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How to Deal With a Difficult Coworker

How To Deal With a Difficult Coworker

If you work in an environment where everyone gets along and equally contributes, consider yourself fortunate. Irrelevant of industry, employees will at some point point find themselves face to face with a difficult coworker.

Whether this individual is corrupt, dishonest, aloof, unmotivated, negative, gossipy, or just plain ignorant, your difficult coworker makes going to work painful day in and day out. For those of you in the corporate world, the likelihood of working with someone with negative character attributes exponentially increases, so pay close attention to the information in this blog. Whether it’s one person who possesses one or all of these traits or an entire team infiltrated with a buffet of uninviting characteristics, these negative attributions will significantly impact the work environment, workflow, general productivity and your psychological health.

So how do you deal with a difficult coworker and keep your sanity in check? Here are five of the most common coworker scenarios that create a challenging work environment and tips on how to navigate each.

1. That one person you can never get along with no matter how hard you try.

Ask yourself, “What does this person bring to the table?” Now, ask yourself this again… and then keep asking it until you find the answer.  Asking yourself this question will not make Sally or Joe your best friend, but by forcing your brain to acknowledge as little as one skill this person holds, will help you shift gears from seeing this person through an emotional lens fueled with annoyance, disgust and/or irritation to a healthier, cognitive lens governed by logical thought and less ruled by emotion.

You’ve heard the saying before that the only two things guaranteed in life is death and taxes, right?  Well, there’s two more facts I’d like to add to the list.

1. There will always be people you do not like.

2. There will always be people who do not like you.

By acknowledging one skill this difficult coworker has, you can challenge yourself to think more cognitively and less emotionally, reducing your own negative feelings towards this difficult coworker by choosing to see how they contribute.

2. The office gossip.

Yikes! This person knows all the dirt from who’s getting fired to who just resigned to who is having a flirtatious relationship at work. The office gossip seems to somehow know everyone’s personal business, and s/he isn’t shy about it either.

Guess what? If the office gossip is talking about others, you can bet s/he is talking about you too.

The action plan here is to set boundaries.

The next time the gossip starts spewing the latest dark and dirty secrets of colleagues, look bored with the news and busy with your work.  This will confuse the office gossip who is use to getting attention through spreading gossip.

Especially if you’ve engaged in the gossipy behavior before because you didn’t know what else to do, changing your tactic from one of interest to boredom will be doubly confusing. File your nails, yawn, pick lint off your pants or perpetually glance at your computer screen; these activities indicate you aren’t interested in talking poorly about people with whom you work, especially if an upper level manager is being discussed.

Depending on the nature of the petty chit-chat, you can ask the gossip point blank, “What are you going to do about it?” This will curve ball the trash talking and also keep you disengaged.

An alternative angle to play is to indicate you’re busy. “Hey, I appreciate your interest in wanting to share information with me, but I’m working under a tight deadline and I really want to to nail this project.” An approach like this identifies that the gossiper is being distracting and you have you have work to get done. Remember, you’re at work where there is suppose to be social etiquette and personal boundaries.

3. The online governor.

You totally know who this is.  From winning E-bay bids, to emailing family/friends from a personal account, status checking everyone on Facebook, printing recipes for Sunday brunch, online shopping or reading parenting blogs, this person is doing everything but work.

The approach here is similar to dealing with the office gossip.

Act bored.

It’s hard to keep boundaries when working in close quarters, but creating boundaries is important if you want to succeed.

Do you want know all the details about the newest dog bed on the market or how your coworker bought her mom a three night bed and breakfast getaway in upstate New York?  No, so why fake it? Stop asking questions about things you don’t care about and start stating what you do care about.

The next time the online governor starts downloading about E-Bay bids, weekend getaways and whatever nonsense s/he is distracted by today, choose to not engage and then state what you need to do. “Thanks for the update, but I’m running late to a meeting” or “I’m actually scheduled to see a client in 5 minutes” and start packing up your things.

Keeping boundaries is critical, especially if you’re finding that engaging in this type of social chatter is negatively influencing your ability to knock out your to do list. Soon enough, you’ll find the online governor keeping quiet about the online world, freeing up your time to have a killer, productive day.

