Ask the Expert: How should I handle a hostile colleague?

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A. Your colleague is a favorite of the boss and behaves himself with everyone else? At the risk of blaming the victim, the first thing to examine is whether something in your manner rings threatening to your colleague. Most of us devote a lot of energy to how we come across in a professional situation. We want to appear poised, smart and confident. In reality, it's best to be concerned about how other people feel about themselves when they interact with you. This is the single most important lesson for dealing with difficult personalities in the workplace.

You should also look inside yourself and see if there are some personal issues the two of you may be working out in a professional situation. Take this person aside and ask how he feels about your working relationship and if there's anything you can do to make it better. Be respectful and considerate and remember to phrase your concerns as questions whenever possible.

Alternatively, you can let time and good performance turn this around. Do everything you can to give your obstreperous colleague the benefit of the doubt. Act as if he is being professional and positive. If others like you, you do a good job, and don't act confrontational, then over time this will become the prevailing view of you and, hopefully, supersede the initial gut reaction this person seems to have formed.

If all else fails, consider taking the risk of going to your boss. Ask for advice about how to create a more positive rapport. How to do this without losing face, especially if your boss belongs to the stiff-upper-lip tribe? Remember that almost everyone is sensitive to mistreatment by a colleague that can affect one's professional image and earnings potential. Get the boss in touch with his empathy by asking how he would handle a similar situation perpetrated by his own boss or important colleague. If your boss indicates he would like to speak to your hostile colleague, urge the use of tact in introducing the topic along with the omission of the fact that you brought the matter to your boss.

As all of us know by now, the world is full of toxic personalities. Being thrown together with one of them for ten, twelve, or more hours each day is another thing altogether. Maggie Craddock, portfolio-manager-turned-executive-coach, says, 'I have worked with hundreds of people around the country, many of whom were unhappy and emotionally drained by poor emotional chemistry in the workplace. When they finally find the ability to walk away from a no-win situation, their career takes off and so does their attitude towards life.'

Remember the emotional costs to you of your job, and good luck.

Readers advise...

'My last boss was an egotistical, borderline sadistic workaholic who made my life a living hell for 14 months and nine days. Then he had a heart attack and died at 42. What goes around comes around, I guess.'

'This industry is full of toxic types. If you're not careful they'll bleed all over you. My advice: know what really matters to you (kids, the Red Sox, whatever) and your exit opp. Get out before you turn into one of 'them'.'

'I'm interested in hearing how other people deal with these alpha personalities. Anyone?'

Next week's question: How should a woman working as a trader deal with her male counterparts when they plan "guys only" events?

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Look out for the Experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week.

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