The Saboteur. The Exploder. The Demeanor. These monikers sound like characters out of a James Bond novel. In reality, they are sitting in the cubicle next to yours.
Accompanied by the Jerk, the Complainer, the Empty Pit, the Victim, the Micromanager, the Know-It-All, the Gossip and the Constant Competitor, these difficult and obnoxious coworkers can drive you to distraction. Worse, they can impact your work and the work of others, poison the atmosphere and hurt your company’s productivity, not to mention its bottom line.
Dealing with difficult coworkers is a skill that can be mastered, however. With a little knowledge, a lot of understanding and a few tips, you will be able to marginalize these negative forces, overcome workplace difficulties and get back to work.
Use Your E.Q.
One of the best ways to deal with difficult coworkers is through your emotional intelligence. People with high E.Q.s are able to understand the motivations and sources of bad behavior, and this is critical to dealing with the problem. Most difficult people are people with very low emotional intelligence; they have no clue what they are doing or either don’t know or don’t care about the impact of their behavior. But you should use your E.Q. to recognize difficult coworkers and try to discern the motivation behind their behavior. That, in turn, will determine your reaction to it and whether the behavior warrants intervention.
Some people just like to vent, and have no idea that this is annoying and distracting to others. Some people like to cause trouble and make others miserable. Some are simply stunted emotionally -- they never learned how to play nice with others. Others get corrupted by power. Some coworkers may be in over their heads, which creates a situation of personal stress and fear.
Still others are replicating behaviors that have made them successful in the past, but which now serve to undermine the workplace. Some are just overly ambitious and are trying to get ahead at any cost. And others may just be reacting to the unwritten value system of the organization. It’s sad but true, there are many organizations that actually promote and reward difficult behaviors.
Assess, Strategize and Act
Very often, we are terrified to confront others in situations where we really should. In many cases, we enable people to behave poorly by not standing up to them and asking that the behavior stop. This is because most people don’t have an effective model or paradigm for making clear requests and delineating clear boundaries. But dealing with difficult people can usually be handled in 2 or 3 minutes using a well thought out and simple request. There is a right way to do this: assess, strategize and act. Here are the steps:
- Don’t take it personally. Detach yourself emotionally from the situation. Take a walk, calm down and sort through your emotional landscape until you can look at the situation clearly and objectively.
- Assess the situation honestly. Ask yourself, What is really bothering me? Why does it bother me? What value of mine is being trampled? What boundary is being crossed? How is this hurting my job or ability to perform my job? Can I ignore the behavior and do my job?
- Third, explore your contribution to the behavior. This is crucial, as many people suffer from a “victim” personality. You know the Victim. This is the person who is always blaming others for their failings or for their poor performance. This is the person who is always waiting for others to change their evil ways and is never willing to look at their own contribution to the problem. So, take a good hard look at yourself. What has been your contribution to the situation? How are your actions, opinions, perspectives, or behaviors impacting the situation? You have to be willing to change your own behavior before you seek to change others. Name your contribution and own your piece of it, so that you can change and stop.
- Fourth, determine what behavior you want changed or stopped. Think about what exactly you want to change.
- Think about and practice how you will speak to your coworker. You must find a way that will resolve the situation and not perpetuate it. Remember, don’t phrase it personally. You do not want to come across as attacking the person, just seeking change in a behavior. Make the request in a calm, clear, non-personal and unemotional manner. Do not judge or use the word “should.”
- If you are a manager or supervisor, use business tools to make the request and follow up. This includes memos, e-mails, follow-up meetings, performance reviews, etc.
It is never easy to approach a coworker about bad behavior. In many cases, you do not need or want to go over the person’s head. It should be dealt with one on one. But there are many times when it is advisable to include a third party, either a supervisor or someone from HR. This should only be done if you’ve tried to resolve the situation yourself to no avail, if the difficult people begin to create a toxic and threatening atmosphere, when their behavior is threatening organizational productivity or if you believe that person is truly unhinged. Then get a higher up involved.
When the Boss Is the Problem
If the toxic person is your boss, then you have a tough situation. In any workplace, it is a smart move to “manage up,” which means you should manage and establish a relationship with your boss in a mutually beneficial fashion. You need to make the boss look good and do what it takes to be in his or her good graces. There is nothing wrong with a little ingratiation (which is not the same thing as brown nosing). If you’ve established a good relationship with the boss, you may be able to talk it out. But if not, you've basically got three choices, none of which is great.
First, leave the company. Second, accept the situation and develop strategies to unhook yourself emotionally from your boss’s behavior. Third, try to change your situation at work. Get a new job within the company, try to get your boss fired, or try to change your boss’s behavior.
None are terrific options, but if you choose option two, here are some tips to detach yourself emotionally.
- Tip 1: Reframe how you see things. Change your mental model about what is going on. Instead of seeing your boss as an insensitive jerk, try to see him as someone who is scared and in over his head.
- Tip 2: Hope for the best, but expect the worst. Stop expecting your boss to be someone he/she isn’t. Prepare for worst case encounters
- Tip 3: Practice emotional detachment. Stop linking your self worth to jerks at work. Find another way to value yourself.
- Tip 4: Limit your exposure. Meet with your boss as rarely as possible. Do whatever you can to create buffers.
- Tip 5: Build pockets of safety. Find people with whom it is safe to vent and create strategies. A sort of victim support group.
Study and practice
It is not easy to handle and deal with difficult coworkers or supervisors. Even with the above tips you will need to practice your approach. There are lots of places to get help, though, and here are three books I highly recommend for further study: “Working with you is killing me,” by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster; “The No Asshole Rule,” by Robert Sutton; and “Crucial Confrontations,” by Kerry Patterson.
With a little understanding, a little detachment and some practice, you can figure out the problem, the source and what to do about it.
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