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When you have to work with someone you don’t like or respect, every clash seems critical, but be thoughtful about picking your battles.

Dmitriy Shironosov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A client, co-worker, employee, or even a boss for whom you have little professional respect makes it difficult to stay motivated and get things done. But the reality is that you may have to work with, or for, people that you find difficult, distasteful or downright unbearable.

While it is certainly easier to work alongside those you like, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can only do a good job if you respect your workmates. You can function effectively with (almost) anyone if you keep just a few things in mind.

First, it is okay to not like everyone: Start by accepting (at least to yourself) that, while you disagree, holding back your own judgments on right versus wrong can lessen the strong emotions tied to this difficult relationship. Acknowledge that you both can have different viewpoints on the same situation.

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Don’t disengage: A natural reaction when you don’t respect someone is to reduce the level of interaction with the person, but that’s the opposite of what you should be doing. If this is a co-worker, an employee, or particularly your boss, then it’s still necessary to maintain an ongoing relationship. So, continue to interact at an operational level – ask questions, communicate information, meet as required – but know deep down that you don’t have to achieve a meaningful or long-term connection.

Maintain your professionalism: Don’t let your dislike reflect badly on you. Remember, this is not high school, it’s a workplace. Talking trash about a client or your boss at the water cooler will only make you look immature and unprofessional. Far better to vent your frustration to a spouse, trusted friend or adviser outside the workplace. And keep the witty asides to a minimum. You may think they’re amusing, but all you’re really doing is devaluing your credibility and your impact. Making the effort to be pleasant will do far more to build your professional reputation.

Widen your perspective: A broader view can often give alternate insights. Ask yourself why this individual behaves or acts in ways that causes contempt. What situation or internal shortcoming might cause your boss to always fly off the handle? Or your staff member to always get defensive? Or your client to immediately expect the worst outcome? Often, other people’s objectionable behaviour is more a reaction to their own circumstances than to something you might have said or done. Whether your co-worker is a jerk or just inept, some people are just not worth your energy. So step back and focus your effort on yourself and your job.

Choose the hill to die on: When you have to work with someone you don’t like or respect, every clash seems critical, but be thoughtful about picking your battles. Not everything is worth the same time and attention. Always ask yourself – do I have more to lose than win? It may be in your best interest to tolerate a person if it serves you better to let the situation slide.

Create a support structure: Speaking of picking your battles, don’t go to war alone. Seek out trusted individuals you can vent to, who will offer perspectives and brainstorm alternative solutions about your difficult person. Dependable advisers can bolster your confidence and resilience. Ideally, you want people who are outside your immediate work environment, or else you run the risk of being viewed as a complainer or a gossip.

Focus on the business at hand: At the end of the day, respecting the people you work with (or for) is peripheral to getting results. You are there to get a job done, and so are they. So focus on the outcome. When you stay connected to your own sense of purpose – what you do and why it matters – it makes the interpersonal relationships secondary.

The reality is that sometimes you’re just going to have to work with people you don’t like and respect – it’s all part of being an adult in the world of work. Accept it, prepare for it, handle it with poise and equanimity, get your work done, and move forward.

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