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Dealing With Difficult Co-Workers

Many people believe that poor productivity or communication is the fault of the difficult person. It's easy to justify negative comebacks by reasoning that you wouldn't feel that way in the first place if the other person were just nice and decent like you.

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking won't get you anywhere. You can't control or be responsible for someone else's behavior, but you can always control your own emotions and reactions. Blaming only creates another difficult person in a situation that already has one too many.

Consider instead the following four points about dealing with difficult co-workers. The first two clarify the "difficult" end of things while the last two supply you with healthier coping strategies.

What Does Difficult Really Mean?

There are two separate levels at play when you place the label "difficult" on a co-worker: what's going on inside you and what's going on inside the other person.

The former issue is easiest to understand because you, of course, are acutely aware of how these people make you feel. Your reactions are key in the definition of difficult.

After all, wouldn't you say someone was difficult if they had the ability to unnerve you or push your buttons? If you have seen them in action enough to feel you can predict how they'd act and that knowledge triggers your own predictable set of defences?

That's how most people first recognize a dislike or frustration with someone -- by their own responses.

It's a difficult person's actions that spark your reactions. What's really happening then? Why do they act that way? Why can't they just be more like you?

Difficult people are like you in that they have needs -- the need to get things done, get things done right, get approval or get attention. These people aren't being mean to purposefully annoy you. There is purpose behind their behavior and that purpose usually points to a particular need that they are desperately trying to meet. Your job is to figure out what is driving their behavior -- their needs -- if you ever hope to work with them successfully.

J. Chandler Underwood raises an excellent point in his article Handling Difficult People at Work: isn't difficult behavior really just that person's best trait amplified under stress? If you're in a group project and the leader gets bossy, isn't the bossiness just a stress-induced magnification of the positive skills of leadership, initiative and planning?

Changing perspective gives you new insight. Keep the above ideas in mind as you read about other aggravating behaviors in the following section.

The 10 Most Common Bothersome Behaviors

The behaviors described and explained below are the 10 traits which surface time and time again in almost every book on difficult people. Since you can't get in a person's head, dealing with the behaviors is your best tool for coping with these problem peers.

A couple of notes: First, to label the traits, we've borrowed the names created by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirshner in Dealing With People You Can't Stand. Other similar terms appear in brackets.

Secondly, although the behaviors seem to describe personality types, try to look at them instead as behavioral tendencies. None of us are stereotypes or robots who always react the same way. Thus, you may recognize several of the 10 traits in your dealings with just one person.

1.The Tank [a.k.a the Bull; the Hostile-Aggressive]

This behavior is by far the highest on most people's unwanted list. When calm and cool, a Tank-like individual is task-oriented and wants to get good results. When stressed, however, the focus on people and their feelings is almost completely obscured by a concentration only on the task.

Tanks want to be in control, to get things done, and often become angry and irrational when they don't get what they're looking for. Some can be quite pushy and aggressive, while others are hostile with a quieter intensity. Regardless of variations, all Tank behavior is rooted in a strong sense of controlling what others do.

2.The Sniper [a.k.a. the Snitch; the Credit-Stealer; the Fox]

When acting normally, Snipers like attention, like people and love charming the crowd. When Snipers become stressed, however, they gain attention at other people's expense by using sarcasm.

They are also famous for verbal shoot-downs in public or sneaky, hurtful dealings behind your back. Your humiliation and passivity confirm to them how clever they really are. Some snipers have better intentions than others, but they all fire indirect or disguised shots at you from behind cover.

3.The Grenade [a.k.a. the Exploder; the Time Bomb]

Grenade behavior is typified by someone who is nice and eager to please but then just blows up from time to time without cause or warning. What's happening here? These nice people are just so eager to meet other people's needs that they forget about their own. When their well of friendliness is sucked dry, they explode with verbal attacks and fault finding.

4. The Know-It-All [a.k.a. the Show-Off Expert; the Bulldozer]

Virtually everyone has a Know-It-All in their life. When functioning normally, Know-It-Alls are smart, capable people and gems of productivity with good ideas and high standards of quality. They basically get things done and know exactly how to do it.

However, when under pressure, a Know-It-All's need to be right and perfect is at the expense of other members of the team. There is a stubbornness to accept alternative ideas, and they may even see them as a threat or a put-down to their own brilliant plans.

5. The Think-They-Know-It-All [a.k.a. the Pseudo-Experts; the Balloons]

Unlike Know-It-Alls, these pseudo-experts do not usually know what they're talking about. Often, they are only partially aware that they are speaking beyond their knowledge, but because they crave attention and praise, they eagerly offer opinions.

Since they tend to get involved in topics they're not knowledgeable enough to debate, their logic ends up being faulty or they set themselves up for embarrassment, which can cause bitterness or resentment.

6. The Yes Person [a.k.a. the Super-Agreeable]

It's hard to believe that such sweet and agreeable people could ever be difficult, but the frustration of others does emerge when it comes time to getting things done.

