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How To Deal With Difficult Colleagues

How To Deal With Difficult Colleagues

Like the cello, being able to delete your browsing history and changing a tyre, being able to deal with difficult, irksome, annoying colleagues is an artform worth spending time perfecting.

If you’ve ever worked in an office-based environment, you know who we’re talking about. The agenda-driven backstabbers, the boot-lickers, the utterly incompetent, the moaners, the narcissists, the generally obnoxious, the useless middle manager who does nothing but wears ties with Simpsons characters on and takes credit for your ideas and work…

In one survey by Robert Sutton, Professor of Management at Stamford University, he came across one man whose work neighbour was, according to a decibel meter, as loud as cutting metal.

All of whom are, beautifully put by Corinne Mills in the Guardian, ‘recognisable characters from the everyday drama of work.’

The easy solutions are to either ignore it completely or quit and find somewhere else to work and while that works in theory, in practice it’s rarely, if ever, a feasible answer, especially in the uncertain financial climate we find ourselves mixed up in.

However that notwithstanding, it’s also worth noting that regardless of external geopolitical factors, the modern workplace is a fraught place to be and it won’t come as a shock to realise that they don’t always bring out the best in us.

We have all come across a colleague whose behaviour, conscious or not, has left us seething, so what can we do about it?

Well actually, there’s plenty you can do about it…

Be Prepared to Understand That We’re All Human

Everyone has an off day. Yes, even you, so it’s wise to remember that others do too and they often lead us to being less than delightful at work. That type of misplaced anger or resentment is very common (in fact if you’re reading this at work, look around you and you can be almost certain someone is having an off day right now) so it may be that just a little patience on your part will be all that’s required.

Instead of making a snap decision as to why they’re behaving as such, ask how they are, make sure they’re OK. First it’s incredibly disarming because the protagonist will see you as a support rather than a threat and it’s important to keep in mind that the roots of problematic or destructive behaviour often lie much deeper than a missed deadline.

As Corinne Mills writes, ‘Sometimes just keeping your cool, using logic and rational argument will be sufficient to de-escalate a situation. However, someone needs to have an honest and supportive conversation with them about what is happening. This may be you or you may need to bring it to the attention of someone else in the organisation to deal with. Organisations on the whole are becoming more aware of their responsibilities to support individuals with mental health issues.

Be Prepared To Say It Like It Is

It’s fair to say that self-awareness in some isn’t as acute as it is in others and often, the direct approach is the only one that will work. But as with all these scenarios, you have to understand your audience. If someone is being rude to you or another colleague, take them aside and simply ask them why. You’ll get one of three responses.

One, they didn’t realise what they were saying was construed as rude and an apology with come forthwith. Two, they’ll make up a deflective response citing external issues or three, you’ll get into a schoolyard ‘he said, she said’ row. Regardless of the answer, they will consider it a huge risk to behave like that again knowing you’re all over it with the potential to escalate it higher up the food chain.

Be Prepared To Manage Expectations

The boss who dumps a wheelbarrowful of work on your desk at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon expecting it back first thing Monday or the colleague who emails at 11pm and gets annoyed the following morning as to why you didn’t respond last night need to know that what they expect from you is unrealistic.

Instead of cursing them to the rafters when you get home, losing sleep and gaining stress, you need to compassionately and logically talk to them about their expectations of you and how you can best work together to ensure that tasks are done in a timely manner that fits into everyone’s timeframes for delivery. Also, having that chat ahead of time makes it far easier than having it as the work gets dumped on your desk and you’re dying for a drink…

Be Prepared For Flexibility

The average workplace is made up of all sorts of people with all sorts of personalities, all sorts of ways of doing things and all sorts of cultures, values and ethics. To align everyone to a single way of thinking and operating is impossible so forget it, but what you can do is far more subtle and as such, far more effective.

A clash of styles isn’t always a bad thing, if it means that eventually you’ll be able to work together harmoniously. Observe what they do and how they do it and then you will be able to adjust your style in they way you communicate with them rather than point-blank disagreeing on a particular approach. Work, like life, is made up of compromise. You’ll think your way is the best way, as will they but in most cases, a combination of the two may just surprise you both…

Be Prepared To Walk Away

Verbal (or on rare occasions physical) aggression in its many forms is not OK in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter. No-one at any rung of the hierarchical ladder has the right to compromise your sense of safety and your personal space through threats so it’s OK to walk away.

If someone is up in your face, our millennia-old flight or fight instinct kicks in but it’s important to always take option B. Fighting in the office isn’t dignified at all and will result in one or both of you getting your P45s, as could shouting abuse across the room. Again, one or both of you will say something you shouldn’t and then you’re in a world of trouble. Walk away and think of the mortgage you have to pay at the end of the month.

Robert Sutton says ‘I’m a big believer in fighting, but I’m also a big believer that if you’re going to fight a co-worker, you don’t want to do it if you think you’re going to lose. You’ve got to take time, talk to people who you trust, and assess the situation before you go to war.’

Here at Vital Minds, we run highly participative Conflict Resolution workshops that take delegates on the Thomas-Killman journey of the five ways of dealing with conflict and we use Neuro-Linguistic Programming to understand the causes of conflict, how to understand them and the skills we need to manage conflict and deal with challenging and difficult behaviour at work.

For more information about how to deal with difficult colleagues, contact us today.

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