4. The mute

It’s difficult to understand what’s going on with the mute because this person really isn’t into communicating. Maybe it’s depression, a lack of social skills, a situation at home or something else, but maybe it’s nothing at all. Perhaps this person is simply not interested in being at work and is purposefully extraordinarily quiet and vague.

Naturally, you’ll want to give this person the benefit of the doubt, and because you’re human, its okay to check-in and ask if everything is okay.  Maybe you’ll find out there is some personal issue (a health problem, a family member on hospice or a pending foreclosure) going on, and, if so, decide how or if you can offer support in any way.

If this person wants to share, they will, and if not, they won’t. Recognizing you are not in a position to push the issue, as it relates to their personal life, is as important as leaving the door open for this person to talk when the time is right.

If the lack of communication, though, interferes with projection completion, goal attainment or other key work-related issues, you’ll need to step up and clearly communicate what you need from the office mute despite whatever personal issues are going on for them.

Tell your difficult coworker what you need.

For example, if you’re working on a project together, state the facts.  “I know we’re both concerned about getting the reports completed on time.  What would be helpful to me is fill in the blank” and then then fill in the blank with what would specifically be helpful to you.

Using this approach, you’re stating the concern, for example getting the reports done on time, while verbalizing what you need from your worker in order to help facilitate the end goal.

Stating what you need, creates transparency and lets your coworker know what you need in order to be effective.  This is a great tool because if the project doesn’t make goal and it’s because of poor communication, at least you informed your coworker about your needs ahead of time, displacing responsibility from you and holding the necessary coworker accountable.

Next, follow-up on those goals.

Okay, so by now you stated the shared goal (getting the reports done on time) and verbalized what you need and the coworker’s communication hasn’t improved… charge yourself with following up.

If the goal is clear and your needs are known, take the initiative by asking your difficult coworker for an update.

Asking questions will be instrumental in facilitating the completion of the project. For example, every few days (or whatever is most appropriate) ask, “where are we with getting the reports done” so that the goals are not lost or obscured. If there hasn’t been movement, avoid blaming language and instead, rework your statement and bounce back with, “When will that be done?” or “What’s the timeline for that?” Asking questions like this will keep the project ear-marked for completion, holding each party responsible for their contributions.

Because the mute isn’t good at sharing information and meeting deadline is crucial, asking questions and keeping on top of the timeline will be your responsibility.

You can choose your friends, but not always your coworkers.  If by chance you work with someone who isn’t a good communicator, look at it as a way to improve your communication skills and creative problem-solving abilities.

5. The work pusher

This person is the worst! You’re not sure what they do day in and day out, but you know they mastered they ability to push their work onto everyone else. This person will frequently offer reason or rationale as to why they shouldn’t attend a meeting, travel for work or pick-up a new client, despite the return on investment.

Instead, the work pusher eats breakfast in the office, has a leisurely lunch and leaves the office as soon as the clock strikes 5:00 pm. S/he never works late and appears to have a wealth of spare time. Meanwhile, you’re drowning in work and can barely keep your head up above water

If this sounds like your current situation, there’s a unique relationship here.

First the work pusher has a poor work ethic and limited sympathy for your situation. S/He isn’t likely to offer to help you, even if you’re frequently picking up his/her work.

Secondly, you’re likely an over-achiever and have a low threshold for work going unfinished.

The next time the work pusher goes on about how they “can’t” or “shouldn’t have to” do something, let them talk, vent and complain, but DO NOT offer to help.

I know this will be difficult because you’re driven, eager and motivated, but continuing to take on the other person’s work is unsustainable for you.

Let the work pusher vent, but restrain yourself from offering to help.  If you do this repeatedly, the work pusher will find colleague to absorb their work.

Each work environment posses a unique set of challenges and within that environment are unique personalities.

Some people you will naturally jive with and other people are more difficult to get along with, but that’s part of being human. In my private practice I help clients understand the challenges inherent in their work environment and develop strategies to succeed in their place of employment.

If you’re facing challenges at work and want to work through those issues in order to increase your own productivity, schedule an appointment with me today. I can help you learn how to manage a difficult coworker so that you feel less distracted and more focused on what really matters at work.


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