Into everyone’s life, a little rain must fall. To put a finer point on it, most of us, at some point in our careers, must spend time dealing with difficult co-workers. Unlike that drunken brother-in-law you have to be polite to on holidays, your co-workers are waiting for you five days a week, testing your limits eight hours a day (or more). Learning how to deal with them effectively will not only relieve a lot of your stress, it can contribute greatly to your own professional growth.
Ask successful professionals about how they made their way to the top, and more often than not, their story is all about overcoming obstacles. And after all, isn’t a challenging co-worker just another obstacle? Finding your own ways to manage relationships with difficult people can show your boss that instead of letting a problem frustrate or stall you, you actively choose to solve the thorny problem by proactively improving your interactions with that person.
If you’re facing this challenge and you’ve made up your mind to take action (and become a stronger team member for the experience), here are some strategies to help you better deal with difficult co-workers. Keep in mind, these are just tips for dealing with personality clashes. If you’ve got more serious problems on your hands, such as harassment, abuse, racism, or sexism, you should skip directly to escalating the issue with your supervisor or human resources manager.
1. Find out if you are the only one with an issue.
First, ask yourself if you are the only person in your company that finds dealing with the other person as difficult. If you’re alone in your issues, you may want to look inward. Are you the problem? Or is it simply your challenging colleague’s personality rather than their behavior? If it’s behavior, consider whether you’ve been bothered by the same actions taken by others you work with. Maybe this co-worker just pushes your “hot buttons” more effectively than others.
If the answer to any of those questions is Yes, the best strategy may be working on yourself and your own reactions to that co-worker. Practice awareness and detachment. Strategies people use successfully include meditation, deep breathing, and exercise. You goal is to put this person (and their behavior) into a less-commanding perspective in your life. Genuine acceptance (“that’s just how she is, I’m not going to let it bother me again”) can be surprisingly effective.
2. Do some research… carefully.
You might want to explore your response to the problematic co-worker with a third party – perhaps someone at work that you trust and can confide in. Sometimes there are things that a third party may notice about your interactions that you might have missed. Brainstorm some ways you might better respond to your problem colleague and run them by your confidant. That work buddy may be able to help you find the best strategy that will work best for everyone.
However, be careful about approaching another colleague with your issues. You don’t want to be seen as spreading discord in your team or maligning someone you work with. If possible, talk to a friend, significant other, or professional counselor first. Be honest about your interactions and get feedback about ways to improve. If that doesn’t work, it might be time to seek a second opinion in the workplace – again, with someone you trust.
3. Try to work it out one-to-one.
Approaching the co-worker in question can be a good idea, but be strategic. Don’t call them out in front of the rest of the team, and never do it when you are emotionally agitated – especially if you’re angry. Find a quiet time when you can be alone, and talk openly and honestly with the co-worker. Use “I” statements (“I felt that my work did not get proper credit”) rather than “you” statements (“You always take credit for my work.”) They may have no idea that their actions are bothering you, and be very open to changing the dynamic.
This can be a fruitful approach, but you need to be prepared for them to reject your attempt to mend fences. Some people are naturally defensive, others are insecure, and some may just not like you or your work. (Those people do exist in the workplace.) If talking to them is doesn’t improve matters, you can at least rest assured that you’ve done the right thing in attempting to work things out.
4. Escalate the issue.
Okay, so you’ve tried looking at your own reactions, and it really is all about them. You’ve gotten advice from others and it hasn’t helped. A one-on-one conversation with the person went nowhere. Now what? If you’re not the only one having a problem with this person, it may be time to go to your supervisor or human resources manager. When confronted one-on-one, the employee causing you problems may wave off your issues and concerns. When others they work with (or for) ask for changes, they may be more compelled to address their problem behaviors.
If you decide to take this step, you may want to have documentation to back up your assertions. Keep a record of what happened, when and where the interaction took place, and whether there were other witness to it. Save any emails, phone or text messages that can back up your claims. This kind of information will reduce the odds of a scenario where it’s your word against theirs.
5. Make the tough choice.
When all else fails,you may have to face a difficult decision. It may not seem fair that you’re the one who has to change jobs or transfer to a different department when it’s the other employee that’s causing the problem, but you need to consider what your personal happiness and comfort on the job are worth. The cost, in time and stress, of working with an abrasive co-worker may be higher than the cost of making a change.
If you take this step, there is always some chance that management will choose to keep you and reassign the other person, but don’t count on it You have to plan your own path and be willing to walk it. The strength and confidence that gives can’t be taken away by anyone … much less your abrasive co-worker.