How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers

No matter how well-intentioned the management and stringent the criteria are for employee selection and retention, chances are that in one job or another you have worked with or will have to work with difficult coworkers. Some are chronically difficult and others are difficult as a result of a specific temporal problem they are encountering. Either way, their attitude and behaviors affect you and you are left wondering how to deal with and defuse the situation.

The following are some key tips on dealing with difficult employees.

Recognize that a problem exists
There are many types of difficult coworkers. Whether it is cold-shoulder treatment you consistently get from a coworker or constant whining, gossiping, arrogance, rudeness, hostility, shirking of responsibility, bullying, misappropriation of credit and blame, or other aggressive behavior, the first step in dealing with the problem of a difficult coworker is to acknowledge that it exists.

Analyze your reactions
Before allocating blame and pointing the accusatory finger at a seemingly difficult coworker examine your own feelings, motivations and reactions and make sure that the problem is not your own inflexibility, intolerance or overreaction to the situation. Perhaps you experience similar problems with other coworkers; perhaps your past experiences have obstructed your ability to deal fairly with a certain character type. It may be that you need to brush up on your own interpersonal skills and be less judgmental and prone to jump to conclusions or misinterpret a situation.

Recognize that you have choices in dealing with the situation.
You can chose to either confront or ignore a negative coworker and if you do chose to confront there are many ways to do so to effect a positive outcome. If the problem coworker is not interfering with or affecting your well-being and the outcome of your work and you sincerely believe you can live with the situation, then you can chose to ignore the problem and see it as an opportunity for self-development and growth. If on the other hand, your productivity or ability to do your job are being affected and the negative atmosphere is draining your energy, stressing and burning you out, you can take the bull by the horns and confront the situation in a diplomatic, well-planned, well-rehearsed and professional manner. Letting negativity simmer just below the surface unaddressed indefinitely will eventually impact both your performance and the perception of your work attitudes by others.

Celebrate the differences
A large part of the success of the modern corporation is derived from the diversity of its workforce and the tremendous synergies that arise from working functionally in teams composed of people with divergent skills, talents and backgrounds. This however also means that you will be forced to work on many occasions with people with very different agendas, styles and attitudes to yours. Learn to accept and celebrate the differences. Remember that the good of the organization is your ultimate goal and you need to work synergistically to achieve that.

Try to understand a difficult coworker's perspective
Open-mindedness is key in conflict resolution. Try to understand what perspective a difficult coworker is coming from and what objectives and motivations are influencing their behaviors. Recognize that some employees may have permanent schizoid tendencies towards all people while others may be experiencing temporary character flaws due to a myriad of factors. The latter may include job insecurity, an excessive workload, and dissatisfaction with working conditions or management, feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, lack of clarity about their own role, general professional ineptitude or even personal or family problems at home. Try to understand their view of the world as viewed from their very own unique 'mountain top' in order to better anticipate and respond to their difficult behaviors.

Adopt a positive mind frame
In order to defuse a conflict you must have a positive, optimistic attitude and the confidence to accept that the situation can be resolved be it through learning to accommodate the difficult coworker, negotiating with the coworker to achieve a compromise for one or both parties, or collaborating with them to effect a positive resolution where all parties win and are happy. Have faith that the negativity need not drag on indefinitely and that both parties can learn to work together peacefully, if not completely collaboratively.

Define the difficult behavior
Clarify the problem by defining precisely the behaviors that bother you from the difficult coworker. Write them down and include specific examples. Then determine which you can try to change and which you will chose to ignore.

Define the desired outcome
Once you have dissected the problem and analyzed precisely what the behaviors of the difficult coworker are that you would like to change, you can decide what positive outcomes you would like to affect and construct a specific game plan for achieving them. Make sure the goals you set are measurable, specific and realistic.

Anticipate the obstacles
Beyond having a clear set of goals for a confrontation, you must be able to anticipate and arm yourself against all the obstacles that may block your path. Make sure you are well prepared for any response, objection or negative reaction from the difficult coworker and that you have the stamina, tact and courage to stay your course until your desired outcome is achieved.

