We’ve all been there. Our neighbor in the cubicle beside us makes horrible offensive jokes every hour. The lady from the sales department doesn’t put any effort in but shows up at that opportune moment to find a way to take some credit. A “team player” turned out to only want credit for your great idea that’s now being implemented. In any work situation, you’ll almost always have that one person you can’t stand. With how much time we spend at work, having a bad coworker can really be a downer on your mood over the long haul, as well as your job performance. How you deal with that conflict could be the difference between having a good job and having a bad job. In my experience, the environment (especially the people you work with) o makes a bigger difference in how you see your job than the work itself. For that reason, it’s paramount to know how to deal with bad coworkers.
Below are some tips to do so. Treat it like a flow-chart: start with the first couple options which are introspective and low-risk, then work your way to addressing the bad coworker one-on-one, to finally, as a last resort, approaching your supervisor.
Accept and Acknowledge Personality Differences
When you spend 40 hours a week with someone it’s likely that they’re eventually going to piss you off! Small things will be set you off and personality differences lead to varying work styles, which can easily turn into conflict. Perhaps you work fast and efficiently, but sometimes miss details; you might clash with the fellow who works a little slower than you, but tends to get it all right on the first go. Conflict can even arise from something as simple as you desiring a quiet lunch period, while your coworkers like to socialize. These little things are simply differences in how you work or socialize, and don’t necessarily make your coworkers evil.
An easy way to spot these differences is to take a personality test as an office. You can suggest to HR or your supervisor that everyone take a five-minute online test so that you all can discover your differences in work learning styles, habits, etc. By understanding these quirks of your coworkers will go a long way in ending conflict, as you’ll be better able to both empathize and ensure that little things aren’t blown out of proportion in your mind.
If doing an office assessment is never going to happen, do some research and self-education regarding personality types and strengths/weaknesses. Strengths finder is a great resource that outlines the drawbacks and benefits of many different “talent themes.” Generally, this is taken as a personal resource, one could read through all of the strength categories and identify where you think people land, which will help in your dealing with them.
Know the Pros and Cons of the Work Culture
In addition to understanding that evil co-workers varying personalities, it’s just as important to know the culture of the workplace. In a sales business where everyone is competing for commissions and bonuses, it’s understandable that not everyone would be super friendly with others. You should consider whether you might be misinterpreting behavior or overreacting to it.
In high-stakes tech companies like Microsoft and Apple, the work culture is crazy demanding and competitive, which can surely lead to tons of conflict. A prickly Steve Jobs isn’t really going to care that your little feelings got hurt in a meeting. In this type of situation, you may just realize the benefits of the job outweigh dealing with your manager’s frequent outburst or the feeling of being slighted.
Those situations can be dealt with by having buddies at the water cooler that are on your side and will support you. Having a few people, you really like and get along with dare I say “friends” will in many cases override the annoyances of a bad coworker.
Kill Them With Kindness
Nathanael Fast a researcher argues that most workplace conflicts stem from when someone’s ego is in the guillotine. Our work and livelihood are directly connected, if it’s threatened, we’re likely to become defensive, even if it’s in subconscious ways. That acting out can take many forms like underhanded comments, bullying, passive aggressiveness, and any number of other behaviors that you find distasteful. So, what should you do?
Fast suggests offering gratitude. If someone has been short with you, or said something that has offended you, try being extremely pleasant while chit-chatting rather than offering a death glare. Maybe you could offer them a cup of coffee the next day, or ask if they’d like to join you for some grub. Your kindness may very well help them realize and be a little ashamed of their own poor behavior, and the situation may not have to escalate to a point of even needing to confront it.
Another way to do this is to find just one thing about that coworker you do admire and focus on that rather than the traits that annoy you. Maybe they’re into dogs and you can brag about your pooch to them, or they enjoy craft beer like you do so you can talk about your favorite local watering hole. Steer your conversations towards these topics, and perhaps what you hated about that person will be lessened. Definitely do not gossip about that person gossip is the lowest form of language!
If after a while this hasn’t worked however, you can try some avoidance techniques.
Finding ways to simply avoid the bothersome coworker is a helpful solution that can possibly nip the problem in the bud without requiring an awkward one-on-one confrontation. While these techniques don’t necessarily solve anything but that won’t matter much if the problem is out of sight and out of mind. Some strategies to consider:
- Move desks/cubicles. If you’ve got a cubicle neighbor who’s annoying you with their music, scent, constant yammering, etc., ask your supervisor to move desks. You don’t have to tell them exactly what is wrong with your desk — just say it’s too loud/hot/dark/distracting in your general area. If the supervisor becomes inquisitive, simply say that there’s some conflict between you and a coworker that’s hindering your productivity.
- Rearrange your schedule. If problems seem to arise only during a certain time of day — perhaps your co-workers won’t shut up when you’d like to eat your lunch in peaceful solitude, or congregate by your desk just before 5:00 preventing you from finishing your work for the day — the solution might be as simple as shifting your schedule a little bit. Maybe you can shift your entire workday by an hour or two, or leave the premises to eat your lunch at a park or by yourself at a café — a tactic I’ve used successfully myself.
