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3 Tips to Deal with Difficult Coworkers

There’s one in every workplace.

They might be that colleague who is always late to work and never meets a deadline. They are always apologetic and ready with an excuse and promise that this is really the last time they will ask for a favor. You’ve been the one who has been patient and understanding. Perhaps, even covering up and doing what is necessary so the balls are not dropped. However, it is taking a toll and you are at the end of your limits.

Or it might be that person who takes credit for the work you did, presents your ideas as their own and talks about you to others. A master of double-talk and double-dealing, they will often deny everything and try to convince you—and others—that you’re the crazy one. You’re so angry and obsessed with their behavior, sometimes you wonder if you are going crazy.

Until recently, focus has been on how to manage the difficult boss or managing employees. The issue of problem coworkers has received less attention, yet in one study, 80% of people reported that a single coworker contributed significant stress to their workday.

This stress isn’t just dangerous to employees; it has a negative impact on the entire company or workplace. It can lead to poor work performance, absenteeism and health problems. Sometimes outstanding employees who see no solution to a toxic coworker look for a new job. In today’s competitive work environment where finding and retaining talented people is increasingly difficult, this is a loss few companies can afford.

Here are some effective steps you can take to deal with this common workplace challenge:

1. Take time to self-reflect. Do you take everything personally? Are you taking time to understand the personalities that are around you? Are you willing to change? You can't change others, but you can always change the way you decide to respond to others. Taking responsibility for your part will make it much clearer how to proceed with a challenging peer. 2. Make sure this isn’t about personality or office politics. Gender, race, culture and religion affect behavior in the workplace. In her book, Problem People at Work, Management Consultant, Marilyn Wheeler, outlines some common ways men and women are different at work, and says that neither approach is better than the other. For example, numerous studies on work and gender show that men tend to focus on one thing at a time and value results over process, while women focus on many things at one time and often value the process as much as the results.

What may be offensive to you may be normal to someone of another race or culture. Understanding critical gender, racial and cultural issues can help to minimize the frustrations that you may be experiencing regarding a perspective. 3. Classify the problem objectively. Measuring the problem helps make it less threatening. Not every problem colleague is the same. One approach is to identify if this situation falls into one of three categories: difficult, challenging or toxic. Knowing this will help you take the right steps.

Difficult This is a situation that can usually be solved by a single action. For example, your coworker loves to schmooze and interrupts your workflow with comments, personal problems or requests for help. A one-on-one friendly conversation in which you explain the impact of their behavior usually helps. Offering to go to lunch together or setting a scheduled time to talk will help to address the situation, instead of sweeping it under the rug. Sometimes, people are simply not aware of what they are doing.

Challenging This is a situation that requires more work on an ongoing basis. Take the coworker who turns every situation into a competition and can’t seem to grasp the concept of teamwork. In her book Working with Difficult People, Communications Consultant, Muriel Solomon, strongly suggests taking control immediately when a coworker is deceitful, manipulative or exploitive. Stay calm, be firm and up-front. Refuse to be drawn in, but state how you see the problem as clearly and courteously as possible. Understand that this behavior has insecurity and fear at the root, therefore puncture this person’s influence on you, not their pride. Like medicine for a patient, you may have to repeat this several times as needed.

Toxic Like some chemicals in the workplace, some coworkers may be truly harmful to your health. In fact, these people are like “a hidden cancer” in the workplace, according to psychologists Alan A. Cavaiolaand Neil J. Lavender. In their book Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job, they list a range of personality disorders that, when taken to extreme, can tear a workplace apart. Examples are the coworker at the center—and usually the cause—of every office blow-up. Histrionic and explosive, these types of people can’t get control of their temper or emotions, and the workplace is in constant turmoil. Or it might be more hidden, like the colleague who can sniff out and exploit a coworkers’ weaknesses. This type of colleague may be the boss’ pet and the office poison. Because people with true personality disorders actually view their symptoms as strengths, it’s hard to confront them. In some cases, the best solution is to avoid this person as much as possible, keeping all interactions matter-of-fact and brief. If the situation is truly harmful, some consultants advise that you document examples. This may be a situation where talking to a manager and the HR department is your best recourse.

Our jobs and careers are an integral part of who we are. Dealing effectively with difficult and challenging coworkers can help keep our work lives successful and satisfying. However, in dealing with difficult coworkers, it is important to understand ourselves, build trust and have the courage to address these behaviors at the right time. If it is happening to you, it is probably happening to others. I want to welcome you to come and join my workshop that I will be offering at the end of June for emerging leaders who want to succeed in this multigenerational workforce. Whether it is a colleague or a direct report, I believe the training will support you in these environments.

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