personally, speak to your manager about how they can set some new rules between the team or announce some feedback that applies to everyone going forward, in the context of improve collaboration and achieving success together. 

Alternatively, if your colleagues or team members also have a negative relationship with the same person for similar reasons, you should speak to your manager about how they are affecting yourself and the team. You manager can then decide what action is necessary, directly with the peer that’s causing the negativity. 

Tap into your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to manage and understand your emotions – it’s a crucial skill to have at work, as well as in life. Emotions are all too often left at the door when you enter a professional environment, and this can have negative effects not only on businesses but also employees.

While at work, focus on being self-aware and understand how you’re feeling in different situations especially when you are under pressure. You might be surprised by how certain situations trigger reactions in you, such as taking feedback personally, becoming defensive or opinionated, and even short temperedness. These responses, even if it only happens once or twice, can have significant negative outcomes on your working relationships. 

By identifying these triggers in advance and knowing how you can react appropriately next time, you can work towards managing them more effectively and steer clear of them altogether.

Show empathy

A big contributor to positive, healthy relationships in the workplace is having empathy. Make sure to consider other people’s feelings, especially when making decisions and having face-to-face conversations.

Remember most people have ‘off days’ and sometimes giving a colleague space is the best way to turn around negativity.

Empathy may not come naturally to everyone, but the good news is it’s a soft skill that can be developed with practice. You may also notice that once you start treating your colleague or manager with more empathy, they respond in the same manner and your relationship begins to improve, simply because you’ve become more mindful of their feelings.

Take time out

In a best-case scenario, an open, honest conversation will be all it takes to fix a negative workplace relationship. But at times when negativity is persistent or, worse still, tensions are rising, taking time out could be the best course of action to stop the situation from escalating further.

This might involve keeping interactions with the person to a minimum, heading out of the office briefly to get some fresh air or grabbing a coffee. While you don’t want to avoid a colleague forever, taking a break can be a good way to diffuse a heightened situation.

If you are working closely on a project together, is there capacity to step away from it, either for a short amount of time by having a colleague take over your remaining workload or be removed from it permanently? Most managers will be understanding if the relationship is toxic and affecting your mental health, so don’t rule out this option entirely. Ensure you factually state your reasons for requesting this change – both current negatives and future benefits – and try to stay calm and keep emotions out of it if you can.

Accept not all working relationships are perfect

Unlike friendships, most of the time you don’t get to choose your professional relationships. Inevitably, you’re going to work with people over the course of your career who you just don’t get along with. 

Whether it’s a personality clash, different working styles, a toxic employee, or something else that’s negatively impacting your relationship with a colleague or manager, sometimes incompatibility is unavoidable.

Being respectful, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and listening to others is a good foundation for building and maintaining positive workplace relationships.

If you have explored and exhausted all the options above, it might be time for a new role. Take a look at our current jobs here.

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