When Your Colleague is Bugging You

As an executive coach, leaders sometimes tell me stories of their “challenging” colleagues and ask for advice for handling them. Leaders are often surprised when I suggest they start by looking at themselves.  I’ll hear, “Well, they are the actual problem so why can’t we start there?”  Of course, we could start there.  But hoping another person will change is not an effective plan.  Real change starts with us trying a different lens.

Here’s why…

  1. Other people don’t all see the world the same way we see it.  Until we realize that, we will continue to be frustrated. 

  2. Our way is not necessarily the right way.  Our view of the world is filtered through our own lens – one that is often skewed and biased. This means we can be missing a fair amount of information.

  3. Other people have their own lens on the world and we need to consider this to effectively communicate.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Shannon, a new Vice President of Operations at a fast-paced financial services firm.  She was highly competent, diligent, and organized with impossibly high standards. Her focus of attention was continuously hooked by finding error and catching things that did not measure up to her standards.  In many ways, this served her and her company because she was a major contributor to process improvements and operational efficiencies.  However, the discerning lens she filtered things through didn’t allow for much creativity or autonomy for her team.  Her attention to finding errors did not help her build strong relationships with peers.  Shannon had the tendency to micromanage at times and others sometimes felt stifled, criticized, and unappreciated for their efforts.  Shannon had no problem letting her colleagues know when they fell short of expectations and often vented to her boss about these difficult interactions.

After experiencing a fair amount of frustration and fatigue from doing too much herself, Shannon asked for executive coaching.  She wanted to find better ways to reach her ambitious goals for the company.  Shannon and I started with efforts to increase her self-awareness, the foundation of any leadership development.  Shannon received 360 feedback on how her leadership style came across to others.  To her credit, she realized the need to look closely at her own behaviors to see how she might be contributing to challenging interactions with others. 

 We also investigated Shannon’s Enneagram type.  She easily identified as an Enneagram Type One, sometimes referred to as The Perfectionist or the Reformer.  As a person who leads with this personality type, Shannon recognized her gifts of excellent judgment, conscientiousness, leading by example, and diligence accounted for much of her success.  She also became much more aware of the impact of the unrelenting critical voice inside her head, which, created distress and made any criticism incredibly painful.  As an example, she would review in her mind all of the things she could have done better as she laid in bed at the end of each day.

Gradually, as Shannon began to objectively observe her own behavior in action (without judgment) and consider what was actually motivating it in the moment (the need to be beyond reproach by making no mistakes), she started to see how her lens on the world skewed things. She could see how she “suggested” people do things her way, so it would be done “right.”  She was surprised to learn that by imposing her standards on others, they felt criticized and often were afraid to give her feedback because of her defensiveness.  At first, she could not believe how readily this focus of attention and judging behavior ran on autopilot. However, this recognition was the key to helping Shannon soften her approach and be more open-minded to her colleagues’ suggestions, and kinder to herself.  She also got better at recognizing other’s contributions and celebrating successes as a team.

When you notice yourself getting hooked by your personality type's focus of attention (see all 9 habits of attention in the chart below), ask yourself: 

  • What is behind my behavior? What is causing me to think, feel, or act this way?

  • Is this something I should do? OR can this situation be more effectively handled a different way?

Habits of Attention Chart.jpg


Once Shannon increased her self-awareness of how her behavior prevented her from connecting and influencing others at work, she found additional strategies to handle challenging interactions. Here are three suggestions to consider:


Build your capacity to be mindful during charged situations and ask yourself:

  • What is really causing me to think, feel, or act this way? 

  • What might I be missing?

  • What can I change about the way I am interacting with this person?

Find empathy by pressing “pause.”   Suspend your judgment for the moment and check in with your own emotions. By increasing your own awareness of what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way, you’ll be more likely to strengthen your ability to see others’ perspectives and communicate with them adeptly.

Practice asking better, open-ended questions.  Then play back what you hear from people such as, “Tell me more” or “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.” Really listen to their responses instead of making assumptions.


The good news is we can all learn to step back and observe our behaviors.  Doing so helps us gain self-awareness and manage the habits and tendencies that get in our way. The next time you have a colleague who triggers a negative reaction, remember to start with the person who you are most able to influence – yourself.