Greg grits his teeth and takes a deep breath. “Be calm,” he tells himself. “Don’t let it get to you. It’s just Carl being Carl.”
But Greg has been gritting his teeth for months now, and he’s finding Carl’s irritating behavior increasingly disruptive and distracting. There’s the frequent cursing, the “reply all” to emails, the smelly sandwiches, and the black hole of scattered papers that is his desk.
Greg doesn’t know what to do. Should he continue to ignore it and pretend everything’s fine? Confront Carl? Talk to his supervisor? Go to HR? Or maybe even look for a job in another department?
In this article, we look at the damaging impact that persistent, irritating behaviors like Carl’s can have on workplace relationships, team morale, and performance. We’ll also explore strategies that you can use to tackle them.
The Impact of Irritating Behavior
Irritating behavior can be defined as a person’s annoying habits that bother you often and, eventually, drain your energy and morale. Examples might include:
- Talking loudly on the phone.
- Always interrupting people.
- Being disruptive during group sessions.
- Leaving it to others to clear away after a meeting.
- Failing to file documents correctly.
- Being persistently late.
- Eating loudly.
- Taking frequent cigarette breaks.
- Wearing inappropriate clothing.
- Cutting or chewing fingernails.
- Referring to people in terms they don’t like.
Often, these behaviors are perceived to be unimportant and so go unchallenged. You might feel that you’ll come across as a “killjoy” if you ask a colleague to change what they’re doing, particularly if it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else and it isn’t affecting his or her ability to work.
But failing to address such issues can leave you feeling helpless, deflated and miserable. Eventually, that niggling little habit can become a major distraction, and it may cause resentment and anger to build up. This can threaten personal and team relationships, and impact your productivity.
Dealing With Irritating Behavior in the Workplace
In this section, we look at seven tips for tackling a co-worker’s irritating behavior in a tactful but assertive way.
1. Avoid Gossip
It can be easy to vent your frustration about your irritating colleague by complaining about him to another co-worker. But spreading rumors in this way can be divisive and destructive. Not only that, but you might find that it backfires on you, and you could end up looking like the “bad guy.”
2. Assess the Impact
What we find irritating can be very subjective. So, before you decide how to approach the problem, take a step back and look at it objectively. How much does your colleague’s behavior really affect you? Do other people on your team seem bothered by it? Do you feel able to cope with it on your own? Or, do you need to refer it to your manager?
The level of action that you take should correspond to how serious you feel his behavior to be. If he persistently talks loudly on the phone, for instance, perhaps you could just wear earplugs or politely ask him to “keep it down.” But, if you think his behavior is aggressive or damaging, then you’ll likely need to refer the matter to your manager or HR department.
3. Be Tactful!
It can be hard to keep your emotions in check when you’re faced with persistent, irritating behavior, and “bottling them up” can often make things worse. But, remember that it’s the behavior that’s the issue, not the person. Your colleague is likely unaware of the impact her annoying habit is having on you.
Keep your emotions under control when you confront her. Be tactful, and make the conversation as work-focused as possible. Assert how you feel, but avoid making it personal, as this may cause her to become defensive or angry.
For example, you could say: “Hey, Dina, I love your taste in music but I’m on a tight deadline today and really need to focus. Any chance you could turn it down, just for a while, please?”
4. Consider Any Underlying Causes
Give your colleague the benefit of the doubt. A messy desk, for example, could be a sign that he is struggling to organize his work. Noisy phone calls could be the result of hearing loss. And poor asset management could be due to a lack of training.
His behavior might be down to something you haven’t considered, such as cultural differences. If so, you’ll need to tread carefully. You don’t want to come across as insensitive or discriminatory.
5. Be Open and Honest
Start a “savvy” conversation with your colleague. Be open and honest with her about how you feel, but also show respect, and listen to her reply with empathy and without judgment. Savvy conversations are designed to enable people to talk freely with each other in a way that avoids conflict or distrust.
