Dealing with difficult co-workers

Dealing with difficult co-workers

Sarina Russo Psychologist, Komal Bedi shares her insights on dealing with difficult co-workers in an article for Health-IQ

Most of us don’t get to choose our co-workers. This means that from time to time we may end up working with types who grate on us.

But how do we manage these relationships to get our jobs done well?

In the YouTube video Dealing with people you can’t stand, Drs Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner say “before you can deal with difficult people, you need to understand them”.

The naturopathic physicians highlight three difficult behaviour types we may come across:

  • The know-it-all – “Has a low tolerance for correction and contradiction.”
  • The yes person – “In an effort to please, they say yes without thinking things through. They react to the latest demands on their time and forget about prior commitments.”
  • The no person – Is a “morale killer” who “shows everyone how things will fail if the plan isn’t orchestrated their way”.

Psychologist Komal Bedi cautions against assuming or creating stereotypes.

“Treat each person as an individual regardless of age or gender,” says Ms Bedi, who specialises in workplace psychology.

However, she says she has encountered certain behaviours that haven proven difficult. They include:

  • Passive-aggressive tendencies – Occur in people who are “generally poor communicators”. They “are reluctant to display their true feelings due to a fear of confrontation. This leads to them acting in non-direct, problematic ways”.
  • Office gossip – Involves “spreading personal information about another individual behind their back” in an effort to bond with colleagues.
  • Narcissistic behaviour (egomaniac) – Is “characterised by a high need for admiration and an exaggerated sense of self-importance”. Narcissistic personality types can seem charming but they lack empathy and “have no problem exploiting their colleagues for selfish purposes”.

Managing the relationship

So how do you ensure relationships with difficult co-workers remain predominantly constructive?

“Line managers need to be aware of the various personality types in their team to ensure personality differences do not develop into clashes,” says Ms Bedi.

As for the individual, Drs Brinkman and Kirschner say “two essential communication skills for dealing with difficult people are blending and redirecting”.

“Blending is when you alter your behaviour to reduce the difference between you and the difficult person in order to find common ground,” they say.

So, for someone who craves appreciation, you might demonstrate that you value their work, the doctors explain.

“Redirecting is when you use rapport to change the direction of the interaction [to the task at hand],” they add.

For example, you might tell the person that if they perform even better on the new task, their talents will not go unnoticed by the team, Drs Brinkman and Kirschner explain.

However, they say that at times general blending and redirecting isn’t sufficient, in which case tailoring your behaviour to the person might work.

They give the example of the know-it-all, who you might relate to by valuing their ideas first before suggesting your own.

“Instead of stating your idea as fact, try to soften them with phrases like ‘Maybe this could work’. This allows them to feel like they’ve come up with part of the solution.

“If you ask them for guidance, they’ll see you as less of a threat. Once you establish a connection, it’ll be easier to get them to consider your input.”

When it comes to addressing a difficult working relationship, Ms Bedi’s advice is to “accept that people feel insecure at times and might be concerned regarding the motives of others”.

“Be patient and kind. Relationships don’t change overnight, but if you are polite, chances are the other person will be too, eventually,” she says.

She also recommends having realistic expectations.

“Don’t expect to be best buddies with your colleagues; instead focus on respectful relationships which provide an opportunity for honesty and growth.”

Can’t resolve an issue?

Despite our best efforts, resolving a problem with a difficult co-worker might be beyond our scope 

“Always try to resolve the issue with the co-worker face-to-face in the first instance,” says Ms Bedi.

If that fails, she recommends consulting your line manager.

“The best way to express a complaint to your line manager is to define the problem as an issue that is affecting productivity rather than as a personal problem with the colleague. You should then ask your line manager to have a word with your colleague regarding their behaviour.”

If this approach doesn’t work, that is “you feel unsupported or unhappy with the outcome”, she suggests seeking advice from the human resources department (HR).

“After exhausting all options, if the problem is significantly impacting upon your ability to perform your job or impacting your mental health, it is best to contact Fair Work [the workplace relations body] for advice.”

Ultimately, finding healthy ways to deal with difficult co-workers will improve your output and theirs, and make for a much more pleasant working environment.

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