One of the hardest parts of any job is working with difficult people. No matter how much we wish they would just change and make our lives easier, that’s just not the most effective strategy for getting things done in the face of a difficult coworker.
Last time, we tackled handling a bad boss. This time, it’s your pesky peers. What can you do when someone on your team is making it difficult for you to succeed?
We’ve all had coworkers we just could not get along with.
Handling a difficult coworker can often feel even more challenging than dealing with a tough boss. At least with your manager, you have a prescribed channel of communication and you each know where the other one stands. You likely have 1:1 meetings where you can communicate issues, and their role and your role and your whole work relationship are pretty strictly defined.
With peers, there are no such rules. Neither one of you is “in charge of” the other, and there’s no established space for you to discuss your issues, so when problems arise, it’s not clear how best to deal with them and still be professional. And unfortunately, problems with coworkers are all too common.
Many people are difficult to work with – some intentionally so and some not – and it’s important for your career success and your general sense of well-being at work (where we spend so much time) that you be able to make these situations better. So what do you do if someone on your team is making is hard for you to succeed, or even do the basic functions of your job?
I wrote a blog post recently about learning to be less competitive with your peers, which is something I have struggled with in my own career. Unfortunately it’s very common at a lot of companies for people to see their immediate coworkers or teammates as their competition, which means that when you get the feeling someone is trying to make it harder for you to do your job, it may be because that’s exactly what they’re doing!
Working in a competitive environment makes some people think it’s in their best interest to hold their peers back and make sure they always have the upper hand. When you’re trying to do your best work and make the whole team successful for the good of the company, it can be so frustrating to have to deal with someone who’s trying to keep you down. But here’s what you can do:
Stay the course.
As frustrating as it might be, you cannot retaliate with the same behavior in return. It’s always best to continue doing your own great work and let their destructive behavior run its course than to try to fight fire with fire. Trying to undermine a team member usually takes so much time and energy that they can’t keep it up for long and keep contributing high-quality work, so just keep doing your best and try to be distracted by them as little as possible.
“Kill ‘em with kindness.”
It’s one of my favorite techniques for dealing with difficult people, which is a strategy I embraced from my friend Joanna Lord. If you’ve got someone on your team who seems to always have a problem with you the best you can do is to spend time with them. Lots of time. While it may seem counterintuitive, if you go back to the analogy that relationships are like filmstrips, the only way to fix it is going to involve adding more frames to that filmstrip to make the bad frames less noticeable. Make a point not to avoid them, but to actually spend more time getting to know them. Offer to help them with things, say a friendly “hello” every morning, ask them to eat lunch with you. Anything you can do to wiggle your way into their heart will help.
If someone is a P-I-T-A (pain in the ass – for those not familiar with the acronym) chances are that it isn’t you, but them. Chances are they are acting out of fear, insecurity, or another emotion. So the key to really resolving the situation is to remove that emotion in their interactions with you. Spend time with them. Let me get to know you and see your motivations. If you can make them feel safe and remove whatever emotions is causing them to act out, then you will be amazed at how your interactions can improve.
It’s a lot harder to undermine or be competitive with someone you see as a friend, so do your best to make them see you as a friend (or as close as you can get!). The more they see you as a real person and someone who can help them succeed, the better off you’ll be.
Peers who don’t meet the expectations set for them can have a huge impact on their team and cause divisions and frustrations that make everyone less effective. Especially if you’re working on a group project where everyone is expected to contribute certain parts, it can be a huge problem for morale and productivity when someone either doesn’t do enough work or tries to do work for other people.
Usually this problem stems from either simple miscommunication or more complicated feelings about team dynamics. As with most things, always try tackling the simple solution first:
Make sure expectations are clear.
When you’re dealing with someone who disrupts your team flow, its best to talk with them directly about expectations and how things will get done. You might learn that they were doing extra work or less work simply because they made incorrect assumptions about whose responsibilities were whose. A quick conversation can clarify what’s expected of everyone and make sure tasks are completed on time by the right people.
