How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers & Bad Employees
By Carly Gail
Regardless of the industry or department, finding a coworker you just don't mesh well with is inevitable. Whether it is a demanding boss or a particular employee you constantly butt heads with, it can be helpful to learn how to deal with difficult coworkers. Unresolved issues at work can lead to tension and stress, amongst other problems. Luckily, you can take steps to alleviate such issues and ensure a more harmonious work environment.
How to deal with difficult coworkers or employees strategically
Working with difficult coworkers is never ideal. Sometimes it is easiest just to ignore the issue, but there may be cases where difficult colleagues affect your job performance and outlook. It can be beneficial to work relationships and team efficiency to address the problem and develop a solution in these cases. When dealing with difficult coworkers, act strategically to resolve issues most effectively.
How to deal with a difficult coworker: step by step
1. Learn about their personality
When you learn about a problematic coworker's personality, you gain perspective and empathy for how they may handle certain situations or seemingly little things. For example, you may value social interaction and building relationships at work, while they may favor their independence and autonomy. A behavior of theirs that you perceive as rude could just be their communicative style and preference. Once you have insights into their tendencies and preferences, you will be able to speak to, resolve conflict with, and understand them better. While you may not be able to get a problematic coworker to take a personality test, you can take one yourself and discover how you best handle conflict! Get started with a free personality assessment today.
2. Practice empathy
When you understand a colleague’s personality, you are better equipped to handle any confrontation or conversation with empathy and care. Be mindful in your discussions, and speak to the other person in a way that they can appreciate. Consider The Empathy Equation:
This “equation” makes it easier to set yourself up for success when talking to others. To use the Empathy Equation, you need to identify three key variables before engaging in an interaction:
WHAT the other party wants from the interaction
WHY they want it
HOW they want to interact
Doing so can aid in more empathetic communication and reduce the risk of more conflict arising due to miscommunication.
For example, let’s say you have called a meeting with a colleague (we will call them John) to discuss some issues you are having with him. While it may be an uncomfortable conversation, if you think about the factors of the Empathy Equation beforehand, you can go into the discussion with much more confidence that you’ll be able to work through the issues at hand:
WHAT: John wants to feel understood and respected, especially in situations like this where his character or work ethic may be called into question.
WHY: He wants others to perceive him as capable and not negatively viewed by his colleagues or peers.
HOW: He feels the most comfortable when he knows what to expect, so plan and schedule time in advance to discuss the problem so he does not feel bombarded. It may help if you both find a better way to express disagreements in the future so you can avoid creating a conflict in the first place.
By considering these factors before talking with John, you can be sure to adapt your communication to best suit his needs so you can each get the most out of the conversation. While an authentic culture of empathy practices empathetic communication in all circumstances, two significant instances in which you should adapt your communication style are leading meetings and resolving conflict.
3. Stick to face-to-face
It is easy to misunderstand or misread written text, so try to make any necessary confrontation face-to-face (or via video call if your office is remote). When you speak to a problematic colleague face-to-face about your personal issues or to set boundaries, they can get a read on you. For example, via email, the different DISC personality types tend to correspond in very different ways, which may increase the likelihood that something is miscommunicated.
Don't leave anything open to interpretation-- if you have something to say, say it in a way that will best resonate with the other person: empathetically and in-person.
4. Remain calm
Of course, especially when resolving conflict face-to-face, remaining calm is vital. Regardless of how passionately you feel about the problem, keep your voice at a low level, be polite, do not get frustrated, and do not forget to breathe! It is easy to get caught up in conflict, and sometimes taking a step back is required to solve issues neutrally. One way to remain calm is by adopting breathing techniques to have in your back pocket for times of high stress or conflict. Mindful breathwork can lower blood pressure and heart rate, recenter the mind, and force the body into a more relaxed state. Find what works best for you to keep as a handy tool in difficult situations.
5. Be firm
While it is important to remain calm when dealing with difficult people or coworkers, you must also be firm in your stance. To have a healthy work culture, it is necessary to set boundaries with team members--especially in difficult situations. Considering the other steps, let your coworker know how their actions bothered you or your work and why it was an issue for you. You might be surprised at their response-- sometimes people aren't even aware of what they are doing and how it affects others. In some cases, a conversation is all it takes for changes to be made.
6. Try a humorous approach
If the issue isn't as severe and does not warrant a more firm conversation, try approaching the conflict with a sense of humor. While many things aren't, our own behavior and responses are entirely within our control. Try cracking a joke the next time your coworker doesn't refill the coffee pot or leaves the common area a mess. A little bit of humor can quickly diffuse a tense situation while subtly letting the other person know that their actions aren't going unnoticed.
