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Forgiving A Difficult Colleague

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review advocated using forgiveness as a tool to consider in managing your emotions and relationship with a difficult colleague.  I have always connected the term “forgiveness” to a past act of someone.  To someone who is remorseful and has asked for forgiveness.  Here is a new way to think about the concept of forgiveness and apply it to managing a problem relationship in the workplace.

To set the stage for this discussion, what we are talking about here is colliding personalities.  Maybe the colleague is self-aggrandizing, or a chronic interrupter, a spotlight-hogger, a passive-aggressive sulker, or a late-to-every-meeting person. There’s nothing to report to HR, but enough to make life unpleasant.  They’ve been given feedback on the issue, maybe even changed for a while, but always regress to their true colors.

This colleague is outside of your sphere of control and sphere of influence.  You are left with managing only yourself – your actions and emotions.  Look at all the emotions you’ve felt toward this person with whom you’re angry – for example, resentful, vindictive, fearful, etc.   Next consider how these emotions have shaped your behavior.  Have you vented about the person to colleagues?  Given them a cold shoulder?  Made subtle attempts to reciprocate with a taste of their own medicine?  Ask yourself if these actions feel consistent with your values.

Reflect on the whole story.  Step back and ask yourself if you’ve considered the full story of what’s happening.  Are there factors that you’ve ignored, especially your possible contribution to the problem?

When we harbor resentment, spite, and other negative emotions, the person at whom we aim them isn’t suffering (and is likely oblivious to our feelings).  The only one suffering is us.  And there’s plenty of evidence showing that emotions associated with unforgiveness – vindictiveness, contempt, hostility, and rage – take severe tolls on our mental and physical health.

It’s important to shape a new mindset about the situation and the other person.  Let go of the labels and be honest about things you might be doing to perpetuate the situation. 

Forgive, and adjust your posture.  Consciously choose to let go of negative emotions toward this person.   Forgive yourself for any part you’ve played in the problem, and for expecting someone to be more than they were able to be.

Journaling can help with this.  Write down a few positive qualities about them that you’ve disregarded.  Intentionally shift your posture by choosing to be more gracious, hospitable, even kind to them.  Acknowledge the ways this posture is more aligned with your values.

The full text of this article is found in the Harvard Business Review article of the same title written by Ron Carucci and published 3/21/2023.


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