I knew no one liked Mike. He was gruff. Surly. Argumentative. A big guy who used his size to intimidate. He was a great worker—one of the best machine operators in the facility—but he was also extremely hard to work with. 

Most people just avoided him, reading his body language to know when he was ready to run the next job, or to shut the line down when he had a quality or mechanical problem. Days would go by without him interacting with anyone on his crew. And, unlike every other operator in the department, he didn’t talk to the incoming operator on the next shift. Not even to pass on information. He just waited until the clock hit the top of the hour and walked away.

One day the operator who usually followed Mike called in sick, and I was assigned to that machine. I rolled my toolbox over and saw Mike talking to a woman from another department. She waved and smiled at him when she walked away. 

I couldn’t resist. “Dude, I think she likes you,” I said, emphasizing “likes” and nodding suggestively.

He looked at me for a few seconds. “She’s my sister,” he said.

I cringed. He shook his head and said, “You’re such a [jerk].” 

What the heck, I thought. “Well, so are you,” I said, grinning. 

My grin faded when moved to within a foot of my face. But then he smiled. “[Darned] right we are,” he said, and held up his hand for a high-five.

You can’t (always) pick your colleagues, but you can choose how to handle unpleasant people

As the old saying goes, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. The same is often true for coworkers, vendors, suppliers, etc. Sometimes you just don’t click. Business relationships are complex, and conflict and tension are commonplace. In fact, research shows that on average half of our social relationships are at least ambivalent and somewhat often  extremely negative. 

And unlike an acquaintance who never becomes a friend, or a friendship that goes sour, in a professional setting you can’t avoid the on-ramp or take the exit ramp. More often than not, you have to work with people you don’t like.

You’re stuck.

Or not.

Here are a few ways to make a negative coworker relationship at least cordial, and possibly even positive:

Don’t escalate minor annoyances 

While many people complained to their supervisors about Mike, and a few even documented negative interactions as backup, nearly everyone gossiped about how difficult he was. What a jerk he was. How many days it had been since his last civil conversation. As a result, people who didn’t even know him decided they didn’t like him. 

In colloquial terms, he may have started it… but our words and actions absolutely escalated it. 

Confronting someone you don’t like rarely works. Complaining about that person to other people, much less his or her boss, rarely works. Instead—no matter how annoying or difficult he or she may be—see the responsibility for improving the relationship as yours. Because that’s the only way things will change.

Where should you start?

Reward the behaviors you hope to see  

Even if the person you dislike is only helpful one out of ten times, still: say thanks. Say you appreciate the assistance. Recognize the behavior, no matter how infrequently it occurs. 

Research shows that people who receive positive feedback remember the feedback itself (“Thanks for helping me fix that production issue”) as well as the facts accompanying the feedback (“You saved us at least $3,000 in late delivery penalties”).

Say you work with Mike, and nine out of ten times he doesn’t help you fix mechanical problems with your equipment. The one time he does, swallow your frustration—and your pride—and say how appreciative you are. Say how big a difference that makes in your productivity results. 

Do that, and research shows that Mike is extremely likely to remember how good it feels to help someone who appreciates it. And he’ll want to experience that feeling again,  especially if you recognize his efforts the next time, too. Because no one ever receives enough praise, and everyone wants to be appreciated and respected.

Shift the conversation away from work

Relationships with people we dislike but must work with tend to be transactional and, as time goes on, more and more impersonal.

The next time I saw Mike, I asked him about tractors. (His hobby was competing in tractor pulling events.)  His eyes lit up as he described gear ratios, weight distribution, and clutch settings. He brought pictures to show me the next day. He even offered to let me try one on the test track he had built behind his house.

Try it. Find something that is important to the other person outside of work. Interests. Hobbies. Pursuits. Family. Then ask questions. Ask how. Ask what. Let other people show a side of themselves that most people don’t see. Because we all want to feel like we matter: not just as workers, but as people.

Build bridges with other people

One day Mike showed me a video where his throttle stuck just as the sled he was pulling yanked it to a stop and nearly flipped his tractor. Without thinking, I gestured to another person to come see. Mike stiffened; he was comfortable with me, but what would someone else think?Turns out the video was a hit, and so was Mike. Ten people had gathered around before a supervisor made them scatter.

That interaction, while minor, helped people see Mike in a different context and helped thaw a few previously chilly relationships. They loosened up around him, which helped him loosen up around them. Because even though we may be assigned to a team, we still want to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from teammates.

In short, decide that it’s you—not them

As the Stoics might say, while you can’t always control what happens to you, you can always control how you respond. In this case, you can’t always control whether you like everyone you work with, but you can control how you respond. 

Start by seeing the problem as yours, not theirs. (Because it is your problem: even if you didn’t “start” it, you’re still stuck with the problem until you do something to make it better.) But don’t try to “clear the air.” Take little steps. Be a little more complimentary. Be a little more personal. Find the good where you can, and express your admiration, interest, or curiosity. 

While you may never become friends, you will develop a more positive relationship that is built on professionalism, courtesy, and respect.

Over the years, plenty of people said to me, “How can you be friends with that guy?” 

The answer was simple: I knew Mike a lot better than they did.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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