Learning & Development
How to Deal With Difficult Colleagues Without Losing Your Mind
September 11, 2019
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Just how important is it to get along well with your colleagues? According to HR veteran Liz Ryan, interpersonal challenges with managers or coworkers top the list of issues that employees bring to HR.
I’ve said it before: few things matter at work more than relationships. If there’s one surefire way to improve your work life, it’s to learn more about what each of your colleagues brings to your team through their personality and behavioral styles (as well as being aware of your own) so that you have a deeper understanding of the most effective way to interact.
In our work with high-performing teams at RallyBright, one problem we see often is a strong personality dominating the team and disrupting its dynamics. But there are other common interpersonal issues among teams. Differences in dealing with conflict, for one, can exacerbate strained team relations. Teammates who are chronically negative/critical, competitive rather than cooperative, or resistant to new ideas/change are also commonly experienced as challenging to their colleagues.
All of these issues can interfere with a team’s ability (and desire) to build a strong sense of connection — one of the prerequisites for the resiliency that leads to sustainable high performance. In fact, a Gallup poll from last year found that when employees feel a deep sense of affiliation with teammates, they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business — actions they may not consider without those strong co-worker relationships.
So what’s the best tack when your team is suffering because a colleague or two is leading you to feel like tearing your hair out on a daily basis? Here are a few strategies that can help.
Focus on understanding rather than judging
Learning what motivates the difficult colleague’s behavior can help you put it in perspective. And that often makes it easier to swallow or perhaps even mitigate. “Difficult coworkers likely have insecurities which are fueling their behavior, so if you can try to ease their insecurities, you might ease their nasty behavior,” counselor Lisa Choquette advises.
To that end, Choquette recommends being as kind and polite as possible, and giving your difficult colleague sincere compliments. Psychologist Dr. Karlyn Borysenko likewise advises stepping into empathy and reminding yourself that the person is probably doing the best she or he can. “When you can only see the negative qualities in people, ideas, and projects, that doesn’t lead to a very happy experience,” she says of the Negative Nellies that show up in many workplaces. “And when people are unhappy, they unconsciously want other people around them to be unhappy.”
Psychologist Pauline Venieris emphasizes the importance of self-awareness, a key aspect of mindfulness, when dealing with difficult colleagues. “We are all going to have both blind and tender spots,” she explains. “Ruptures are more likely if we are uncentered, stressed, tired, or unaware of our needs.”
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. By exercising it, you gain the awareness and distance needed to respond rather than react in stressful situations with colleagues. That’s why a core tenet of mindfulness is to make space between stimulus and response. So when you find yourself irritated by a colleagues’ complaining or putdowns, take five to assess your emotional state before you respond. This simple habit can prevent hasty comments that further strain a work relationship and that you’ll likely later regret.
Enforce your boundaries kindly but firmly
When you’re dealing with negative or overly talkative colleagues, experts suggest keeping responses to questions short and as statements rather than reciprocal questions. This signals that you’d rather not chat. If they don’t take the hint, try a polite and smiling interruption. Detach from the conversation so you can “get back to work.”
People who make unsolicited personal remarks or criticisms of you, or who otherwise step on your boundaries, will need a firmer approach. Often the violations will be unintentional, the result of different backgrounds or personalities, so try to assume positive intent. But your best bet is to be direct, specific and brief. Simply stating “I’m not looking for feedback right now. In the future, I’ll ask you if I’d like your thoughts” or “I’d rather not talk about that” is polite but firm. This is about marking your boundaries, so you never need to offer an explanation.
Have realistic expectations
Finally, remember that it’s not realistic to like and be liked by everyone. Sometimes you just don’t hit it off with another person; you get under their skin and they get under yours. When this is the case, it’s helpful to remember that the feeling is more often than not mutual. The key is to manage yourself so that you behave professionally and, ideally, kindly, even when your patience is being taxed to its limit.
And chances are that your situation isn’t long-term. Difficult colleagues often have a high turnover rate. It’s not worth engaging with a temporary problem if it will cause permanent damage to your reputation or career. This, too, shall pass.