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Coworkers from Hell! How to Deal with Bad Apples, Gossips, Jerks, and Other Difficult Colleagues

The Saboteur. The Demeanor. The Bad Apple. The Gossip. These aren’t costumed Halloween characters; they’re the people you work with.

And they’re not alone. There’s also the Jerk, the Complainer, the Victim, the Micromanager, the Know-It-All, and the Competitor. These are the difficult and obnoxious coworkers who drive you to distraction, impede your productivity, poison the atmosphere, and even hurt your company’s bottom line.

Unlike Halloween, these ghouls won’t be gone Nov. 1, so you have to learn to deal with them. Here’s how:

  • Use your EQ.

The first thing to do is use your emotional intelligence (EQ) to discern the motivation behind the bad behavior. Some people just like to vent. Some people like to cause trouble and make others miserable. Some are simply stunted emotionally. Others get corrupted by power. Some may be in over their heads, which makes them stressed and fearful.

Still others are replicating behaviors that have made them successful in the past, but which now serve to undermine the workplace. Some are just overly ambitious and are trying to get ahead at any cost. Try to understand the motivation behind the behavior before you do anything.

  • Assess, strategize, and act.

Very often, we are terrified to confront others in situations where we really should. In many cases, we enable people to behave poorly by not standing up to them and asking that the behavior stop. This is because most people don’t have an effective model or paradigm for making clear requests and delineating clear boundaries. But dealing with difficult people can usually be handled in just a few minutes using a well thought-out and simple request. The right way to do this to assess, strategize, and act. Here are the steps:

  1. Don’t take it personally. Detach yourself emotionally from the situation. Take a walk, calm down, and sort through your emotional landscape until you can look at the situation clearly and objectively.
  1. Assess the situation and determine what behavior you want changed or stopped, or whether you can live with it. Ask yourself, What is really bothering me? Why does it bother me? What value of mine is being trampled? What boundary is being crossed? How is this hurting my job or ability to perform my job? Can I ignore the behavior and do my job? Try to pinpoint exactly what you want to change.
  1. Explore your contribution to the behavior. How are your actions, opinions, perspectives, or behaviors impacting the situation? Do you gossip, complain, or criticize right along with them? You have to be willing to change your own behavior before you seek to change others. Name your contribution and own it, so that you can change and stop.
  1. Think about and practice how you will speak to your coworker. You must find a way that will resolve the situation and not perpetuate it. Remember, don’t phrase it personally. You do not want to come across as attacking the person, just seeking change in a behavior. Make the request in a calm, clear, non-personal and unemotional manner. Do not judge or use the word “should.”
  1. If you are a manager or supervisor, use business tools to make the request and follow up. This includes memos, e-mails, follow-up meetings, performance reviews, etc. Bring in HR if you have to.

Even with the above tips you may still need help. Here are three books I highly recommend for further study: Working with You Is Killing Me by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster; The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton; and Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson.

Dealing with difficult coworkers doesn’t have to be a nightmare if you understand why someone may be acting the way they are, how it impacts you, and what you can do to change or ignore it. With a little understanding, a little detachment, and some practice, you can figure out the problem, the source, and what to do about it. Good luck!


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