How to confront a difficult colleague


Most women get into business because they’re excited about creating and sharing ideas and developing projects to their full potential. But what just as many tend to find after a few months or years in the workplace, is that it is people – and not ideas, products, or dollar bills – that make the difference between a happy and fulfilling career, or a miserable drudge to which you have trouble dragging yourself each day.

We spend so many hours each week, and so many years of our lives, working with colleagues old and new – it becomes a family of sorts. And like any family, simmering resentments, petty jealousies, or the taking of each other for granted, can sometimes more than counterbalance the feelings of support, love, and solidarity that make the experience so meaningful.

Nobody gets through their entire career without coming up against a colleague with a bad attitude; most will need to deal with this scenario several times, and often when it’s least expected or convenient. So just as allowing family differences to tear relationships apart usually ends up in regrets, allowing a problem colleague to carry on with their repellant behavior unquestioned helps no-one in the long-run.

That doesn’t make facing up to a difficult workmate any easier, though. Maybe you don’t like confrontation, you’re not sure how to handle the emotions of others, or you just don’t feel you have time for the hassle of it all. What will make the situation more navigable, though, is figuring out some principles and techniques with which to proceed.

If you wade into the situation unprepared, you might come out of it in an even worse position than you started. Instead, concentrate on working on three main principles: empathy, assertiveness, and positivity.

In the first place, slow down to think about what the other person is going through. There could be a million reasons, or combinations of reasons, why they’re behaving the way they are. Usually, though, regardless of the factors that have brought them there, the problem can be put down to some sort of frustration: professional insecurity, jealousy, boredom, money problems… they can all cause people to act out of character, either becoming snappy and aggressive or sullen and withdrawn. Of course, they’re not ‘in the right’ to behave this way, but you’re more likely to get a positive outcome if you concentrate on the causes of the problem rather than its symptoms.

You can encourage you colleague to open up, and thus find out more about what’s going on, by being sensitive with your body language, tone, and general approach. Don’t go in angry – it will only further inflame the situation. Take a breath, and begin calmly. Maintain eye contact to promote trust, and think about meeting on neutral ground so that nobody feels over-defensive. You might even do the meeting on the move – by taking a walk outside – or in a coffee shop, to create a more pleasant atmosphere from which to begin. Ask plenty of questions (especially when tempted to pose your complaints as accusations) and ask for questions in return; repeating each other’s points back to each other can encourage mutual understanding.

But don’t feel like you have to cater to your difficult colleague’s every whim. Yes, you need to understand their problem before you can help them to solve it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in the wrong. Be sure to set some firm ground rules about the feedback process and about their behavior in general. Make these rules quantifiable where possible, so that you can clearly demonstrate when they’ve not been kept to: for example, no leaving the office before six pm; a certain amount of calls or figures that they should work through each day; a certain number of times a particular kind of task should be accomplished each week. You will check back on how these targets are being dealt with in a week, one month, three months; if you do not have authority to demand or oversee this yourself, of course it should be agreed with the boss first.

Other ground rules are more personal: whether you want your colleague to refrain from rolling their eyes, or interrupting others, or gossiping behind your back. In these cases, it is important not just to lay down the law but to explain the reasoning behind it – including the need for decent human behavior! For example, eye-rolling can undermine your authority or the confidence of other recipients of the dreaded gesture; gossip can divide a team, harming results, the business, personal reputations – and feelings. This is all stuff your employee should know, but sometimes it takes the shock of hearing it afresh to inspire the same level of empathy that you are trying to provide.

Still more boundaries can be set around the expectations that your colleague has at work. Indeed, it may be a mismatch of expectations that has triggered their bad attitude in the first place. Make sure that they have a clear, accurate job description – and that opportunities for promotion or for more (or less) responsibility are realistically defined. If they are indeed harboring a misunderstanding about what they’re supposed to do, clear it up and set it down on paper to refer to later; you can also look into ways to meet their expectations in new ways if possible, for example by looking into training opportunities, or spreading their workload out to make it more manageable.

This way, you can start to get their performance, and their attitude, back on track. Don’t forget to flag up the positive stuff too, both during the confrontation and afterwards when you witness an improvement. Use not just kind words, but demonstrable figures and examples to show the impact their work is having.

And finally, be careful not to overdo it. If there are several issues that need dealing with, prioritize them and don’t bring them up all at once. This can be tiring, unmanageable, and even distressing for you, your difficult colleague, and those caught in the crossfire! Fix the fundamental stuff, and you can come back to the other issues later.

For a point-by-point breakdown on these suggestions and more, check out this new infographic from NetCredit.

About John Cole

John writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.

Recommended for you