Globe & Mail
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
A friend is dreading an upcoming performance review with one of her employees. She complains that although the staffer is a solid performer, everything about the woman makes her uncomfortable – the way the employee’s mouth twitches when she doesn’t know what she is talking about, her petulance when she doesn’t get what she wants, her fake smile when she is annoyed. “I wish I could put a glass wall between her and me during the review,” my friend says.
Allergy inducers. You may have one in your work life – your boss, a team member, a client or customer. And although they are liked by others, you cannot tolerate anything they do or say. Characteristics or behavioural tics that you wouldn’t notice or be bothered by in others – the person’s laugh, telephone patter, clothing choices – are dialled up to the max in your decibels of distaste.
Many of us are allergic to a particular type of person, whether arrogant, narcissistic, needy or boring. My bete noire is anyone who, in monotone, provides a minute-by-minute description of even the most tedious events.
What makes it worse is recognizing that this intense dislike is irrational and so you feel ashamed. After all, we all want to believe we are tolerant. One of my clients once described a co-worker as a “fat pig” and then immediately added, “Forget that. I hate myself for saying that.”
We may also overcompensate for our negative feelings. Sometimes when I am with someone who I find extremely unpleasant I imagine my distaste is showing in a thought balloon; I then feel so badly about hurting the person’s feelings, I overcompensate by becoming inappropriately warm and welcoming.
Some of us more prone to intolerance than others. At a recent dinner party I commented to a friend about a mutual acquaintance, saying that I found the person so loud and narcissistic that I got anxious around her. My friend said she couldn’t imagine how someone’s personality could induce anxiety.
This kind of intolerance is not good for us. Not only does it undermine emotional well-being, it also undermines performance.
When we brand someone as insufferable, we can’t benefit from what he or she has to contribute because we can’t “hear” what they have to say.
You must work alongside your allergy-inducer. And because you can’t change him or her, your only option is to change how you react to the person.
The first step is to identify what is bothering you. Instead of telling yourself, “I can’t stand him,” examine what is bugging you. Put it into perspective and reappraise its impact: “So he has an awful laugh – how is that hurting me?”
You may also be projecting. Often the characteristic that immediately turns you off has less to do with the other person than what it says about you. One woman I know describes half of her co-workers as arrogant; they aren’t, but she reads every comment they make as suggesting a sense of superiority because of her own feelings of inadequacy.
Another factor is to recognize that your distaste is usually irrational. Don’t try to justify why you find someone offensive by telling yourself, for example, “He’s revoltingly loud. Therefore I have a right to detest him.”
Nor should you lobby to get others to see the person the same way you do. Sometimes we are so uncomfortable with our feelings we want confirmation that our views are correct, and therefore try to get co-workers to agree. But if you try to persuade others that your allergy inducer is worthy of your distaste, you will ultimately feel small, and regret it.
Your actions may also leave a sour taste in the mouths of your colleagues. I have frequently seen co-workers who are the recipient of this kind of lobbying turn on the lobbyist, labelling him or her as “negative” and “judgmental.”
And remember, distaste can be a two-way street. One friend was surprised to hear that a person she disliked intensely wasn’t too fond of her, either. “She is obnoxious, but what can she find wrong with me?” the friend asked, incredulous. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but it usually goes both ways. Neither of you is into the other.