August 12, 2016
Annoying co-workers are a fact of life. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Maya sighed and thought, “He’s at it again. Dave always wants to be the center of attention.” She put on her headphones to tune out the long tale Dave was telling their co-workers about his latest sales success. Later, Maya mentioned her ongoing frustration to a colleague. Jim replied, “Dave’s not so bad. I don’t know why he bugs you so much.”
Ethan stopped focusing on the team meeting and started scrolling through his calendar. He thought, “What a waste of time listening to Pat and Jesse have the same argument yet again! Pat wants everything to be perfect and Jesse can never measure up to his standards. They never get anywhere.”
Why do some co-workers annoy you but don’t bother others? Why do some people always have the same disagreement?
If you want answers to these questions — which also apply to relationships outside the ones we have with those we consider to be annoying co-workers — it helps to look to the past. What’s bugging Maya isn’t about Dave, it’s about how he reminds her of something from earlier in her life. Dave has triggered a habitual response that Maya developed to cope with previous difficult situations.
Pat and Jesse’s repeating argument stems from the same cause: Responding to each other based on a similar habitual coping strategy. Such responses might have been useful when they were first developed. Now, they get in the way of having authentic, effective relationships with people (not only co-workers) who are far removed from those early experiences.
How habits are formed
Understanding the neuroscience of habit formation can help us choose to move beyond habits that aren’t useful. When we develop a habit, our brains switch from the section that focuses on active learning—the pre-frontal area—to the area associated with habitual responding based in the basal ganglia, outside our conscious awareness. Then, the right trigger will make us respond with that habit. That can be useful for something like remembering how to brush your teeth or what not to say to your boss. Those good habits serve us well.
Not all habits work for us, though, and our automatic reactions can become set into negative emotional patterns, called schemas. Dr. Jeffrey Young calls these patterns lifetraps. Lifetraps can include people who are never-satisfied perfectionists, convinced they’re a failure, overly dependent on others, or distrusting. Leaders who are very critical may be operating from an emotional habit that alienates the people around them. If someone on their staff is in the “convinced they’re a failure” lifetrap, that negativity is even more powerful.
How to put a stop to self-defeating habits
Before we can change a habit, we need to be aware of it. In her book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Habits, Tara Bennett-Goleman explains the first step to changing a habit: Notice it. Rather than responding on automatic, become mindful of your response. It also helps to learn what the triggers are that start your habitual responses. And, pay attention to the way the habit operates.
Changing our behavior is the core of self-management, one of the key components of emotional intelligence. By becoming aware of our emotional habits and choosing a different response, we can literally rewire our brains. And that includes how we respond to those we view as annoying co-workers.
How can Maya pull herself out of her habit? Stepping back from her interactions with Dave, she can realize that he reminds her of her overly entitled sibling and how she tried to avoid him. Now, when she sees Dave and feels herself going down the “must avoid my brother” habitual path, she can stop herself. After taking a few deep breaths and reminding herself where she is, she can consider what interaction she wants to have with Dave. It might also be helpful to come up with a list of “ways Dave is different from my brother” to help pull herself out of the habit.
Pat and Jesse’s oft-repeating argument will continue as long as they let it. It just takes one to stop that pattern. By recognizing the emotional habit behind their argument, Pat or Jesse can choose a different response. Each time they make a different choice, they’ll make new connections in their brain. Over time, those new choices will reduce the strength of the old habits.