By | Published On: January 13, 2014 |

If you feel unhappy or discontented at work, it may not be the work itself that’s the problem, but the people with whom you are spending so many hours of each day. It can be tempting to ignore the difficult colleague completely and try and make the best of a bad situation, or escape and decide that the job just isn’t for you. But there is another way to deal with a problem co-worker, one that will leave you feeling empowered and better able to cope with whatever life throws your way. Follow these steps for a more grown-up, emotionally mature professional you!

  1. Pin down the problem. What exactly is it about your colleague or boss that rubs you up the wrong way? It’s easy to say, “I just don’t like him/her”, or “we’re very different”, but while this may be factually correct, you can’t solve a problem based on feelings. What is it about their behaviour that is bothering you? Is it a bad habit (e.g. nose blowing, untidiness), a social problem (name calling, rudeness), or maybe a professional issue (undermining you in meetings, giving you too much work at the last minute)? It’s worth making notes before confronting the issue, so you can have some perspective and, if necessary; present your evidence to someone else. If you are being called names, for example, write down when it happens, and provide a bit of context.
  2. What is within your power to control? This point is very important. In any office environment, you will necessarily encounter a broad spectrum of people, with a variety of backgrounds and habits. Bad behaviour is, of course, unacceptable. If your problem colleague falls into the “just different” category, you’re going to have to let it go, and find a way of changing your own behaviour to deal with it. Examples of this would be someone’s screechy voice, a hair pulling habit or a curt way of writing emails. Sometimes it is all about being more relaxed and accepting that other people can be annoying, c’est la vie. What’s not acceptable is going over your head to a director when you’re the line manager, persistent lateness, sexist, racist or other derogatory name-calling, etc. It’s not possible to detail every example of ‘not ok’ behaviour, but as a rule of thumb, imagine your best friend came to you, upset about the situation. Would you think they were making a mountain out of a molehill? What would you advise him or her to do?
  3. Some people are better than others at dealing with conflict. If you are drawn to read this blog, you’re probably someone who finds it hard to handle confrontation. You’re in very good company – those who are adept at dealing with difficult people are the exception, not the rule! What is it that you are afraid of? Is it the reaction of the other person? Is it not knowing if it’s ok to talk to them directly? Is it a fear of confronting someone who is more senior than you? A fear of rocking the boat when jobs are scarce enough as it is? Identify exactly what you are afraid of, and what you think the worst case scenario would be if you spoke to this person directly about how their behaviour is affecting you.
  4. Assess your options. Of course, one option is to do nothing, and you may decide that, on reflection, this is the best course of action. But what would the risk be of saying nothing? If you are being verbally abused, it could be that your self-esteem plummets, you dread going into work each day and other areas of your life are affected. Brainstorm all your options for action (which could vary from an informal chat to an official complaint) and the possible implications of each one. Include those that you instinctively shy away from, too. Get it all down on a piece of paper. Sleep on it, and then come back to your list in the morning. What do you think would be the most proportionate response? What do you think would be the most effective in your particular circumstances? It can help to talk this through with a friend (ideally one not connected to your workplace) who may offer a fresh perspective. Airing your grievances too widely within the office could backfire if you are seen to be gossiping or being malicious. The exception to this is if you have a union rep or similar structure in place where you know your issue will be heard in confidence.
  5. Be brave. Have the conversation you need to. You’ll probably feel uncomfortable, but if you have planned what you will say and remain professional throughout, you’ll maximise the chances of a good outcome. If you’re really dreading the meeting, you may need to do a little acting “as if”. How would someone act who was confident in their ability to handle difficult situations? How would they sit, and speak? Try their virtual skin on for size.
    You will also need to be prepared for their reaction. If they feel they are being given negative feedback or criticism, your colleague may become defensive, deny the situation, or respond aggressively. Let this person feel their feelings, and give them space to have their say.
    It may be a misunderstanding, or that the other person simply didn’t appreciate the affect their behaviour was having on you. Hopefully you can begin to resolve the situation with greater clarity on both sides.
    If you feel the issue can’t be resolved in one meeting, you can always
    arrange another after each person has had some time to absorb the conversation. It may require a series of chats, or indeed you may feel that it’s not a situation that can be immediately “fixed”. But you have broached it and said your piece, and hopefully you will be feeling some relief.
  6. Decide on your next steps. Do you think the problem has been resolved? Did the other person acknowledge their part in the difficult situation? Can you put the matter to rest or do you need to revisit it, either with this person, or to escalate it elsewhere? It’s tempting when we’ve faced up to a difficult situation to be glad it’s over and try to move on immediately. But do you feel it was resolved as well as it could be? Did you avoid saying some things because you were reacting to your colleague’s own reaction? Assess the situation as dispassionately as possible and, if necessary, repeat the process, again, acting “as if” you were totally calm and confident in your ability to deal with the situation.
  7. Once you are content that the situation has been resolved to the best of your ability (or, if not, you know what you now can or can’t control), let it go. Be gentle but strict with yourself. It’s time to move on and up. Every time you catch yourself thinking about this person or situation, mentally tell yourself, “let go”. Be proud of yourself for facing up to the problem and confronting your own fears about conflict. Hopefully it will stand you in good stead in other areas of your life when other conflicts arise. Life will keep on throwing you tricky situations, and the more often you deal with them, the easier (and, in retrospect, maybe even more enjoyable) they will become.