7. Get another opinion
If you are unsure whether you are overreacting or should be handling things differently, talk to a friend or confidant. Looking at an unbiased opinion can shed some light on a difficult situation and help you gain perspective other than your own. Of course, there is a difference between getting another opinion and gossiping. Be careful not to speak ill of the problematic coworker, or say anything that could be misunderstood as gossip. Stick to the facts and how it makes you feel when getting advice from a friend or other coworker.
8. Keep your issues private
While sometimes another opinion may be handy when dealing with a difficult coworker, be mindful of who you choose to share with. Making your conflicts public news is sure to stir the pot and add to work environment conflicts. When you publicly bring issues to the surface, you are more likely to be labeled as a complainer or a negative person in the office. Constant conflict can call your character into question and lead to you being perceived as a difficult coworker yourself! If you must complain-- do it outside of work and to people outside of your office.
9. Be the bigger person
Sometimes difficult coworkers remain troublesome despite a careful conversation. If their behavior is not harming your work life, it may be best to act like the bigger person. Doing so means rising above the issue and remaining calm and polite in your interactions. Sometimes it may be challenging to understand how to get along with difficult coworkers. Consider the phrase "you get more bees with honey" in this instance.
10. Talk to your boss
Suppose the conflict is occurring daily or is directly and harmfully impacting your daily work, self-esteem, or overall job experience. In that case, it may be time to take the problem to a higher-up. This could mean taking a trip to the human resources department or scheduling a conversation with your manager. In more severe cases, it may be necessary to involve an authority figure. Don't feel guilty about doing so-- it is your work life on the line too!
3 most common types of difficult coworkers & employees
This type of coworker may not directly say what is bothering them, but they sure will let you know in other ways. This coworker won’t explicitly state what their issue is but instead keep their negative feelings to themselves. As a result, they may exhibit hostility or attitude when dealing with others or the subject of their aggression.
How to handle a passive-aggressive coworker specifically
Because these types of coworkers directly contribute to toxic work culture, it is crucial to remedy such behaviors. Do not feed into or mirror their aggression, and do your best to control your own emotions. Usually, a deeper issue correlates with passive-aggressive behavior, so be sure to consider that before reacting.
When you see the same people every day, sometimes the lines between personal and professional may blur. Some coworkers may forget that some conversation is better suited outside of work or can be harmful to other colleagues. The office gossip may choose to speak out about other coworkers, leading to rumors, hostility, and a toxic work environment.
How to handle a gossiping coworker specifically
Do not contribute to gossipy conversations with coworkers. When able, pivot the conversation back to a more appropriate or work-related topic. If you cannot change the course of the conversation, let them know that you feel uncomfortable discussing that topic or find a way to excuse yourself from the interaction.
This person may have trouble completing their projects and tasks on time while relying on others to pick up the slack. They may opt to complete the bare minimum, rarely ever going above and beyond to ensure success in their role. This can rightfully cause tension and conflict in the workplace-- especially when people are expected to contribute equally.
How to handle a slacker coworker specifically
Unless their actions directly affect your work or abilities, it may be best to ignore this issue. In most cases, a slacker may only be harming themselves through their actions (or lack thereof). If their behavior prevents you from doing your best work, let them know how and why directly. They may not even be aware that they are impacting you. If things do not improve, it may be beneficial to make your manager aware of the issue.
Tips for dealing with difficult employees
In the firing process
Firing an employee is never easy, so it is best to do so as soon as it becomes necessary rather than dragging it out. You may opt to give them a second chance, which is fine as long as you set your expectations for improvement and provide them with a time frame to adjust. If they do not make the changes needed within that period, set a meeting to discuss their termination. Provide them with documentation and reasonings for the termination to know precisely why they are being let go.
Document toxic behavior
Outside of addressing conflict yourself, documenting toxic behaviors is the best way to remedy issues. Each time a difficult coworker acts in a harmful way to yourself or the work environment, write it down. You can share the feedback with the coworker or take it to human resources to handle it. Either way, properly documenting toxic behavior will allow both management and the coworker to visualize the impact of the toxic behaviors and warrants action to make a change.
Sometimes it may be challenging when deciding how to handle difficult coworkers or when dealing with hostile coworkers. If there is nothing tangible you can do to solve an issue with them, it may be best to limit interactions with them altogether. For example, next time you need to ask a difficult coworker for something, opt to email rather than making a trip to their desk. Avoiding difficult colleagues or difficult situations in the workplace can eliminate or reduce the risk of conflict and contribute to a more peaceful environment.
Dealing with difficult coworkers: Key takeaways
Difficult situations and people in the workplace are never ideal, but you can take steps to ease such conflicts. When handling such issues, practice staying calm and showing empathy-- even a bit of humor can sometimes be helpful! If a conflict with another colleague gets to the point where it is harmful to the well-being and productivity of others, it may be time to speak with your manager. The first step in how to handle a difficult coworker is understanding their personality and how it affects your interactions with them. Get started with a free personality test today.
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