Handling People Problems at Work
Good relationships with the people in your workplace can be one of the pleasures of having a job. On the other hand, facing unresolved people problems at work day after day can make you feel like quitting.
Like the relationships in the other parts of your life, your connections with co-workers, supervisors and clients are probably complex, so any problem you may be having in a work relationship will likely be complicated, too. Your chances of finding an effective solution will be much higher if you approach a situation with a positive attitude.
This article lists problems common in workplace relationships and suggests solutions. Look through the list and see if any of the suggestions apply to your situation.
- My co-workers seem distant and unfriendly.
If you’ve been hired recently, you may be dealing with the results of workplace history you may be unaware of or facing a workplace culture that’s more reserved than you’re used to. You may also be working with self-sufficient people who may not realize that, to you, they seem unfriendly. It’s also important to understand that there’s no workplace “rule” that says all your co-workers must become your friends or even like you.
Your best approach is to take your time and take the first step. Greet everyone pleasantly every day. Talk to people even though you may feel a bit awkward at first. To avoid misunderstandings about work details, communicate with your co-workers often and openly. You may find that they warm up over time—it's hard to remain distant when someone is smiling at you!
- My supervisor doesn't give me enough direction or feedback.
Keeping a tactful and positive attitude, ask your supervisor to explain your assigned tasks or give you a written description of them. At an appropriate time, request feedback on your work. Politely accept any suggestions for improvement and let your supervisor know how helpful the feedback has been. Over the next few days or weeks, find ways to show your supervisor that you’re acting on the suggestions.
If you don’t get the direction you need from your supervisor, ask a trusted co-worker to explain your tasks. A few days or weeks later, ask the same co-worker to observe your work and give you feedback, both generally and in any specific areas you’re concerned about.
Give yourself frequent feedback. For example, keep a list of daily tasks. At the end of the day, take note of what you’ve managed to accomplish and see if you can improve your performance the next day.
- My skills and abilities are underused.
Look for ways to put your skills and abilities to work. Talk with your supervisor to learn more about your organization’s current goals. Come up with ideas to help your organization achieve these objectives and make sure you include an action plan that allows you to demonstrate your skills and abilities. For example, you could offer to assume more responsibility, suggest ways to cut costs or improve quality or take on tasks others have neglected.
- My co-worker is very critical of others, including me.
Your first step is to decide whether this is an issue you can handle directly with your co-worker, or if it would be more appropriate to ask your supervisor for help.
If you decide it’s appropriate to deal directly with your co-worker, be clear about what the issue is and what you’re trying to achieve. Your co-worker’s criticism probably has less to do with the details of your work and more to do with the negative nature of your relationship, e.g. a lack of trust or respect. Your goal is first, to improve communication and second, to deal with the criticism.
In a relaxed environment where you can focus on each other, ask your co-worker to describe the situation from his or her point of view and listen with your full attention. Sometimes, simply listening and focusing on the other person can begin a change in a relationship.
Acknowledge any criticism you feel is valid. Then explain the situation from your point of view. Ask your co-worker for suggestions about how to improve communication and how to handle any valid work issues your co-worker has raised.
If this approach doesn’t result in an improvement, ask for your supervisor’s help.
- My supervisor is treating me unfairly.
If your supervisor is bullying you, check out the tip Bullies at Work? What to Know, What You Can Do (See Other Relevant Tips).
If you think your supervisor will be open to acknowledging your concerns, discuss the problem in private with him or her as soon as possible. State your feelings openly in a polite but assertive way. Keep your temper and use “I” statements to avoid blaming or accusing your supervisor. Listen carefully to your supervisor’s response, and try to work out a solution that’s acceptable to both of you. Keep a record of what was said. Ensure that you carry out your part of the agreement
If the situation doesn't improve after a few weeks, talk to your supervisor's boss, or someone in human resources, and request a three-way discussion of the problem. State your case to the best of your ability, listen carefully to what the others say and make notes of the meeting. Again, carry out your part of any actions that were agreed to.
Unfortunately, if you are being bullied and your supervisor’s boss is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the situation, you may not receive the support you deserve.
If the problem continues, you may choose to file a formal complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, if you feel the mistreatment is based on a human rights issue.
An ongoing negative atmosphere is unhealthy for you and will affect your future with the organization. Your best choice might be to request a transfer or start looking for work elsewhere.
- Two of my co-workers dislike each other, and I am caught in the middle.
You can only be responsible for your own behaviour. Refuse to take sides, establish your boundaries, focus on your work and do not gossip. If you’ve been socializing with either or both of your co-workers, you may need to back off. You can be open about these actions—tell both of your co-workers, preferably at the same time, why you’re actively deciding to put boundaries around your relationship with each of them.
If these actions don’t relieve some of the pressure you’ve been experiencing, you may need to ask for help from your supervisor.
When you consider that you could be spending up to 40 hours a week in the company of co-workers, it’s easy to understand why the quality of your workplace relationships can affect your job performance and satisfaction. Effective communication skills and a positive, open attitude will go a long way towards helping you handle people problems at work.
Relevant Tips (alis.alberta.ca/tips)
Additional Reading (alis.alberta.ca/publications)
Visit the Alberta Human Rights Commission website at www.albertahumanrights.ab.ca or call the Commission’s confidential inquiry line at
- 780-427-7661 north of Red Deer
- 403-297-6571 Red Deer south
- 310-0000 toll free, and enter the 10-digit regional office number after the prompt