Like most of us, I’m sure you’re grateful for your peaceful work environment and go to great lengths to maintain it. You’re nice to everyone, you avoid gossiping at the water cooler, and you always show up with a big box of donuts on Fridays. But in spite of all this, you somehow managed to tick off the chair of the office party planning committee who’s now out to make your life a living hell. And to make matters worse … she doesn’t like donuts. Talk about a broken relationship.
It’s almost impossible to please everyone. No matter how nice of a person you are, there will always be somebody who dislikes you, either because they feel you wronged them in some way, or because their insecurities have clouded their judgment. But since even the lowest employee on the totem pole could potentially create serious problems for you, it’s wise to have a strategy in place for handling anyone who tries to come between you and your paycheck.
The typical ways of handling office disputes never seem to resolve them; burying your head in the sand won’t make the harassment stop and running to human resources for a “sit-down” usually creates even more drama. And while spiking your antagonist’s lattes with Turbo-Lax (a la Dumb and Dumber) may make you feel better initially, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll come across some retaliatory anthrax in your non-dairy creamer.
Here’s what to do instead:
Believe it or not, one of the easiest ways to neutralize someone’s negativity toward you is to let the person know that you (gasp) like and respect them. Can you remember ever seriously hating someone who truly liked you? Probably not, since the principle of reciprocal affection makes this rather difficult. It states that we tend to like and admire someone once we realize that they feel the same way about us.
Of course, fixing a work relationship isn’t as simple as walking up to your office enemy and saying, “Your hair looks nice today. Wanna grab some lunch?”
Any direct attempt to make amends will usually be met with hostility (they’ll assume you’re either “up to something” or that you forgot to take your meds), so instead, psychologist David Lieberman recommends that you speak highly of your nemesis to a neutral party (Lieberman, 2000). When your words eventually get back to the pain-in-the-ass in question (they almost certainty will, since news spreads fast in the workplace), you’ll be surprised at how quickly the feuding will come to an end.
Lieberman explains that information coming from a third-party will appear much more credible than if it came directly from you, so go plant some seeds and wait for things to magically blow over. And while you’re at it, make it a habit to talk up everyone in the office (especially your higher-ups), whether they have a problem with you or not. Keeping your working relationships healthy and strong is a good way to avoid future headaches.
Here are a few extra tips to keep in mind:
1. Express your affinity (for your adversary) to as many people in the office as possible. This increases the chances (and the speed at which) the news will get back to them. Drop a few nice blurbs about them in passing and then quickly change the subject so it doesn’t come off as contrived.
2. Be sure to mention that you admire  the person for who they are and specifically for what they’ve done in the workplace. The realization that you respect their accomplishments will help them see you as an ally while helping to eliminate any jealousy they may have been harboring towards you (Lieberman, 2000).
3. If you’re forced to speak with them face to face, don’t be overly nice, which may raise their suspicions. Be polite and professional, but maintain your neutrality so the message you planted will have a much more powerful effect when it gets back to them.