- Start out by examining yourself. Are you sure that the other person is really the problem and that you're not overreacting? Have you always experienced difficulty with the same type of person or actions?
Does a pattern exist for you in your interaction with coworkers? Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed? (We all do, you know.) Always start with self-examination to determine that the object of your attention really is a difficult person’s actions.
- Explore what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or colleague. Brainstorm ways to address the situation. When you are the object of an attack, or your boss appears to support the dysfunctional actions of a coworker, it is often difficult to objectively assess your options. Anger, pain, humiliation, fear, and concern about making the situation worse are legitimate emotions.
Pay attention to the unspoken agreement you create when you solicit another’s assistance. You are committing to act unless you agree actions will only hurt the situation. Otherwise, you risk becoming a whiner or complainer in the eyes of your colleague.
- Approach the person with whom you are having the problem for a private discussion. Talk to the coworker about what you are experiencing in “I” messages. (Using “I” messages is a communication approach that focuses on your experience of the situation rather than on attacking or accusing the other person.) You can also explain to your coworker the impact of their actions on you.
Be pleasant and agreeable as you talk with the other person. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions on you. They may be learning about their impact on you for the first time. Or, they may have to consider and confront a pattern in their own interaction with people. Worst case?
They may know and recognize their impact on you but deny it or try to explain it away. Unfortunately, some difficult people just don’t care. During the discussion, attempt to reach agreement about positive and supportive actions going forward. Focus on the one or two actions that hurt or hinder you the most.
- Follow-up after the initial discussion. Has the behavior changed? Gotten better? Or worse? Determine whether a follow-up discussion is needed. Determine whether a follow-up discussion will have any impact. Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself.
Become a peacemaker. (Decide how badly you want to make peace with the other person and how much you want your current job. Determine whether you have experienced a pattern of support from your boss.) If you answer, “yes,” to these questions, hold another discussion. If not, escalate and move to the next idea.
- You can confront your difficult coworker’s behavior publicly. Deal with the person with gentle humor or slight sarcasm. Or, make an exaggerated physical gesture—no, not that one—such as a salute or place your hand over your heart to indicate a serious wounding.
You can also tell the difficult person that you’d like them to consider important history in their decision making or similar words expressed positively, depending on the subject. Direct confrontation does work well for some people in some situations. It doesn't work to ask the person to stop doing what they’re doing, publicly, but you can employ more positive confrontational tactics.
The success of these tactics for you will depend on your ability to pull them off. Each person is not spur-of-the-moment funny, but if you are, you can use your humor well with difficult coworkers.
Need Help Dealing With the Difficult Person?
- If you have done what you can do and employed the first five recommended approaches with little or no success, it’s time to involve others—your boss or a manager. Note that you are escalating the situation. Prepare to talk with your boss.
Take notes and address the issues, not as interpersonal problems, but as issues affecting your productivity, the work and your progress on projects. Tell your boss exactly what the difficult person does.
Make a plan to address the issues. Perhaps involve your coworker's boss. Recognize that a good boss is likely to bring your difficult coworker and his supervisor into a three or four-way discussion at this point. Expect to participate in follow-up over time.
- Rally the other employees who might have an issue with the difficult person, too—carefully. Sometimes, a group approach convinces the boss that the impact of the behavior is wider and deeper than she had originally determined. Be careful with this approach, however. Know what works with your boss. You want to solve your problem, not make it look as if you are rabble-rousing and ganging up on another employee.
- If these approaches fail to work, try to limit the difficult person's access to you. Protect the needs of your business, but avoid working with the person when possible. Leave voluntary committees, Choose projects he or she does not impact. Don’t hurt your own career or your business, but avoidance is an option.
- Transfer to a new job within your organization. Depending on the size of your company, you may never have to work with this difficult coworker again. Fleeing is definitely an option.
- If all else fails, you can quit your job. What, flee, you ask? But, I wasn't the employee with the problem. I was not the difficult coworker. All I tried to do was my job. You're right. But, what price, in terms of your happiness and success, are you willing to pay to stay? You need to decide whether the good in your current situation outweighs the bad or whether the bad outweighs the good.