How to Handle a Difficult Colleague

How to Handle a Difficult Colleague

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It is a simple fact that just like family, you cannot choose your co-workers.

It’s also likely that at some point, you will be forced to deal with a seemingly erratic or mean-spirited individual in the workplace. It’s tough to prepare for this scenario. When it does occur, most are shocked, dismayed and at a complete loss for words. But take heart — you are not alone.

One co-worker that really gets the blood pressure rising, is the individual who loves to discuss, dwell and highlight your mistakes. “Sorry that presentation wasn’t a total home run…”  they quip. Or after witnessing a bit of a criticism directed your way, they chime in to agree, “Yes, I was thinking that was a weakness of the plan.” Their timing is always perfectly awful. My all-time favorite, after a less than stellar showing — “Wow, are you upset with how that went?” (Well, what do you think?)

Most of us aren’t able to react in the moment, because the interaction catches them completely off guard. (You silently kick yourself later for not responding.) But don’t be too hard on yourself. This is a common reaction to this subtle type of workplace bullying. You have to train yourself to respond effectively, and this takes a good deal of practice.

More than likely, the memory of the interaction will get stuck on replay — as you mull over the interaction and your lack of an effective response. This is completely normal. However, you cannot allow the individual gain access to your stores of self-worth and start a potentially negative internal script. Talk yourself through the situation with a calm clarity and put the interaction where it belongs — completely out of play. Remember that the intention of the interaction was most likely to rattle you, so take control and starve the negative loop.

Back in the office, your first reaction might be to duck around corners to avoid your offender. To the contrary, you must take the attitude that you can handle any situation that comes your way. Remember the goal should be to end the negative behavior all together and retain your dignity, not to sling another insult in return. Accept that you cannot change this person — only how you digest and respond to their anti-social behavior.

Above all, you need a method to deal with the madness. Try to take control and master the situation.

Keep these points in mind:

  • Don’t feel the need to defend yourself. Remember these individuals are not the ultimate judge of your work. When all is said and done, only your supervisor’s opinion and your own assessment truly matter.
  • Limit the “payoff” of their negative behavior. Stay calm. Without the anticipated reaction from you, to be thrown off-kilter, the motivation to converse about your work is greatly reduced. As a result, the possibility of a repeat performance is lowered.
  • Role play for the next time around. You’ll likely have another opportunity to set things on a better course. You can change the entire dynamic with a new internal script. Re-play the scenario in your mind, but this time respond diplomatically to the comment. If you are armed with some quick responses — you can approach a similar situation with a bit more confidence

Some suggested responses:

  • “I am so glad you’ve pointed that out — I’ll be sure to consider it.”
  • “It wasn’t perfection. But, I’m more than OK with how things went.”
  • “Is that how you saw it? I am actually satisfied with the outcome.”
  • “Live and learn.”
  •  My personal favorite: “Gee, (fill in the blank), I hadn’t looked at things that way. But, thanks so much for your concern.”

The next time a co-worker shows an unhealthy interest in your blunders — take a moment to collect yourself. Then remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Dr. Marla Gottschalk
About the Author
Dr. Marla Gottschalk

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who specializes in workplace success strategies and organizational change. She helps individuals, teams and organizations develop intelligently—to meet work life challenges with a sense of confidence and empowerment.

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