If tensions do run high, try asking an impartial colleague to mediate the discussion. Mediation is an informal conflict-resolution tool that can help to improve trust and team relationships.
6. Seek Support
If behavior shifts from being irritating to serious – in cases of persistent lateness or bullying, for example – it becomes a performance or disciplinary issue. In these circumstances, it’s best that you let your manager or HR take the lead.
7. Develop Coping Mechanisms
If you think that a colleague’s irritating behavior is unlikely to change, or you choose to ignore it, make sure that you have adequate coping strategies.
Try deep breathing exercises or mindfulness to help to keep calm and focused. Or, if it’s a “noisy neighbor” that’s the problem, you could try using earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Perhaps you could change desks, or adjust your workstation to make his irritating behavior less visible or distracting.
Managing Irritating Behavior in Your Team
It’s important that you take seriously any team member’s complaint about a colleague’s irritating behavior. You may have observed the problem yourself, or perhaps other people have raised similar complaints. But you need to be seen to be fair, and not to leap to conclusions.
If the person’s performance is otherwise exemplary, the accusations could actually be the result of jealousy. Talk to her about her working relationships and listen empathically to her response. Reassure her that you will not accept bullying behavior and that you are committed to resolving the situation.
However, if her irritating habit does need to be addressed, be frank with her and make clear what your organization considers to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Share and discuss any code of conduct with all of your team to show that the individual is not being singled out or victimized.
Be sure to review the situation, in case she continues the irritating behavior and its impact grows. Then, you might consider using more formal conflict resolution, such as the Interest-Based Relational Approach. And if matters still don’t improve, refer your concerns to HR.
Managing Your Own Irritating Behavior
Chances are, you have quirks or habits that really bug one of your co-workers! It can come as an unpleasant surprise to learn this, and you may feel a range of emotions, from embarrassment and shock to anger and shame. But try to avoid reacting negatively, and use the following approaches to deal with the issue calmly and rationally:
- Empathize. Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective and ask him to clarify what has annoyed him. For example, you might think you’re being helpful by offering your advice to two colleagues mid-conversation, but if do this regularly you might get a reputation for “butting in.”
- Be aware of body language. Do you ever get the feeling that someone just isn’t happy with you? She’s not specifically said anything, but there’s that nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. Nonverbal actions like tone of voice, sighs, eye-rolls, shrugs, or folded arms can signal that a person is reacting negatively to something you’re doing or saying. If this happens, try using open body language and tone of voice to show that you are willing to discuss the problem.
- Think positively. Recognize that working to adjust your behavior could improve your wider performance and team relationships. This will likely have a positive impact on your reputation and career progression.
- Ask yourself, “Is this fair?” Complaints needn’t be personal attacks. So, be assertive if you feel that a co-worker’s criticisms are unreasonable, or if you think that his manner is aggressive. If you feel uncomfortable challenging him, especially if he is your boss, seek advice from HR or, if appropriate, a trusted peer.
- Use self-reflection. Evaluating your own conduct objectively can help you to judge whether you are acting in a way that’s respectful and appropriate to your workplace. You might have unwittingly fallen into negative, complacent or lazy behaviors that are having a poor effect on those around you. If this is the case, set a good example and adapt your working style.
Irritating behavior is persistent, annoying, but apparently minor. Ignoring it, or tackling it carelessly, can negatively affect your and your team’s morale, relationships and performance. So, follow these seven tips to improve the situation:
- Avoid Gossip.
- Assess the Impact.
- Be Tactful.
- Consider Any Underlying Causes.
- Be Honest and Open.
- Seek Support.
- Develop Coping Mechanisms.
If you manage a team in which a complaint has been raised, avoid leaping to conclusions and be seen to treat everyone fairly.
Finally, if someone criticizes you for being irritating, try to adjust your behavior in a positive way. But, if you think the complaint is unfair, say so!