It is an uncomfortable feeling when, on the first day in a new job, you find that the person you'll be spending eight or nine hours a day with, five or six days a week, is the Terry Venables to your Alan Sugar, the Vinnie Jones to your Gary Lineker, or the Kelvin MacKenzie to your Janet Street-Porter. "In my first job, I had only ever met my boss at the interview, and she seemed fine," says Anna, 28, who works in management. "It was a prestigious company, and decent jobs are few and far between when you've just graduated. But by the end of the first week, I was in despair. She was loud and rude and coarse, and I just couldn't cope with her. She was very competent and did an excellent job, but we were on different wavelengths. She was desperate to show the whole office how tough she was, and I'm not like that at all. I stuck it for nearly a year, and when I was offered an overseas posting, even though it was slightly more junior, I jumped at it and fled to Europe."
The boss isn't the only one who can make your life a misery; a colleague of equal status can do the job just as well. "In a small-ish company like the one where I work, every personality really counts. And Michael was just weird," says Richard, 31, an accountant. "It was as if we were speaking a different language. We didn't get each other's jokes. We'd rub each other up the wrong way, just by acting in ways we each considered perfectly normal and reasonable. I lost count of the number of times we attempted to work it out together. I couldn't stand him and I'm sure he'd say the same about me. When he moved on, I breathed a huge sigh of relief."
Feelings can run high; mutual hatred doesn't make for a cosy atmosphere round the coffee machine. "I have thought sometimes that the reason we got on so terribly badly is because we are similar in some ways," says Lucy, 29, who works in PR. This effort to be fair makes her grit her teeth alarmingly. "We are both rather bossy. But she barged into my department with great force and started sticking her oar in on all my accounts. Within about two weeks I felt stripped of all my confidence. Quite often she was only horrible to me when no one else was around to witness it. As a result, I would blow up in public at some trifle and appear completely unreasonable," she says, furiously. "She ruined my job for months, she got under my skin. I bored my poor husband to death moaning about her and even while I was on holiday I almost had a heart attack talking about her. It was extraordinarily powerful."
Sometimes a personality clash isn't even based on mutual dislike - simply incomprehension. "Clash is too dramatic a word for it," says Chloe, 36, an office administrator. "What I have is a complete mis-match of personalities. I am basically confident and sociable but I also have a tendency to be awkward. When I'm dealing with outgoing types, I'm fine, but my colleague also tends to awkwardness - in fact, I suspect he's painfully shy." This combination makes daily communication an agony. "I've never known anything like it," says Chloe. "I will do almost anything to avoid talking to him. Even when I'm really angry and frustrated I can see that part of the problem is coming from me. But it's a hard one to solve, because the very idea of sitting down together and confronting it makes me squirm with dread."
Flee into the arms of a recruitment agency, and you may have problems explaining why you want to leave your current lovely job. But, says Jeff Grout, MD of Robert Half International financial recruitment, there's no need to be shy. "It is certainly an issue. A sizeable minority of people cite it as the principal reason for leaving their jobs. I had a call only this morning from someone who could stand their boss no longer. Sometimes it comes down quite simply to bullying, but in other cases, I think there could have been a resolution that didn't require anyone to leave."
Bosses, he says, should be prepared to act as a conciliation service - somewhere between Acas and Relate - to bring two warring colleagues back together. "The role of the manager is to act as arbitrator or counsellor - get the two of them talking, on neutral ground. Try to get them to resolve it alone. If that doesn't work, the next stage is to mediate - sit down with both of them together and get them to be open and honest about what is upsetting them. Britishness gets in the way - we put too much emphasis on the stiff upper lip." The situation is trickier if the relationship is one between a boss and subordinate. "During a yearly appraisal, there should be an opportunity for the employee to appraise his manager. And," he adds, optimistically, "the manager should take it squarely on the chin."
The bosses themselves, it seems, are not terribly likely to spend nights crying into their pillow because they don't get on with Mr Snodgrass from Accounts. "There's a difference between actively disliking someone, and passively not liking them," says Jeff Grout. "You don't necessarily have to like staff to manage them - gaining their respect is foremost, for being consistent and fair. If they like you, that's a bonus. But if you actively dislike them, you can't manage them."
Ben Williams, an Edinburgh-based chartered psychologist who specialises in helping executives with their interpersonal skills difficulties, suggests that a certain amount of conflict in the office is inevitable. "Given reasonable inter-personal skills on our own part, we will be likely to relate very well to a minority of people who are compatible with our own style and approach; and reasonably well with the majority, because their approach will be reasonably well matched to our own. Those we have difficulty with will be the minority whose style and approach are completely different to our own."
He recommends attempting to develop a rapport with the offending colleague. Even if you can't like them, you can at least keep the communication channels open. "Empathy is not sympathy, it is the art of showing you understand how the other person feels. Building rapport and dealing empathetically with people involves communication skills which can be learnt and rehearsed." Further down the line, he says, conflict management techniques may be called for - or assertiveness (but not aggression; if you fear you may be overdoing it "practise, practise, practise, and ask for feedback from others" - if you can coax them out from under their desks).
But if it all gets too much, the last resort is always to quit, with dignity (more or less) intact. Doug, a 32-year-old designer, decided the struggle wasn't worth it. "My boss's attitude was feudal. He was public school, wealthy, and had a very conservative outlook. I was from a comprehensive school, with a working-class background. No matter how hard I tried to get on with him, he would insist on the final say. After a year, my work had degenerated from top-level contracts with a lot of artistic input to quite literally filling the office kettle or picking up photocopier paper from the store-room - and he suggested that I should be grateful for doing it. The awful thing was that there was nothing I could do about it. It was a small company and big egos like his pack a lot of punch. He was cunning, too. When we were with colleagues, he would go all out to appear reasonable and charming. Eventually, it was him or me, and he's still there. I'm sad, but then again you have to ask yourself 'is it worth it?' It wasn't."
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