- Ask about working remotely. If you can work from home a couple days/week, or even simply at a cafe a couple blocks from the office, that irksome coworker may not be so irksome anymore.
- Change teams. This tactic is a bit extreme, as it could functionally mean changing your job and be offensive. One way to approach this tactic is to play it down like you’ve been thinking of changing teams/departments for a while based on your personal interests/desires. It’s also possible that this option comes into play as a solution only after confronting a coworker.
Resolve the Conflict at the Source
This article could easily be more about conflict resolution than “dealing” with bad coworkers. Most people want to avoid conflict, so our first instinct in handling people who annoy us is to complain to our friends/family, complain to the coworkers we do like, complain to HR, complain to your boss or anyone else you can think of. You get the picture. While avoidance tactics can occasionally work as noted above, they’re not the be all end all since they don’t address the underlying issue.
Especially if your problem with a coworker is personal rather than related to the work itself, you may need to approach them directly with whatever your issue is. If they’re cracking inappropriate jokes, tell them that it makes you uncomfortable and you’d prefer that they leave their wisecracks at home. If they’re perhaps giving you crap about being the newbie (and it’s been more than a couple weeks), tell them that you’re learning as fast as you can and that you’d rather not be put down while also trying to fit in at a new work environment.
By not addressing these personal conflicts when they arise, you simply let them fester and fester and fester, and then you end up loathing the person far more than you may have had you just brought it up straightaway. In most cases, people aren’t malicious, and they’ll respect your direct approach. In our world of passive conflict, in which arguments are dealt with by posting tweets or sending emails, a real conversation might actually be a breath of fresh air.
If the ribbing or other personal conflict continues, bring it up one more time with them assertively, and threaten to go up the chain if needed. After that you can go to HR or your supervisor. There are a couple instances in which going to a supervisor or HR should be your first option for personal issues, such as physical threats or sexual harassment. Use your judgment, however, and let your default option be to resolve the conflict at the source.
If the coworker is annoying you because of something that’s related to the work rather than personal slights, it can be a different situation which may require going to your supervisor first. In some instances, though, you still might be able to handle it on a personal level. If you’re taking the lead on a group project with a team and someone isn’t keeping up with the work, you can absolutely handle that on your own. If your colleague routinely hops on the phone for a personal call when the boss leaves the office, you can mention that you’ve noticed, and let them know that unless they stop, you’ll be bringing it up to the supervisor.
The Last Resort: Approach the Higher-Ups
Say the conflict has escalated and your attempts at one-on-one resolution haven’t worked. Or maybe the offender isn’t your own supervisor, but is still higher on the food chain than you. Perhaps someone with seniority, yet still a peer, seems to have a habit of not quite getting all their work done, and it’s affecting your work as well. There are certainly situations that warrant approaching your boss or HR rep, but as one executive I talked to noted, “It should be the last resort.”
Before you go in to see your supervisor, do an informal poll among coworkers you’re friendly with as to their feelings about the offending person. After you tell your boss about the issue, he or she may ask around to see if others have noticed the problem as well. Knowing that your coworkers are going to confirm your story will bolster your confidence and the strength of your case. If you’re the only one who’s noticed the problem, you might consider the possibility that you’ve managed to make a mountain out of a molehill, and that bringing it up with a supervisor will backfire on you.
Once you do decide to approach a higher-up about the conflict, be sure that you’re talking about it in terms of how it’s affecting the business and your performance. When you have a boss’s ear, you should focus on how the agitator’s behavior is hurting the business. A more personal plea is not likely to make a difference, as it often devolves into he-said/she-said arguments. “Don’t tell a story of emotional wounds. Make an argument that the person is costing the organization money.”
If the problem is work-related, your boss likely already knows about it. If it’s someone who is inefficient, or not great to work with on a group project, the cold reality is that the company likely puts up with it because the person excels in other areas and/or it’s too costly to try to replace them. It may not seem it but firing and hiring new people is time and money intensive, and you may simply need to come to that realization as well and do whatever you can to handle those situations with grace.
If the problem is personal in nature, the hope is that your boss would speak with that person about the problem and it would go away, and if the offense is serious enough, let them go. That’s in an ideal world, of course. In a business setting, the bottom line typically wins out against feelings. At that point, you simply have to decide if the bad coworker and their behavior is worth the job. If the job isn’t worth it, get started on looking for a new one.
Above all, dealing with a bad coworker most often just means finding a way to avoid it, approaching them one-on-one to address the conflict, or just ignoring it and acknowledging that you simply won’t get along with everybody you come across. Frankly, the options are to deal with it and address it, or leave the job. It’s that simple. And I would certainly recommend the former when possible. In today’s job market, one of the questions that references get asked more than almost any other is if you get along with others. Dealing with bad coworkers is just part of almost any job, as is dealing with difficult and annoying people in all walks of life. You can either complain and mope about it and let those people ruin your day, or you can step above it and decide that how your day goes is largely in your own hands.
Do you have experience with bad coworkers? What were your strategies in dealing with them?