Four ways to manage a difficult colleague

Four ways to manage a difficult colleague


Let’s face it, the modern workplace can be a minefield. Increased demands, higher stress levels and the relentless pressure to perform can lead some colleagues to demonstrate behaviour that erodes a stable and productive work environment.

Sometimes when we least expect it, we can find ourselves on the receiving end of genuinely bad conduct, whether its low-level bullying or being subtly undermined in front of others.

A recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 38% of people stay in bad situations because they can’t afford to leave.

So how can we change the dynamic and use a negative situation to create positive change? Here are four steps to consider if you find yourself struggling against a difficult colleague or boss.


Take the emotion out


Being emotional about being treated unfairly is normal. But it doesn’t necessarily help our case to find a resolution. Resist the temptation to provide a running commentary about your colleague to anyone, try never to be visibly upset at your desk, keep any negative comment to yourself when in the company of other colleagues and restrain outbursts of any kind. You may be frustrated, but demonstrating that you can’t handle the situation only undermines your personal brand. Our attitude is everything. Whether we like it or not, people make sweeping judgements about us based on our behaviour. During a critical phase like this, you want to keep your game face on while making a plan to navigate around the problem.


Create allies


You may be feeling emotionally exhausted by the situation, but now is the not the time to be laying low. Create allies and build partnerships with other colleagues in the business. Book yourself into at least one networking event each week. Talk to clients. Create a new initiative that supports the organisational mission. ‘PR yourself’ in a meaningful way so you can distract yourself from being a target, while also connecting with others who may identify new opportunities for you. Don’t fall into a rut and don’t blame anyone – now is the time to take charge of your direction.


Confront with courtesy


By far the most significant mistake I have made in my career journey is not calling out a difficult colleague on his or her chronic behaviour. I should have done it the first time it happened because once I let it slide, I gave them permission to continue. One former manager started out with one line ‘put downs’ in front of other colleagues but it slowly escalated and resulted in blatant lies about my performance to the boss. The damage was irreversible. Only after I resigned, did I realise that four other staff were also experiencing the same behaviour and were also letting each incident go unacknowledged. There is simply no reason why we shouldn’t call someone out because they are technically senior to us. In my case I should have followed these four steps remembering to use a friendly and neutral tone in my voice –

  1. State the context of the issue ‘Can we talk about your comment in front of the group?’ 
  2. State the outcome of the behaviour ‘Do you realise that when you say things like that in front of colleagues, it makes me look incompetent when I’m not. It also makes you look bossy and controlling when you are not?’
  3. Suggest an alternate behaviour like ‘I’m open to any advice you have in the future, but I’d prefer that you message me about it’
  4. Ask for agreement ‘Can you agree to do this next time? Obviously we are both working on the same team and want the same outcome’


Get a second opinion


Going to HR should be a last resort. We owe it to our colleagues to solve the problem informally. So perhaps if you don’t see any co-operation after confronting your colleague, why not enlist the help of a third party to help mediate the situation. We all need advocates and champions, so why not ask what they can do to help, whether it’s confirming your perspective on the situation or speaking on your behalf.


The last resort


If you’ve tried everything and the situation continues, you have to walk away. I have heard board level executives give this advice and I agree with them. If it’s your boss who is difficult, then the longer you stay, the more time you are investing in a leader who will never truly back you. And the more time you are spending in a role where you are not allowed to reach your potential. There’s also a strong chance the passive stress will take a toll on your health. When you exit, play the ‘outside game’. Behave like your new boss is watching. Conduct yourself calmly. Be composed in all of your communication. Sure, we might want to scream – save that for the girls after work.

Being consistently targeted or undermined at work can be an emotionally debilitating experience. For even the strongest of us, it’s very real and it’s a painful process that will continue as long as we allow it. Businesses may not recognise bad behaviour, but that’s no excuse for us to enable it. Back yourself and your talent and be a role model for others around you. Set an example for an inclusive and supportive workplace where we can all truly thrive.


This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda.


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