How to Deal with Difficult Co-Workers
At one time or another, most of us have worked with someone who’s made life a little (or a LOT) more difficult than it had it to be. When we are in the midst of situations like this, it is common to have one or more of the following symptoms. We:
• Don’t enjoy going to work
• Feel overwhelmed or disrespected on the job
• Find ourselves being tardy or absent more often
• See a decline in our productivity or work quality
• Replay conversations or interactions over and over again in our mind
• Experience more fatigue, illness or exhaustion, or feel more tense & stressed
This article highlights a few difficult co-worker types and provides suggestions on dealing with the conflict–including how to get clear on the behavior you want to stop and determine what you need to say to other person (and how to say it).
Difficult Co-worker Type #1: Time Stealer. This is a person who:
• Shows no respect for your time.
• Can’t meet a deadline.
• Schedules/cancels/reschedules meetings – and shows up late.
• Repeatedly schedules meetings during lunch breaks or late in the day so you are always leaving late.
Difficult Co-worker Type #2: Personal Space Invader. This is a person who
• Treats your personal work space as their own
• “Borrows” office supplies or eats food that is not theirs
• Likes to hug or touch others – some people are uncomfortable with any type of physical contact.
Difficult Co-Worker Type #3: Promise Breaker. This person fails to keep their word and frequently:
• Doesn’t meet time or work commitments.
• Has seemingly logical excuses for procrastinating.
• Changes priorities without notifying you.
Difficult Co-Worker Type #4: Inappropriate information Sharer. This person
• Tells you TMI –“Too Much Information” about someone’s personal life, usually their own.
• Can put you in uncomfortable situations because of what you know about them.
• Wastes your times and theirs.
• Could cause you to be viewed as a gossip.
Difficult Co-Worker Type #5: Over-the-Top Emoter . This person
• Can be overly dramatic and make “mountains out of molehills”
• Has the tendency to cry easily
• May be given to loud outbursts of emotion
When confronted with behavior that upsets us, undermines our productivity or prevents us from doing our best work, a good course of action is to set “boundaries”, where we establish with the other person what behavior we will or will not tolerate in the future.
Setting boundaries takes some soul-searching and involves asking ourselves questions like:
What’s happening? What is bothering me?
What are the facts?
What is my co-workers part in the situation?
What is my part in the problem?
What are my options?
What is my desired outcome?
What are the consequences of each of the options I’ve come up with?
Putting effort into honestly answering these questions tends to make us less emotional and better able to form a workable plan. From there we can:
1. Think about what to say to resolve the problem, not perpetuate it.
2. Think about how to approach the other person and state our position clearly, without anger, and in as few words as possible.
3. Think about what we will do to not only set the boundary but also maintain it if the other person’s behavior improves for a while, but then gets bad again.
The key to success really comes down to the conversation itself. Here’s where it helps to understand the use of “I” statements which enable us to relate the other person’s actions to the effects they have on us, and makes it less likely that we will put the other person on the defensive.
Using the difficult co-worker situations we’ve identified above, here are sample “I” statements:
Time Stealer: I was very concerned when you said you couldn’t meet the schedule because we have customers relying on a ship date. Can we please take some time to meet and brainstorm how we can stay on schedule?
Personal Space Invader: It frustrates me when I go to use my stapler and it’s not there. I know we work right next to each other, so it’s OK for you to use it, but please put my things back where you found them.
Promise Breaker: It upsets me when you continually miss meetings I’ve set up with you.
You said you wanted to help with this project, but your actions don’t match that. So the next time we set a meeting, I need you to arrive on time.
Over-the-Top Emoter: I feel uncomfortable when you talk about the details of your relationships in the office. So, I would really like it if we could keep our conversations at work on a professional level. Let’s meet after work if you want to talk as friends.
Figuring out what boundary to set, and then communicating that to the other person, takes us out of victim-mode and puts us back in control of our own well-being and productivity. In most cases, the other person will respect our request and do their best to comply. However, if the unwanted behavior continues, it may be necessary to seek assistance from HR or a manager. The techniques outlined here will most likely not come naturally at first; you may need to practice a few times before you are comfortable confronting difficult workplace situations. But, if your work-life and health are being compromised…doing something is better than doing nothing.
CRM Learning’s popular program, Working With You is Killing Me, presents excellent examples of how to set boundaries with difficult co-workers. Based on the best-selling book, it is hosted by authors Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley.