When you work with people who drive you nuts.

You know who I’m talking about: they clip their nails at their desk, they air out their smelly feet right next to you, they lick the lid of their Tupperware container in a lunch meeting, they seem to know nothing about personal buffer zones. 

Like me I am sure you have been to more than one dinner party where you’ve heard people complaining about a colleague who simply drives them nuts.

It’s a problem that comes back time and time again because people are people and gosh darn it we’re sensitive creatures… well except for “those guys”, right?

Sometimes, we can’t put our finger on why someone really irritates us. Sometimes, we could make a list a mile long.  

Does our tendency to find some people around us very irritating make us bad people?  No, it makes us very human. The question is, what we can do about it?

There are many reasons why we get annoyed and if you’re really interested in that, you should check out the book “Annoying.  The Science of what bugs us” by NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca and Science Friday's Flora Lichtman.  (You can read a bit about it here and even take a quiz)

It's about time!

One thing for sure that ups the chances that you’ll find someone annoying is how much time you spend with them.  It happens with the people we love so it’s not surprising it happens with coworkers. 

We all have differing levels of buffers when it comes to how soon we will pop when someone’s annoying habits get to us. This has a lot to do with what we got used to growing up. That’s where we developed our standards and our own habits that have stuck with us for life, including, of course, our own things you and I do that other people find annoying. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are things that people find annoying about you and me.


It’s not like we go around looking for things to dislike about people, right? Or do we? 

Actually we may think we’re pretty open-minded about people, but are we really? We’re actually pretty critical and it is the rare person among us who does not make some judgment or comparison of another person. It’s a survival mechanism we use all the time for decision making so don’t beat yourself up about that.  It’s genetic. For more on that, you can check out this Scientific American article: Mixed Impressions How we Judge other on multiple levels.

It’s all about frequency of interaction and closeness of that interaction. 

You might find someone perfectly fine when you see them occasionally at work but when you end up working closely on a project together, things changes.  You start to notice the little things. Sometimes you love those little things (ah yes, the office romance) and sometimes you don’t (oh no, get me out of here!)

My life was the pits!  

One extreme example for me was many years ago. One of my first big breaks was when I got hired along with 4 other musicians to be part of a small pit orchestra for a big name summer theatre company. That meant 8 shows a week for about 5 months together, and because we were all from out of town, the theatre company rented the 5 of us a big house for the duration. At first we thought this was going to be great idea. We thought we could live like musicians do – work late, party til dawn, sleep late, be with our own kind, if you will. 

The work - the playing in the pit part - was easy. Everyone played really well and it was a ton of fun. But over time, the negotiation of living together was much harder than playing together. Conflicts would occur and we would get on each others’ nerves. By the end, some people just flat out didn’t get along. 

Eventually, the feelings that manifested themselves from our home interactions started to creep into the workplace.  We began scrutinizing each other’s playing and began to find fault where we didn’t some months earlier.  Of course, these were things that an audience wouldn’t notice as they were so subtle and it goes to show that you can always find something wrong with someone if you go looking for it. 

We were all pretty glad when the run came to an end. Looking back now, I am not surprised it turned out as it did. It would have been a miracle if it hadn’t. 

What you really need to remember.

There are all kinds of articles and posts out there on annoying co-workers. But from what I see, those posts are not about how people work per-se but more about the way they interact with others or the personal habits they may have. Personal habits, and we’ve all got’em, rarely get in the way of the job.

The question really is… Does the person you’re working with (and find so annoying) contribute to your own success? (Yes, I’m implying it’s all about you, but ultimately, isn’t it?)

So, pay attention. If your least favourite colleague is helping your organization run more efficiently or be more profitable, then the answer is yes. You need to keep this in mind. No situation is going to be perfect; no person is going to be perfect.

What could be perfect, though, are the results of people finding a way to work together despite their personal differences.  The lesson is that, sometimes, to be successful, you need to work with bright and talented people who you might not want have over for dinner.

That’s ok.  That’s what your friends are for. (As long as you don’t spend too much time with them, that is).