Yes behavior is rooted in a need to get along with everyone. Fear of disapproval or dejection causes them never to say no or challenge an idea. As such, they take on too much, inducing such stress so that, in the end, nothing ends up getting accomplished.

7. The Maybe Person [a.k.a the Indecisive; the Avoider]

Like the Yes Person, Maybes want desperately to be liked and avoid disapproval and conflict. However, instead of agreement, they avoid disapproval by avoiding decisions. They don't want to be blamed for bad decisions and don't want to make people mad by committing.

This behavior is best seen in people who beat around the bush a lot -- a Maybe's way of compromising between honesty and not hurting someone's feelings. Obviously, productivity is in jeopardy when decisions can't be made by Maybe people.

8. The Nothing Person [a.k.a. the Information-Horder; the Stone Wall; the Clam]

Like the Tank, people with the Nothing trait like to be in control, but they do this by avoidance rather than by aggression. There is usually very little verbal and non-verbal feedback and no volunteered discussion.

Timid Nothings keep ideas quiet to avoid conflict. Perfectionist Nothings figure no one would understand their genius plan, so they let the others do it their own way. Manipulative, controlling Nothings end up leading the discussion since they gather data and force you to get it out of them rather than offer it up.

9. The No Person a.k.a. the Negativist; the Pessimist; the Idea-Destroyer]

No behavior is a standard for perfectionists because of its focus on mistakes and flaws in the task at hand.

As the name suggests, discouragement, cynicism and disagreement are trademarks of No people. They can often bring discussions to a halt since no solution is good enough for them. They look for limitations rather than possibilities.

10. The Whiner [a.k.a. the Complainer; the Wallower]

You can recognize a Whiner in any person who has a strong need to be taken care of. When stressed -- usually with a difficult problem -- Whiners resort to pessimism and statements like "This is just too hard to learn." They want everything done right but when things don't turn out as expected, Whiners become hopeless, complain or want others to solve their worries for them.

Your Best Strategy Against these Terrible 10s

1. The Tank [a.k.a the Bull; the Hostile-Aggressive]

Be sure to take a deep breath and stay calm in the middle of the tirade. Show no fear. Look your co-worker in the eye, don't run and don't interrupt.

When there's a break, ask permission to take notes. At least you can make use of their comments or ask open-ended questions to get them back on track.

Above all, don't fight fire with fire or be really defensive. Tanks will only use that as fuel. All you can do is stay cool and gain their respect by backtracking and saying how you see things.

Even though you should avoid direct confrontations and always give Tanks time to run down, always stand up for yourself. Don't give them silent consent to storm over you in the future.

2. The Sniper [a.k.a. the Snitch; the Credit-Stealer; the Fox]

If it's a friendly sniper who's just trying to be the office clown, tell them privately and politely that you don't appreciate their humor. On the other hand, if it's an unfriendly sniper with more malicious attacks, calmly smoke them out since indirectness is their protection.

Expose them by asking why they said or did what they did. Make them accountable for their underhanded aggression. Say something like "Your last comment was sarcastic. Could you explain why you felt the need to put me down like that?"

If they tell you the real reason for the put-down, don't ask for their suggestions for improvement. First ask others if that's how they see things too, so as not to validate the Sniper's accusations without evidence; snipers love being right. Whenever being assertive with a Sniper in public, watch out for their comebacks.

3. The Grenade [a.k.a. the Exploder; the Time Bomb]

Usually when grenades blow up, it's too late to do something. Prevention is more your aim. Even so, during the explosion, let them blow and don't defend yourself or run. Just listen. When it's over, anticipate their guilt and tell them that you understand; they're usually very eager to forgive.

As with Tanks, allowing cooling-off time and then making sure your concerns are heard is best. You should also think about what is "pulling the pin," so to speak, so that future explosions aren't so unpredictable.

4. The Know-It-All [a.k.a. the Show-Off Expert; the Bulldozer]

Since Know-It-Alls do their homework, make sure you do yours too. Prepare and study pertinent materials so that you know what you're talking about, and gather data for counter-arguments. Keep in mind, though, that you have to understand their genius ideas before they'll take you seriously, so repeat their ideas back to them.

When offering suggestions, do so indirectly, as if alternatives are detours rather than challenges to the Know-It-All's scheme. Saying "maybe we could also consider..." doesn't threaten the expert's idea. Furthermore, ask questions to raise problems and watch out for your own bulldozing techniques so that things don't get competitive.

5. The Think-They-Know-It-All [a.k.a. the Pseudo-Experts; the Balloons]

To handle this particular trait, be sure you praise any good ideas that the Think-They-Know-It-All puts forth. Be respectful and pay attention to their behavior, since they're more concerned that you like them than their suggestions.

If faulty logic and pseudo-expertise do get out of hand, put some of their ideas politely under the microscope rather than dismissing them altogether. Even better is to present your facts as an alternate version of things instead of cutting the Think-They-Know-It-All short. Help them out by giving them a face-saving vehicle if they get tangled in their own ideas. And if you do ever feel the need to confront them, do it in private.

