Killing Flies with Honey- How to Turn a Frustrating Colleague into an Asset

by Jennifer Miller on May 1, 2012

in Office Politics, Personal Effectiveness

 A guest post by Chris Wallace

honey jarIt’s a tough lesson to grasp when you’re 8-years-old, but sometime during the road to adulthood I finally understood my grandmother’s favorite maxim — “You kill more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

This wise saying couldn’t be more true than in an office environment. Even if you’re a generally rosy person, there’s likely something or someone that bothers you at work. Maybe it’s the graphic designer whose headphones aren’t exactly ‘noise cancelling,’ or a partner on a project who spends more time complaining than contributing productively.

Anger and frustration are natural responses in situations that slow down our workflow or distract our train of thought. When they continue unabated or grow into persistent habits, it’s easy to let ourselves boil over. But however silently we stew, the negative energy we build in response will only serve to exacerbate the situation.

Consider these potential situations at work:

Your Coworker in the Adjoining Cubicle is Unbearably Loud on the Phone

If you’re like me, productivity requires peace and quiet. I struggle to work with constant distractions, so when a new employee with the voice of a play-by-play football announcer moved in next door, it forced me to wear headphones, cranking up the classical music in feeble attempts to drown him out.

After two weeks of gritting my teeth and complaining to my wife, she reminded me to ‘be nice’ and solve the problem. After work, I invited my new coworker out for happy hour. We broke the ice and I learned that he’s a great guy with lots of shared interests. With the situation relaxed, it was easy to bring up my gripe. He was immediately apologetic (I honestly believe he hadn’t even realized) and ever since, I’ve ditched the headphones and we’re fast friends.

A Colleague is Arrogant and Demeaning

There’s almost nothing harder to deal with than stubborn self-assurance, especially in a coworker who belittles people around them. It’s a character trait that feeds off of reactions. When someone talks down to a coworker performing a task for them, they expect subservience.

Don’t egg this tendency on. Even if someone is your superior at work, you’re still there with a common goal in mind. It’s tough, but treat these people with respect and kindness. Be a mirror of positivity, and your good attitude will reflect back onto the person trying to bring you down.

Defusing the Micromanager

Here’s where I’m guilty of being the annoying one — I’m a do-it-yourself kind of guy, and I tend to oversee projects to the point of frustrating people working with me on them. Over the years, I’ve learned that trusting people works far better than staring over their shoulder. If you assign a task, rely on employees to do it well. If you are that employee, your job is to really knock it out of the park. After the project is complete and you’ve proven yourself, don’t hesitate to point out to your colleague that their constant checking up on you wasn’t really necessary. They’ll recognize the good work you’ve just done and establish new trust in you, in part because you were willing to speak up.

The frustrating situations that can arise with coworkers in an office environment are endless (if they weren’t, we’d have far less content for TV sitcoms). Whatever the case may be, address it with a smile. Being positive is not always easy, but it’s contagious when it catches on. And wouldn’t we all rather be happy at work?

Christopher Wallace is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Amsterdam Printing, a leading provider of personalized pens and other promotional products such as imprinted apparel, mugs and customized calendars. He regularly contributes to Promo & Marketing Wall blog.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Miller May 16, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Hi, Alana,

It’s Jennifer from The People Equation. I’ll pass this along to Christopher for his input.

Now, for your question– what to do if your “challenging” person is in management. I think this is best taken “offline” as it may get too specific for you to be comfortable with. I’ll send you an email.


Christopher Wallace May 16, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Hi Jennifer –
A ‘challenging’ person in management is always the most difficult situation to deal with. It can be incredibly difficult, but the key factor to remember is to keep a smile on your face. If someone has already failed to respond to a one-on-one plea for cooperation, chances are that they’re dealing with stress or personal issues beyond what you’re aware of, and perhaps they’re coping poorly.

The answer is definitely NOT to respond with vinegar. If you become antagonistic to a manager, you’ll only make the situation worse for yourself.

Most people have good days and bad days. Look out for a ‘good day’ and try to readdress the situation in a polite and courteous fashion. Remember not to criticize or antagonize. Stay positive.

Good luck!
Christopher Wallace
Amsterdam Printing

Jennifer Miller May 17, 2012 at 8:15 am


Thanks for your perspective. I appreciate your counsel to remain positive. Doing so allows a person to maintain his/her integrity.

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