How to Move Forward with a Difficult Coworker

Many things can contribute to work being challenging, but most of us have had at least one experience where the people you work with make or break your experience. Sometimes a coworker or manager can really add to your experience and you’re grateful to be working with them – if so, great! Other times you might work with someone who feels like a “difficult” coworker – someone you clash with, or just don’t work well with. This isn’t something extreme enough to involve HR, but it can be painful nonetheless, and leave you feeling deflated after each interaction. It might even keep you up at night as you replay or pre-play conversations in your head when you’d rather be sleeping. If this is a situation you’re in, what might you be able to do?

Amy Gallo, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and the author of the upcoming book Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone, Even Difficult People, offered some thoughts on this week’s HBR Ideacast podcast. As she points out, none of us is perfect when it comes to navigating the nuanced complexity of human relationships. In times of stress, or when we feel threatened, even the most experienced among us can end up focusing on short-term goals of protecting our ego or reputation rather than long-term goals like behaving honorably and preserving collegiality. So how can we be our ‘best selves’ and focus on these long-term goals?

This Week’s Tips:

If you find yourself working with someone you find challenging, take a listen to Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Coworkers (HBR IdeaCast episode 871), and try implementing some of Amy Gallo’s ideas. Below are abbreviated versions of Gallo’s key suggestions (found in more depth here and in her upcoming book):

  1. Remember that your perspective is just one among many. Challenge your own perspective by asking questions such as: How do I know that what I believe is true? What if I’m wrong? How would I change my behavior? What assumptions have I made? How would someone with different values and experiences see things? The answers to those questions matter less than the exercise of asking them – reminding yourself that your view is just that: your view.
  2. Be aware of your biases. We’ve posted about bias a number of times in the past, but one type of bias we haven’t mentioned that Gallo focuses on is fundamental attribution error – “an inclination to assume that other people’s behavior has more to do with their personality than with the situation, while believing the opposite of oneself.” For example, you might presume that a teammate who’s late to a meeting is disorganized or disrespectful. But when you’re running behind, you’re more likely to focus on the circumstances that led to you being late, like being caught in traffic or stuck in another meeting that went long.
  3. Don’t make it “us vs. them.” Rather than seeing yourselves as opposites, imagine that there are not two but three entities in the situation: you, your colleague, and the dynamic between you. Maybe that third entity is something specific: a decision you must make together or an assignment you need to complete. Or maybe it’s more general: ongoing tension or rivalry between you or bad blood over a project gone wrong. Rather than work to change your colleague, try to make progress on that third thing.
  4. Know your goal. Write a list of your goals with this colleague (big and small) and then circle the most important ones. If your goal is to avoid getting stuck in long discussions with this person, you’ll need to take actions different from those you’d take if your goal was to keep the person from bringing down the team. It’s okay to start small and focus on just having a functional relationship and not losing sleep at night because of the stress your colleague is causing you. Refer to your goal before interacting with your colleague to keep focused on success.
  5. Avoid workplace gossip and venting – but seek counsel. It is perfectly legitimate to seek help with sorting out your feelings or to check with someone else that you’re seeing things clearly. But choose whom you talk to (and what you share) carefully. Look for people who are constructive, have your best interests at heart, will challenge your perspective when they disagree, and can be discreet.
  6. Experiment to find what works. Start by coming up with two or three strategies you want to test out. Often small actions can have a big impact. Then design an experiment: Determine what you’ll do differently, pick a period of time to try it out, and see how it works.
  7. Stay curious, not furious. Curiosity wards off confirmation bias, prevents stereotyping, and helps us approach tough situations not with aggression or defensiveness but with creativity. When your colleague’s bevavior bothers you, the key is to shift from drawing conclusions to instead posing genuine open-ended questions. Ask yourself why they are acting that way? What past experiences have they had that have led to this? What am I missing here?

If you’d like to learn more, Amy Gallo’s book Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone, Even Difficult People is available for pre-order. In the meantime, try these out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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