Work Problems: How to Deal With Coworkers and Bosses

Not every professional relationship can be smooth sailing, but if you can calm the waters using the above tips, you'll reduce your stress and make your workplace a much more pleasant one.
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Diverse college students working on computers.
Diverse college students working on computers.

It's a well-documented fact that when employees have issues with their professional relationships, their productivity and commitment to their companies decline. In addition, the mental and physical health of an employee deteriorates in a negative work environment. Given this, much has been written instructing managers about how to create a positive work environment in order to facilitate harmony around the water cooler.

However, despite our best intentions, dysfunctional professional relationships are commonplace and many offices don't make it easy for employees to navigate through these waters. Although companies have active HR departments and even have industrial psychologists evaluate them or facilitate team-building activities, many employees don't feel safe enough to share coworker or boss problems with their employers unless a situation has escalated.

Over the last 20 years in private practice as a therapist, I have found that people don't trust their HR departments to be discreet. They're worried that informing HR will reflect negatively on their reputations. They also feel unsafe confiding in colleagues whom they fear would not hesitate to use the information to their advantage. So, employees find themselves on their own trying to manage difficult people, challenging situations and their own complex emotions. According to, a new app-based service that provides on-demand, 24/7 professional relationship advice via chat, 20% of their users seek out help on a variety of workplace relationship issues.

Lacking the proper institutional support means that you really are on your own when approaching problems with a coworker, boss, or even the culture of the company. The question is how can you find the balance between skillfully dealing with challenging situations and protecting your own mental health?

Understand and become more mindful of your reaction to the workplace offender. In most cases, your reaction is justified. Someone has said or done something uncivil. However, don't get too focused on the story of their awful behavior. Focusing on it is a red herring. Instead, it's much more helpful to understand your reaction.

What was it about what this person did that activated your strong response? You may be able to identify that their behavior triggered you and made you feel something shameful or bad about yourself.

It is these shameful feelings that cause us to react with patterns tied to our past. These feelings can cause us to behave in impulsive and unstrategic ways. And these behaviors can often bring unwanted consequences and complications.

Once you can understand what past message your colleague's behavior stirs, then you have the insight to know that you're getting worked up when a certain event occurs. This insight can help you feel more detached from the egregious behavior, more able to acknowledge the impact that it has on you and, therefore, less likely to act out from a hurt place. Then you can put your energy toward taking caring of yourself.

Hypothesize about why this person behaves the way they do. It is helpful to try to understand your coworker's psychological profile so you can learn to understand and anticipate their behavior. A demeaning boss probably has a need to feel powerful. A competitive and cutthroat coworker most likely is starving for attention and needs to be seen as the best. Understanding what motivates their behavior allows you to dispassionately witness it and find ways to be less affected.

Find ways to express your feelings and get grounded. It's not easy to have all these feelings and have no one in which to confide. In addition, bottling up emotions can negatively impact your physical, mental and emotional health. Some people find it helpful to share their feelings with a trusted source with whom they gain support. However, others feel too vulnerable sharing intimate details about their work life. In either case, it is important to find alternative ways to express your feelings and center yourself. Write in a journal. Draw or paint your anger, your frustration, your discomfort. Try meditation or, if you need something more physical, exercise to work off the negative energy.

Get advice from a trusted source. Find an objective listener who can suggest options for you to try to change the dynamic of the situation. The most helpful suggestions are ones where the behavior is in your court and you don't have to rely on the other person to change.

It's rare to go through life without encountering a problem with a colleague. You can either choose to let another's behavior define your workday and how you feel about your job, or you can confront it by handling your emotions and understanding why your relationship isn't easy. Not every professional relationship can be smooth sailing, but if you can calm the waters using the above tips, you'll reduce your stress and make your workplace a much more pleasant one.