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Dealing with Difficult Coworkers
By April Mims, Life and Career Coach, www.SelfGrowth.com
We’ve all had to deal with difficult coworkers at one time or another. Whether it’s the person that screams and shouts, the person with the negative attitude, or the person that knows it all, conflict between coworkers is natural and inevitable. While we can’t change the difficult coworker, we can change how we deal with that person. With commitment, practice, and patience, we can use several different strategies to effectively handle situations involving the difficult coworker.
Difficult people come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments. As a result, there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to deal with these people. It is important to first determine what type of difficult coworker you are dealing with and then take appropriate action to resolve the conflict. Below are six difficult behaviors that we commonly encounter in the workplace and strategies that can be used to diffuse the situation while hopefully preserving and building the relationship.
Bullying. Much like bullies we had to deal with in elementary school, many of us encounter bullies in the workplace. These are the people that are attacking, accusing, intimidating, and confrontational. They think they are always right and get irritated or angry when they are met with resistance. This is perhaps the most difficult behavior to deal with.
To effectively deal with bullies, it is important to stand up for yourself without fighting. Standing up for yourself definitely takes courage but is the only way to stop bullying from continuing. Throughout any interaction with a bully, maintain eye contact and be ready to be friendly. It is also helpful to have the difficult person sit down if you or others are sitting down. This helps to equalize the aspect of physical dominance.
Anger. Dealing with an angry coworker is another workplace behavior that should be handled carefully to avoid further difficulties. The angry coworker is one that yells or screams, much like an adult version of a tantrum. This rage often turns into suspicion or blaming of other coworkers and is unpleasant for everyone.
The best way to handle this behavior is to remain calm and give them time to run down. Show them that you take them seriously but calmly inform them that this type of behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.
Know-it-all. Know-it-alls are difficult to work with too because they are always right. Although they are highly productive, thorough and accurate performers, they have a low tolerance for correction or contradiction, making them poor team players. Because they are the experts in their area, they are often condescending and don’t wait for others to catch up to their way of thinking.
To deal with a know-it-all, make sure you have done your homework. Listen carefully to the speaker and acknowledge their competence. Using the knowledge you gained while doing your homework, question firmly but don’t confront.
Think-they-know-it-all. Think-they-know-it-alls act like they are experts when they aren’t. However, they don’t always know they aren’t experts. These people typically want to be valued and considered important and like to learn a little about a lot of things.
When dealing with a think-they-know-it-all, state the facts as an alternative version. Offering an alternative version will give them a way out while still looking smart and important.
Complainers. Complaining is a particularly difficult behavior to cope with in the workplace. It is also one of the most common. Complainers find fault with everything and seem to complain constantly. They feel that someone should do something but feel helpless to take action. While there is usually some truth to their complaints, they don’t take action to get the complaints resolved.
With complainers, it is important to listen to their complaints and acknowledge what they say. There is no need to agree or apologize, simply acknowledge that you have heard what they said. State the facts without comment or apology and move quickly into solving the problem.
Negativists. Most of us have had some exposure to working with a negative person. Negativists are extremely pessimistic and more bitter than complainers. They have a tendency to bring others down quickly with their continual pessimism. Usually, they feel defeated or powerless in regard to the situation. Because they are so caught up in the negativism of the situation, they don’t look for solutions to resolve the issue.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with a negative coworker is to avoid getting drawn in to their negativity. State your own realistic optimism but don’t argue with their point of view. Be careful to avoid rushing into proposing solutions but be prepared to take action on your own.
In addition to the behavior specific strategies already mentioned, a more general strategy can be used to cope with any type of difficult behavior. If you have time to consider the behavior before dealing with it, formulate a plan to effectively handle it. Describe the behavior in detail, writing down your understanding of the behavior. Mentally review your previous interactions with this person and determine what worked and what didn’t work. Then choose the proper coping behavior detailed above and determine if there is anything that you need to learn or practice before dealing with this person. Finally, create an action plan and follow through with it. Talk with the person by phone or in person. Be clear about the impact and results while being careful to avoid placing blame. Be sure to make the point clearly to avoid any confusion.
If you are forced to deal with a difficult person on the spot, listen to the person without allowing the destructive behavior to continue. Summarize what they are telling you and clarify any questions to collect further details. Then state your positive intent to the person and tell your story from your point of view. If possible, try to avoid damaging the relationship by placing blame but be sure to make the point clearly.
When dealing with difficult coworkers, remember to not take the behavior personally and don’t try to beat them at their own game (you won’t win – they have more experience). Stand up to the person but don’t try to appease them or change them. If necessary, remove the person from your life. This may mean changing jobs or escalating the behavior to upper management or human resources. In some cases, you may find it effective to use behavioral conditioning on the other person. Other times, you may find it better to just let it go. When dealing with a difficult person, assume they have good intentions. And finally, remember that everybody is somebody’s difficult person at some point.