That’s the ideal resolution to the situation. You may find, however, that they felt they needed to do extra work because they knew the rest of the team would mess it up, or that they felt like they weren’t getting due credit for their contributions so they gave up on trying to do anything. When this is the case, there are some small actions you can take to bring them back onboard.
Give credit whenever possible.
If you have a coworker who’s slacking or showing off because they feel their regular work isn’t acknowledged, make sure to tell your manager (or theirs) about everyone’s contributions. If you’re in a position to call out great work in meetings, do that. Otherwise look for opportunities like status email’s that everyone on your team is included on to report awesome contributions by specific people. And you can always walk by their desk and tell them they did a good job too – most people don’t get enough praise at work.
Stay connected to the whole team.
It’s harder for people to do other people’s work or skip assignments if it’s made explicitly clear who’s doing what. Don’t be afraid to overdo it on discussing who is doing what on a project, or ask clarifying questions throughout the process to make sure responsibilities are clear. Resist the urge to just shut them out because they’re frustrating you; instead, be extra-communicative. Better to be overly specific and have everything accomplished, than to be vague and have things not completed (or completed by two people).
The bad attitude
Bad coworkers don’t even have to be impacting your work to make it harder for you to do your job. Someone with a bad attitude – who’s passive-aggressive in meetings, complains about group work, or talks negatively about other people in the office – can make everyone on the team feel worse and be less productive.
Your parents probably told you the best way to deal with a bully was just to ignore them. Well that’s the case here too! If someone is gossiping about other team members or trying to start a conflict in a meeting, don’t give them what they’re looking for. Divert negativity into productive conversations, and respond by asking them to get back on track or bring up a positive to focus on.
Commiserating is one of the worst things you can do for your career, actually. Talking badly about others and joining the pity party only undermines the whole team. It is always better to take the high road and….
Listen actively, and look for ways to help.
Bad attitudes can bubble up when people feel they’re not being listened to or taken seriously by other people. If you really listen to what someone’s saying (like if they say they’re not getting enough credit for work or they think a project isn’t going well) you can often glean to root of their problem – and you may be able to take steps to fix it. Big problems usually start as small ones, so pay attention to what started their issues and see if you can do anything to help alleviate their stress.
If you’ve got a complainer who always wants to spend lunch griping about the boss or who stays at your desk telling you about all the problems they’re having on the current project, you can be a compassionate listener but also let them know that’s not how you want to spend your time. We all need to vent sometimes. If it goes on too long, though, politely tell them you’ve got to get back to work or that you want to talk about something else.
Should I tell my boss?
When you have a problem or question at work, one of the fastest ways to handle it usually is to bring it to your leadership. Unfortunately, doing this with a negative coworker almost never works the way you hope it will and should usually be avoided.
A lot of coworker bad behavior is best left to itself or handled directly with the person. Taking performance issues to someone’s boss can appear a bit presumptuous, and may send the message that you think they’re not aware of problems on their own team. After all, you don’t know what’s going on in the mind of the boss.
They may be completely aware of your coworker’s issues and – especially if they’re handling it tactfully – they may already be taking action to improve the situation by coaching or intervening with your coworker behind closed doors.
But those reasons aside, good bosses will almost always reply with something along the lines of “Have you talked to them about it?” And you don’t want that answer to be no, so it is usually the best place to start. Most bosses want people to take control and handle their own problems, so show your mad leadership skills and take steps to rectify the situation.
It’s different, of course, if a coworker is making your feel threatened or uncomfortable at work – you should always report situations that you think could get out of hand and affect workplace safety or people’s ability to get their jobs done.
Whenever possible, though, do your best to repair the relationship and encourage good behavior on your own. You’ll be surprised how many situations can be resolved with a conversation or increased team communication. Give it a try with your most difficult coworker this week, and let me know how it went in the comments!