Human beings are social creatures. No matter how much we prop up the cult of the self-made man, no matter how much we idealize the John Henrys of the world who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and rise from one glory to the next, the bald truth of it is that we need each other.
Our relationships matter.
Today, people’s lives are highly work-oriented. Beyond the 40 hours a week, most are salaried for, there is a great deal of thought and emotional energy that consumes workers even in the comfort of their own home, long after having returned from the office.
Because both of these things are irrevocably true – that our relationships matter to us and that our work occupies a good portion of our lives – any good leader will tell you that positive relationships between team members lead to a happier workforce and, ultimately, a more productive workforce.
It behooves us then to seek harmonious interactions with our coworkers, and for most of us, this is no problem. There are times, though, in every worker’s life when they need to navigate around a difficult colleague. Maybe this colleague is overly boisterous, extremely negative, dominant, or simply so quiet there is no relationship to be had.
Luckily for us, the question of how to work with difficult colleagues is a heavily thought-over one with many different approaches. If you have a difficult colleague, the number one piece of advice anyone will offer is to lead with empathy.
Lead With Empathy
Although the semantics of the phrase “leading with empathy” has become debatable following the 2016 release of Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, what we really mean by leading with empathy is beginning from a place of trying to understand rather than immediately judging.
Leading with empathy is a kind of awareness founded in the belief that emotions and unconscious motivations are as much a part of our behavior as what we say and conscious intent.
It’s Not About You (Even If It Is)
Often when we’re trying to deal with people we don’t get along with, our own prejudices, hidden anxieties, and other baggage are parts of the barrier that separates us from the other. Those coworkers that we label “difficult” are sometimes given that label for behavior we perceive as rude. But rudeness, like the tango, takes two: one to give it and one to receive it.
Say, for example, there’s a particular coworker who you’ve identified as having a bad attitude. She laughs at inappropriate times, appears to roll her eyes at others, and generally seems unwilling to engage with the rest of the team.
Many of us have known someone like this, and almost all of us have acted slighted or offended. “That’s so annoying,” we say. But there are two sides to every coin.
The way we interpret the world is, it has been said, fiction. We are the narrators of our lives, and we choose the way the story unfolds. If a coworker is acting like the aforementioned, we can say, “well, she’s just rude! She has no concern for other people!” and be annoyed, or we can look at it from another perspective.
We can say, “geez, she must be very insecure if she’s acting that way. I had better redouble my efforts to be kind and make her feel comfortable.” By shifting the focus from us to the other, being annoyed simply disappears as a possibility. In other words, there’s no ego left to wound.
Be Kind, But Strong
Some coworkers are difficult because they seem to act rudely at the workplace or behave disinterestedly in the face of things we think are interesting. However, there is another breed of “the bad coworker,” and this is the overly dominant, boisterous coworker.
Every so often, a team will find itself faced with one of these overbearing figures, who seem to talk 90% of every conversation, have an opinion about everything that they’re always the first to express, and generally try to control everyone else.
When faced with coworkers or employees like these, it’s imperative to understand the basic principles behind working with extroverts. Frustratingly, however, it is often not enough to simply be kind and demonstrate this understanding, because these qualities hinge on the other person’s self-awareness; a trait which this specific kind of coworker distinctly lacks.
So what do you do? You need to try to change their behavior for the good of the group, but as we mentioned, subtle cues likely won’t cut it. You need to say something. If you’re in a group collaboration situation and this particular colleague is speaking so much that other people can’t express their ideas, you might simply say to him, “let’s let someone else talk.”
Being kind but direct can go a long way in this. But be warned: even when the direct words are kind, people like this can take offense. As their over-gregariousness very likely stems from some insecurity, telling them to stop talking may very well be a wound to the ego. You must, however, remain firm despite wounded egos.
Remember: if someone else is mad, it’s not about you (even if it is).
Understand Your Own Emotions, But Don’t Lead With Them
It’s very often in the workplace that we become aware of our emotions. When dealing with difficult colleagues, feelings of anger or annoyance can bubble up quite often. It’s important to be mindful of your emotions without letting them lead you. Words spoken from emotion are often poorly thought out and, in hindsight, regrettable.
When you’re in a conversation with a coworker, and you notice the emotions beginning to bubble up, it’s important to take a breath before responding. Rather than snapping out the first thing that comes to mind, consider: “will these words be helpful to this professional relationship?” If the words come from emotion, very likely they will not.
There are also “I” statements that seek to raise a coworker’s awareness of what they’re doing without casting blame on them. An “I” statement like this is often appropriate: “When you , I feel ___.” These statements frame the relationship in a healthy way for those coworkers who are not particularly self-aware. It can make them realize that their behavior is adversely affecting others in the room without feeling chastised for it.
The Final Word
A difficult colleague is a problem we will face time and again in our working lives. Remember, some things matter in the long run, and others only seem to matter. That heightened moment of emotion can feel like it will last forever, but it passes no later than that evening or the next day.
Our relationships, though, and our professional reputation will last much longer. Remember: there are multiple ways to tell every story. You can be the slighted one, oppressed by the world around them, or you can be the wise one, watching with sympathy and firmly guiding the lost as they also seek to live the best life they can.
We may, indeed, live those famous words: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.”
Author Bio: John Estafanous
As founder and CEO of RallyBright, John leveraged his experience in product development, team leadership, technology, and marketing to help drive RallyBright’s rapid growth. RallyBright is a SaaS platform that helps business leaders and coaches build better teams. This is done by integrating behavioral science and data with proven professional development products that are built based on work with hundreds of teams and thousands of professionals.