Stay calm and collected
Distance yourself emotionally from the problem and stay calm, collected and in control at all times. Don't get defensive or let negative feelings fester or boil over the top. Maintain your peace and objectivity by asking yourself what learning is to be had from the situation and latching on to the positive aspects of the relationship versus the negative at all times. If there are no positive aspects to the relationship concentrate on the positive outcome you wish to achieve. Practice deep breathing and visualization techniques whenever you feel the resentment growing and fear loss of control. The more calm and collected you are the more rational will be your approach to tackling the issue and the more likely you are to win the difficult coworker's trust, confidence and respect.

Be tactful but direct
Once you chose to confront a difficult coworker, make sure you give well-rehearsed, constructive criticism and that you deliver it in a calm, polite, tactful, diplomatic and non-threatening manner. Keep your voice low and select your words carefully. State your points of contention clearly, directly and unambiguously and give concrete examples to support them. Do not harshly criticize or humiliate a coworker or make accusatory remarks. Remember, the goal of the confrontation is to find solutions and alleviate the negative atmosphere not feed them.

Have your discussion face-to-face
Make sure that when you do decide to confront a difficult coworker, you do so face-to-face and not over the phone, by memo or by e-mail. You are much more likely to understand each other and come to a healthy resolution if you can watch and monitor each other's body language and communicate in a free, spontaneous and unhampered fashion.

Listen actively
Many a volatile situation has been defused by the simple art of active listening. Learn to ask questions, give and receive feedback and actively and intently listen to the difficult coworker as they expound on their frustrations, their view of the world and why they act the way they do. Allow them to vent their feelings and frustrations before you explore means to clear the air and improve the atmosphere between you. Oftentimes, just the feeling of being listened to objectively and understood may win their confidence, alleviate any harsh feelings they may harbor towards you and generally ease the situation.

Maintain a healthy perspective
In the heat of the moment, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that negative actions or attitudes may have been wholly unintended. Coworkers cannot read your mind and unless you make a conscious effort to let them know exactly what behaviors or attitudes are bothering you, they may well not have any idea of the trouble that is brewing just below the surface and the pain they are causing. It is very helpful to bear in mind that inadvertently offensive behaviors may not have been designed to be so and are in all likelihood not targeted at you personally. Remind yourself at all times that the difficult coworker's hostility, rudeness or other unacceptable character flaws are not about you but about their own conditioning, experiences and view of the world.

Avoid guerrilla tactics
Don't engage in negative behaviors with the aim of exacting revenge or outdoing the negative coworker at their own game. Such counterproductive negative behaviors include verbally attacking the difficult coworker, shunning them in both private and public, rallying the troops to alienate and gang up against them or approaching the coworker's boss to complain about them before you have raised the issue with them. Opt instead to engineer a win-win scenario for conflict resolution that leaves both of you and the organization as a whole happier, healthier and more enriched.

Dont burn bridges
Losing your temper, saying hurtful things, making accusatory remarks at coworkers or management will not solve matters and may only come back to haunt you. Avoid burning bridges. You never know who you will have to work with at a later date on a different project or even in a different company. Keep your relationships healthy and avoid saying or doing anything you may regret.

Be generous
Stroke the difficult coworker's ego where appropriate, point out their strengths, give them recognition and credit for positive actions taken, acknowledge their successes and be kind and gracious in your sincere attempts to find common ground. Rather than dictating an outcome, allow them to have input and give those options and choices. Treat them as you would like to be treated as you address the issues of concern and your courtesy and professionalism may well turn the office nightmare into a close and lasting friend.

It is a good idea with chronically difficult coworkers to document their negative words and actions. This will help you gain perspective and will give you specific and concrete examples to refer to when you confront them or if matters escalate and management gets involved.

Recognize when you need help
If despite all your good intentions, flexibility and tactful discussions with the difficult coworkers about their troublesome behavior, the negative behavior persists, it may be time to talk to you boss. This is especially necessary if your own performance is being affected and there is no positive outcome in sight. Again, the goal is to seek a resolution so be clear about the problem and the desired solution as you approach your boss.

Recognize when you have to leave
It may be that management itself is inadvertently rewarding or positively reinforcing negative behaviors. It may also be that they are unwilling or incapable of stopping it or that the do not adequately comprehend or accept the seriousness of the situation. In these cases you may be better off seeking greener pastures elsewhere, whether it be in a different role or division within the company where you do not have to deal with the difficult coworker, or in a different company altogether. Make sure you leave on a positive and professional note and give adequate notice.

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