6. The Yes Person [a.k.a. the Super-Agreeable]

If you genuinely like the Yes person, make friends to give them the acceptance they desire. They'll feel more at ease to take some risks.

Teach them to depend on others, and that the burden of work isn't meant to be on their shoulders. Be open too, and help them organize their activities so that they have realistic goals and don't take on too much.

Lastly, when negotiating, prepare to compromise so that conflict is easier to handle for the Yes person.

7. The Maybe Person [a.k.a the Indecisive; the Avoider]

There are several strategies you can use to work with an Avoider. When discussing a problem, listen for evasive language like "Such and such is generally good" or "This and that should be done." Pursue it by asking for specifics. Give them any facts or arguments that might help them make a good decision. Then give the Maybe support after they make it.

Always emphasize win-win solutions to calm their fears of having someone "lose" in a decision. Don't do their work for them, but do try and help them overcome their barriers without criticizing. Devise a decision-making strategy that makes it easy for them to be direct. For example, instead of saying, "What do you think about this project?" say "Could we talk about some of the small things that could use improvement for this otherwise good project?" The latter approach makes a Maybe person feel much safer to take a stand.

8. The Nothing Person [a.k.a. the Information-Horder; the Stone Wall; the Clam]

Ask open-ended questions that need more than a simple grunt or "uh huh" reply. While you're waiting, be attentive and look at them directly with a friendly, quizzical stare that signals you're expecting a response.

If they do answer, show you're listening attentively by repeating their statements and giving positive feedback. If there's still no answer, don't be tempted to fill in the silence by entering back into the conversation. The Nothing person will count on that. Let them be uncomfortable with your silence for a change!

Still nothing? Then say something like "I expected you to respond, Joe, and you didn't. What does that mean?" which makes them accountable. Then emphasize that you'll bring the subject up again. Or warn them about what you assume their silence means. That puts them on the defensive to correct you.

9. The No Person [a.k.a. the Negativist; the Pessimist; the Idea-Destroyer]

If you're faced with this behavior, resist the temptation to push them to be more positive. Rather, see if their criticisms have merit, or challenge them if you can. But don't argue unless it's about specific facts or it could degenerate into a "you're wrong, I'm right" discussion.

If there is a difference of opinion, get support from other members to show the No person that they don't in fact have the power to squash ideas single-handedly. Hard as it may be, be assertive and try not to let them drag the discussions down. Keep your focus and your cool.

10. The Whiner [a.k.a. the Complainer; the Wallower]

Your best course of action here is to turn the Whiner into a problem solver. Listen carefully to what they're saying, make them clarify what it is they need help with, then suggest solutions. State facts without comment or apology so that you avoid validating their complaints -- or worse yet, join them in their whining!

There are two traps that Whiners always set that you must resist. The first is hearing a hidden accusation in their complaint and then getting defensive by accusing right back. The second is having the urge to succumb and tell them you'll take care of it (which is exactly what they want from you!)

Final Words of Wisdom from the Experts

Now that you know more about how to handle difficult behaviors, finish off your "people skills" lesson by heeding some final important advice from the experts:

  • Always accept people as they are. Don't try to change them or expect them to change on their own; it won't work!
  • Ask yourself if you're dealing with a difficult person or a difficult situation
  • Staying in control of your emotions is a sign of strength and self-discipline, so do it
  • Distance yourself from the person by taking a walk or a time out if you need to regroup
  • Don't sweep things under the rug. Open communication begins with getting things out in the open and not having them bottled up. Do it in private first though, and remember to share negative and positive perceptions
  • Be clear, honest and decisive
  • Look forward (opportunities), not backward (fault finding, accusations)
  • Try to see things from both sides and approach decisions with compromises instead of demands
  • Try and keep a positive attitude -- that they're not being difficult for difficulty's sake, but instead have positive intentions. It always helps to believe there is a nice person in there somewhere
  • Don't be a doormat for their antics. As one negotiator said, "there are no victims, only volunteers"
  • Always treat these people with respect. Don't give them ammunition, give them courtesy and choice
  • Don't let things get personal. Focus thoughts and feelings on the task at hand and not on the person or details of his or her life. Always separate the person from the problem
  • Some of the great skills you'll be honing are paraphrasing and feedback, listening and speaking, interpreting body language, and being assertive and confident. It's worth your while to practice!
  • Become more sensitive to what people need, and find balance instead of conflict. For example, where one person is weak in a skill and another is strong, think of it as a complement of skills rather than a power struggle
  • When giving feedback, don't translate. Instead, repeat their own words back to them or ask them questions
  • It's okay to interrupt if you need to, as long as you're polite about it
  • Put things in perspective to prevent yourself from getting worked up
  • Think of role models who handled similar situations effectively, whether it's a fictional character on TV, a family member, or even yourself in the past
  • Become an ally and adapt to their communication style to get a task done. But be careful that it doesn't look like ridicule
  • Humor can do a world of good in keeping the atmosphere from getting tense
  • Don't run, hide, ignore or avoid these problem people. If you do, you're letting them win their control game. Isn't your peace of mind, productivity and job satisfaction worth fighting for?