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Coping with Jerks at Work

Alexandra Levit -- Escape with your self-esteem intact by using these survival tips.

At some point in our careers, most of us are forced to work with someone whose people skills can only be described as atrocious. Sometimes our companies wisely get rid of these people, but they are like weeds. Pluck one, and within seconds another will sprout up in its place. The dread that comes with having to regularly interact with someone who is routinely negative, argumentative, stressed out or mean can make your job a wholly unpleasant experience -­ if you let it.

Your first instinct might be to go out of your way to avoid working with Mr. (or Ms.) Difficult, and if you can pull it off, more power to you. Often, though, this is not an option, and whether Mr. Difficult is your boss, a colleague or a senior executive, you must prepare for each meeting with him like you are going into battle.

Swallow your apprehension. Remind yourself that no one has the power to control how you feel and suit up your armor so that nothing he says or does wounds you deeply. Take a deep breath and walk calmly into Mr. Difficult's office. Speak to him in a controlled, cheerful and reasonable tone. Get the information you need and get out. Negativity and stress can be highly contagious, so don't allow yourself to get sucked in.

Mr. Difficult's arrows can be easier to deflect when he's an equal opportunity shooter.You might even joke about him with your other colleagues: "Oh, you're working with Mr. Difficult on that? I'm so sorry. I hear a bunch of people are getting a hitman if you want to contribute."

It's easy to become demoralized, however, when Mr. Difficult saves his best poison just for you. One of my early bosses, for example, couldn't stand me. She was sweet as apple pie to the rest of our colleagues, and to the best of my knowledge, I didn't do anything specific to incur her wrath. Inexplicably, though, whenever I came around she turned into the wicked witch of the west.

Your best bet in this type of scenario is to sit down with your Mr. Difficult and have a heart to heart. Tell him how you are feeling, assume that he doesn't mean to act like the devil incarnate and give him the benefit of the doubt. Solicit his feedback regarding how the two of you can improve the relationship and then give him a chance to do right by you. If this doesn't work and he continues to regularly use you as target practice, remove yourself from the situation. No job is worth your self-esteem.

One caveat to all this: human beings operate with such different styles that it's impossible for us to get along with all of our colleagues all of the time. You could be the most agreeable person on earth, but I guarantee that someone at work will find a reason not to like you. Maybe she isn't blatantly obvious or malicious like Mr. Difficult, but you can feel her negativity just the same. She might walk right past your desk without saying good morning and probably doesn't engage in friendly conversation with you the way she does with other people in the office.

For those of us with a sensitive streak, this type of behavior can be hurtful too. What did you do to her anyway? Why won't she give you a fair shot? As natural as it is to fixate on the situation, if it's not affecting your daily working life or your career path, refuse to take it personally and go about your business. Focus on your reasons for being at work and save your energy for the people in the office who deserve it.

Alexandra Levit worked for a Fortune 500 software company and an international public relations firm before starting Inspiration @Work, an independent marketing communications business. She's the author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World (Career Press 2004), www.corporateincollege.com. This excerpt was reprinted, with permission of the publisher, Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. All rights reserved.

© 2004 Alexandra Levit

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