I’ve had my fair share of having to deal with difficult coworkers.
This makes me sound like I’m the problem, and to be honest I probably was part of the problem. But in reality I’m only be a little melodramatic; I have had two difficult coworkers and they both had underlying reasons for not liking me, and I had not-so-underlying reasons for not liking them.
In the name of professionalism, it’s important to play nice in the sandbox. If your manager sees you squabbling or even being underhanded with a coworker, even if it is in response to something that he did, this won’t look so good on you.
Having a poor relationship with a coworker can plague your working life. When I had a strained relationship with one, I never wanted to go to work. I dreaded being there, and every little mistake I made seemed so much bigger and worse than it really was, because I feared him finding out.
I’m sure if I did a little bit of relationship management, we would have been fine and there would have been nothing for me to worry about or lose sleep over.
Here’s what I’ve learned about dealing with difficult co-workers after having those first couple:
Figure Out What Their Position Is
If you’ve ever read a book or taken a class on conflict management, this might seem familiar; the idea behind it is to find out why they are being hostile toward you. Now, this is assuming that they are the hostile ones, not you. If it’s you, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Now, I know the immediate reaction to this is “because they are an asshole!”, but, cut them some slack. Ask yourself why they are being an asshole to you, specifically. What is making them tick about you?
The guy at my first internship was immediately competitive. He would make mistakes (or make me make mistakes) and blame them on me, call me out on things in front of the whole department, and just generally treat me like crap.
I really couldn’t figure out why until somebody else pointed it out for me.
I had taken over his position while he was working on another one; I was the first person he ever had to train or supervise, and he was going back into his position once his project was over.
It was clear, when my friend pointed it out that he was
a) threatened by me
He didn’t want me to do better at his job than he did at his own job; he had to return to his job after his project, so he hindered my success as much as possible
b) on the hook for me
The mistakes that I made, if any, would be a direct reflection of his supervision and training skills; this was of utmost important since we were working in the training department.
His drill sergeant ways made a lot more sense after I really thought about his position.
Understand Their Position
Once you figure out where your co-worker is coming from, it’s sometimes easier to just think “well, he needs to get over it” or, like I did, revel in the sweet thought of their insecurities.
But that’s not the best way to handle it.
After you know what the person’s position is, try to imagine what it would be like to be there. Figure out how your actions make their position even stronger or more volatile.
Don’t write them off just because they aren’t behaving in the most professional of manners; figure out how you are contributing to their stance and try to stop doing what you are doing.
Trust me, despite wanting to deny it, I was part of the problem at my first internship. I thought it was funny that he felt threatened so I wouldn’t make it any easier on him.
Accept that you are a part of the problem and you are responsible for fixing your relationship.
Find a Common Ground
At one point near the end of my term, I heard the coworker talking about a conference that he was going to be attending and has every year since teenage hood. I went to the same conference when I was 15, so by reflex, I told him that and asked him what his experience was.
This opened the channels of communication between us and showed both of us that the other did have a human side. It also pulled us away from the competition that we were in, and pushed us into real life.
Ask For Advice (Or Give A Compliment)
I didn’t do this with my coworker, but have done it since with another coworker, and found that it was a great way to back the person off of their position and make their guard come down.
People really want respect and reassurance. Especially in a situation like mine, where the coworker is trying to supervise you or teach you something, or has something to feel threatened over, asking them for advice (even if you already have a good handle on the situation) can do the trick.
For instance, if you are working on an important email going to the executives of the company, turn to your colleague and say something like “You’re good at this sort of thing – how would you phrase this email?”.
Even better, ask them for advice over something that is more important and serious. Ask them how they do something – you may even pick up some knowledge that can come in handy.
How have you dealt with a difficult coworker in the past?