12 Tips for Handling Challenging Colleagues
Although workplaces are better than others, nearly all of them have at least one difficult co-worker. Maybe they always show up late, go out of their way to be rude, rarely get work done, or generally make work a less productive place. Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand that can whisk them away. So, you have to learn to “deal” with them.
That’s not always easy to do. Although some people have a natural ability to skillfully deal with difficult situations or people, plenty of others don’t. They find confronting the person so exhausting and nerve-wracking that they choose to avoid it if at all possible. This only compounds the problem. Let’s take a look at 12 ways to skillfully deal with a difficult co-worker.
Acknowledge the complainer’s complaints
Another difficult kind of coworker is the “complainer.” This person never seems to tire of telling everyone how everything is terrible – how the coffee is always burnt, how Janie is too loud, or how the boss expects too much. Although the complainer never tires, hearing their incessant complaints can certainly tire you out.
To avoid being their favorite person to come to, gently acknowledge (rather than agree with) their complaints but then move the conversation to some other, more upbeat topic. Another tactic is to offer them a solution to see if they’re really interested in fixing it.
Avoid giving the attention-seeker attention
The attention seeker is a common fixture at most workplaces. In a competitive environment
where getting ahead is dependent on getting noticed, attention-seekers make sure they get
noticed. It’s understandable, even if it’s a bit annoying. However, that annoyance turns to danger
if they start taking credit for your accomplishments.
If you’re trying to deal with an attention-seeker who’s taking responsibility for tasks that they
didn’t actually do, it’s important to set the record straight. The first step is to take your attention
off them and put it on your work. Then, keep track of that extra productivity and share it with
Ask the know-it-all for advice
Just like the attention-seeker, nearly every workplace has a “know-it-all.” As the name suggests,
they tend to think they know everything. That means they can be incredibly difficult to talk to and
incredibly hard to silence during meetings. Criticism – even highly constructive criticism – isn’t
something they take lightly.
Working with this kind of person can be quite difficult because they aren’t eager to hear other
people’s ideas. So, rather than fighting them, join them. Ask their advice on a particular problem
to build some trust that may be reciprocated in the future.
Opt out of the gossip train
Nearly every culture on earth gossips about other people in their group. Office culture is no different. The problem with office gossip, however, is that it can quickly get out of hand. An innocent joke can grow into a malicious rumor that affects the entire workplace – and may even cost someone their job.
The golden rule for dealing with co-workers who love to gossip is to get off the proverbial train before it crashes. That means not participating in the spread of gossip. Either walk away when you hear it or turn the conversation towards something else.
Speak to slackers privately
The slacker or sloth is a common fixture in many workplaces. This person skirts by doing the
absolute bare minimum and can often be found taking multiple, long bathroom breaks during the
day. If your work hinges on them finishing their work, this can quickly get frustrating.
Speaking with a slacker starts with respect and kindness. Find a private place to ask them how
long they think it will take to finish a particular project. Gently ask why they think it will take this
long. If their reasoning seems off, explain how turning the project in late will affect everyone.
Talk with your manager
Although it can be helpful to try to deal with difficult coworkers on your own, other times, it’s better to talk with your manager. This is especially true if you’ve already tried a few tactics, such as avoiding them, focusing on the positive, or gently confronting them with empathetic “I” statements.
If all that has failed, then a formal complaint with management may be the way out. This can help bring the coworker’s troubling behavior to the attention of your superiors. It’s always good to document these things.
Don’t blame yourself
One of the most unfortunate traits of a difficult co-worker is that they tend to blame their difficulties on everyone else. Sometimes that may be slightly true. For example, during peak season, a boss can ask workers to stay much longer and work much harder.
Even in that case, however, the reason a difficult co-worker is being difficult has nothing to do with you. You didn’t cause their problems or the increase in work demands. Reminding yourself of this fact can help you to avoid blaming yourself for their troubles.
Focus on the positive
Difficult coworkers – as well as difficult people in other parts of life – can be exhausting to deal with. Often, their excessive negativity can lead to you burning out or wallowing in cynicism. That can have a really detrimental effect at work, causing you to be less productive.
One simple way to avoid that unwanted fate is to focus on the positive. Although it sounds simple, it’s still effective. Reflect on what you’re grateful for. That may include the positive aspects of your job as well as other people in your life who fill you with joy.
Avoid difficult co-workers
Many people prefer a non-confrontational approach to deal with difficult co-workers. Rather than explaining how their slow pace or rumors affects everyone else, they prefer to avoid them at all costs. This can be highly effective, so it’s a good golden rule to keep in your back pocket.
All you have to do is avoid long conversations with them. Staying kind and limiting your interactions to a simple “good morning” or a sarcastic “great weather” when it’s raining is enough to avoid getting dragged into the drama and controversy that they love.
Speak in “I” statements
Speaking with difficult coworkers takes a certain kind of language. If someone is easily annoyed or primed for controversy, then it’s best to avoid “you” statements such as “you need to lower your voice when speaking.” Instead, use “I” statements to help the difficult co-worker understand where you’re coming from.
For example, instead of the “you” statement above, say, “I feel stressed when you speak in such a loud voice.” On top of that, keep your feedback centered on observable behaviors that are causing trouble rather than the overall personality of the co-worker.
Identify what annoys you about them
Sometimes we just get a feeling about something or know that they’re trouble from very far away. Although gut feelings can often be surprisingly accurate, it’s also helpful to bring in the brain. What, exactly, is it about this particular coworker that upsets you?
Is it the way they dominate the room and crowd out other voices during company meetings? Or perhaps it’s the way they always focus on the negative. Whatever the specific thing is, it’s helpful to pinpoint it. That way, whenever you see that trait arise, you can tactfully excuse yourself.
Practice coping and relaxation techniques
Difficult co-workers are usually difficult because they get our blood going and hearts racing.
They get you flustered and annoyed, which makes it very difficult to decide how to de-escalate the situation in a rational way. Deep breathing can help.
By doing a simple exercise such as breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and forcefully blowing out the mouth for a count of eight, you can create a sense of calm. After establishing that sense of calm, you can refocus your mind on the work at hand.