Dealing with a difficult colleague can be truly miserable, and there are many ways in which colleagues can behave that might pose challenges. In nearly all scenarios where a colleague is difficult, it isn’t really possible to change the colleague’s behavior, but it may be possible to diffuse it through personal behavior changes. These include trying to understand the colleague’s perspective, making boundaries clear, learning when to refuse, and if necessary, gaining administrative help to stop behavior that is unethical or illegal.
People may be so overwhelmed with their annoyance at a difficult colleague that they may not see their own part in the equation of a bad work relationship. They may want to “talk to” the colleague so much that they forget to “listen to” that colleague. It’s easy to demonize another person and fail to acknowledge that they may have good points or might be right some of the time. This is why it is important to try to gain some perspective by understanding the colleague, by practicing a nonjudgmental listening attitude.
With curiosity, and by setting aside judgment, people might ask themselves, “What does this person need, and how do they think?” Occasionally, answers to these questions point the way toward working with the person in the future. It is not necessary to take this stance if a colleague is threatening, discriminatory or abusive, but if he or she is merely annoying, it’s worth considering what that says about the colleague and oneself.
Once some perspective is gained and a better understanding of the difficult colleague is achieved, people also have to look at how they themselves contribute to poor relationships. Very often, relationships deteriorate because people don’t know how to set clear boundaries on how they allow others to treat them. Boundary setting is not about screaming at people who violate limits. Instead, it is about setting clear personal limits and consequences if limits are violated.
Setting boundaries is related to being able to refuse, and many people feel that if they say no to things, they’re immediately acting negatively. A number of books are written on this topic, but perhaps one of the best is William Ury’s The Power of a Positive No. Ury’s book and others like it can help people learn how to confidently refuse, thus diminishing the power of the difficult colleague.
There is a difference between a difficult colleague and one who acts in illegal, harassing or threatening ways. This second group of colleagues is not likely to respond to limit setting, saying no, and greater understanding. When a fellow employee acts in this manner, it’s always important to involve administration. All workers have a right to freedom from working with anyone who threatens or harasses them, and management must take all steps to correct this behavior or fire the employee.