How to Deal With Difficult Co-Workers

Avoiding the issue won’t help, but look inward before you do anything.

September 20, 2016

Whether you’ve slung burgers or prepared audit reports, chances are good that you’ve dealt with a difficult co-worker. Chances are also good that simply reading the previous sentence instantly generated a mental image of one particularly irksome co-worker. Here are a few simple, effective methods to address situations involving challenging co-workers with tact and to avoid making them worse. 

  • Don’t avoid the issue. It’s easy to let situations and people ruin your day and affect your productivity. However, ignoring the issue or avoiding the individual is not an option. “Unresolved conflict has a tremendously bad influence on your work environment,” explained independent HR expert and writer Susan Heathfield. She added, “Whether the individual will make digs at you in a meeting or excludes you from information that you need … you can’t just hope it’s going to go away because it plays out in very unattractive and unprofessional ways for everyone. You’ve got to confront the issue head-on.”
  • Look inward first. Before you confront a co-worker, look in the mirror. “It’s very important to ask whether the other person is really the source of the conflict and not yourself,” Heathfield said. Pay attention to whether you are easily aggravated by people with temperaments like your troublesome co-worker’s.

    If you don’t believe that bias is driving your response, you may want to take action. But if you do take action, remember to …

  • Always stay calm. You don’t want to tarnish your reputation at your organization by reacting impulsively. Knee-jerk reactions can often make a bad situation worse.

    Preston Ni, professor of communication at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People emphasized that, “All too often, emotions can get the better of us when we’re upset, and we say things that we later regret. The simple technique of taking a deep breath and counting slowly to five is generally very effective. Nine times out of 10, by the time you’ve reached five, you’ve figured out a better way to assess the issue.” Letting some time pass will almost always help you formulate another way to approach the situation.

  • Shift the focus. “One common technique of chronically difficult individuals is that they like to put you on the defensive. The way they do it is to constantly focus on you and criticize, nitpick, and tear you down. As long as you allow that to happen, you’re on the defensive,” Ni observed. He added, “A very simple way to turn that around is to shift the focus more onto the problem or onto the difficult person who’s causing all of these challenging issues. By proposing counter questions to redirect the focus onto the issue or instigator, you take the pressure off of yourself.”

    This idea of redirection is arguably your best defense when you find yourself being confronted by an aggressive person. However, as Ni emphasized, remember to simply be “soft on the person, but firm on this issue.”

  • Choose wisely. Not every situation with a difficult co-worker or colleague requires you to get involved. Ni teaches people to employ a method he calls, “Engage and disengage.” Here’s how he explained it: “You don’t have to have coffee with [difficult people], just engage them when you’re required to, then you disengage and keep your professional distance. That would probably take care of a good many situations involving difficult individuals. When certain individuals really cross the line and interfere with your job performance and well-being, then very specific measures need to be taken to address the issue. The general ideas are stay diplomatic, be firm on the issue, and pick your battles.”

    Part of being in the workforce means encountering people who test your patience and ability to manage tricky situations. Remembering a few of these key methods will help you navigate any potential issues that may arise.

What are your go-to techniques for dealing with an exasperating co-worker? Share them with the Young CPA Network on Facebook or Twitter.

Aaron Lay is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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