Troublesome Co-workers: How To Deal With Difficult People

Posted October 13, 2011, by Helen Isbister

You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your colleagues. It is inevitable that you will come across the workmate from hell (WFH) at some stage in your working life. Even if the WFH napalms your every idea, takes credit for your moments of brilliance and then bitches about you as soon as your back is turned, there are strategies that you can employ to keep your sanity and your job.

The office can be like a school playground sometimes, so it's important to be able to negotiate your way to professional success and sanity. One of the first steps in dealing with difficult people is to understand their devilish nature, so you can take up defensive arms and beat them at their own game.

The bully

Stealing your lunch money has been replaced with stealing your clients. Flushing your head down the toilet translates into ‘accidentally’ spilling red wine on your pristine white shirt at the Christmas party, and while they no longer call you piggie, they will leave a doughnut on your desk before you start work each day. 

Coping with the bully

Bullies usually feed off reactions, so curb your emotions and try not to let it show that they are getting to you. Avoid confrontation, but if you're in the right you should stand your ground. Workplace bullies are often cowards, so don't be afraid to voice your concerns to your boss or an HR professional (particularly if it's your boss that's doing the bullying). If things still don't improve, you might consider finding another job. Either that, or get promoted into a position where they have two options: give up their bullying ways or get out.

The credit thief

These smooth operators were the kids who would go through your bag, copy your homework and then get free lollies at the canteen because of their ‘hard work’. These days they are after big bonuses or an early promotion.

Coping with the credit thief

To keep your work out of the credit thief’s thieving little hands, you may have to step up security on what you are doing. If you have a brilliant idea, keep it under tight lock and key until you have unveiled it to the boss. Make sure your boss, and no-one else, has regular updates of what projects you are working on.

The know-it-all

Sure knowing stuff is a positive thing, in fact it’s usually beneficial to doing a job, but some knowledge is best left to a friendly game of trivial pursuit. Two heads are better than one and if no-one else can get a word in at meetings because the self-proclaimed office Einstein is always showing off and sticking their hand up first, the fresh and original ideas may never get a chance to be expressed.

Coping with the know-it-all

Rolling your eyes and biting your tongue might be the only tactic you can use against this annoying piece of work. It won’t necessarily calm down their know-it-all ways, but it may soothe your nerves. If you want to be more proactive, try the egalitarian tactic and propose that each person at the meeting gets to have a go. During general office time, you might suggest some quiet time. If all else fails, plug in the earphones and pretend to be preoccupied with your iPod.

The stress head

Hyperventilation, sweaty palms, raised voices and panicky body movements may trick the office stress head into thinking they are being productive, but it usually just gets the whole office on edge and grinds all actual productivity to an abrupt standstill.

Coping with the stress head

The best way to deal with this convulsing mess of nerves is to stay cool, calm and collected yourself. Stress breeds stress, and the last thing the stress head needs is you feeding their fervent and fretful energy with hyperactive levels of your own. If they bark requests at you, just respond calmly and don't play into their little game of getting everyone to freak out with them. Alternatively, sit them down and get them to breathe into a paper bag – it's a proven anti-hyperventilation trick.

The backstabber

In front of the boss, they are sweet as pie, but turn your back for a moment and they're ploughing into you with staples, scissors or any other sharp office implement they can find. Metaphorically of course, but it still hurts the workplace vibe when everyone but the backstabber feels they can't leave the office for fear of being verbally knifed in the back.

Coping with the backstabber

De-clawing this catty colleague may take a bit of snaky manipulation of your own. It also takes a collective group effort. One-sided bitching is like a one-person conversation – it definitely takes two to talk trash. Set the example by standing up to this blade-tongued colleague next time they start slicing into one of your co-workers and before you know it they will have no-one left to bitch about. Keeping your back to the wall at all times may be the only other way to prevent blood spilling on the office floor from this knife-wielding wacko.

The hermit

The resident office hermit is by far the least offensive on the roll call of office persona non-gratas. They slink into the office cubicle well before the rest of the team arrive, and silently tap away the day without so much as a glance towards any of their office co-inhabitants. It's not so much what they do, but rather what they don't do – they don't contribute to the workplace banter, don't discuss what they are working on and don't get involved. All they seem to do is add unnecessary dullness to the workplace.

Coping with the hermit

It is most likely that the office hermit is just shy so getting them to come out of their shell might be all there is to it. Ignoring them will only make things worse, so include, invite, embrace. Entice them out of their shell and into the swing of office life. They may not be up to attending all the office shindigs in the beginning, but pulling them out of the wallpaper camouflage is a start.

The office gossip

There is no denying that workplaces are hotbeds for steamy gossip. If Shelley from marketing is dating Bruce from accounts, if the boss has got one eye on business and the other on the new receptionist, and if two staff members were spotted slinging insults at each other in the cafeteria – then there's no wonder it's providing solid fodder for lunchtime chitchat. But there is a very important line between harmless office gossip and gossip-mongering that fuels malicious rumours.

Coping with the office gossip

Generally it is best not to buy into office politics and gossip – no matter how juicy! Usually because it's not true and also because if you play the sordid secret squirrels game, you'll be fair game if there are things you want to keep under wraps yourself.

The teacher's pet

This upwardly mobile career ladder climber is the equivalent to the much-hated social climber. They dedicate a significant proportion of their talent and energy to getting ahead – and they don't care how they do it. These unscrupulous suck ups will do anything to get a better job title, a gold-plated name plaque on their office door, the more spacious corner office, the leather-bound executive chair or your job.

Coping with the teacher's pet

There is nothing wrong with ambition but if you are working with someone who is using dubious tactics to get to the top, you may need to fight fire with fire. No, this doesn't mean using the same dubious tactics. Make sure your own work is above and beyond what they are doing and you'll be the one reaping career rewards in no time.

The jaded colleague

This is the person who has been sitting at their desk well past their career use-by date. They have lost all enthusiasm for their work, and like a leech they will inevitably suck out all your passion for your job too. The highlight of their day is packing up and walking out the door. Until then, they'll stare blankly at the computer screen, paint their nails, and waste both their time and yours.

Coping with the jaded colleague

Move desks, move offices, move to the next state. Do anything to make sure you get yourself away from the negative rays of this washed-up colleague. Your mother wasn't lying when she said you only get out of something what you put into it – and it's exactly the same in the workplace. Maintain your enthusiasm and approach your job with vigour, then reap the rewards of promotion – which is another way to escape before you become jaded too.

The distracter

This person means well, but they can prove to be the most destructive to your work. They pop up consistently throughout the day and hang around making idle chitchat about nothing at all for long periods of time. They are the ones who never grew out of primary school percussion improvisation sessions – their phone volume, as well as their personal volume, is stuck on monotonous loud.

Coping with the distracter

You have to nip this one in the bud early before they program you into their radar and target you every time they have the itch to gabble on endlessly. You can try telling them politely but firmly that you have a deadline to meet but, for the dedicated distracter, this is nothing.

Try a distracting tactic yourself. Look out the window and say something like 'My God, what the hell is that?' and as they peer out into the void, take off fast and, whatever you do, don't look back.

Here's how to have 5 difficult work conversations that you've probably been avoiding

Helen Isbister

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