Every company has experienced a difficult employee, the person who no one wants to work with or be around.
Oftentimes, this person can be a high performer. He or she may be a top sales leader or excellent at the execution of projects or initiatives. He may even manage an important client. In turn, this employee may appear to be untouchable by upper management. This ends up only making it worse for others in the company who dread working with this person.
I recently watched a short video of a well-known management advisor. He was speaking to a group of executives about how to deal with a difficult co-worker in the office. His advice was to remove the difficult co-worker from the company immediately. This would prevent damaging morale and killing the company culture. Turns out, he's right.
But removing this type of person from an organization can be a slow process. It can take management months or even years to figure out they have a difficult employee. Meanwhile, everyone else is aware of the frustration the person brings. This disconnect can lead to wasted time and money, leaving destruction and damage.
Most people will use one of these common strategies to deal with a difficult co-worker, but they rarely lead to success.
- Ignore the person and the problem. Employees plan their workday to evade interaction with this person. They limit communication to email or the very occasional phone call. They don’t engage in discussions and seek to avoid any form of confrontation or heightened conversations.
- Confront the difficult co-worker. Some believe this person can change or adjust his behaviors if challenged. This tactic creates conflict, a toxic working relationship, and inefficiency in the workplace.
- Leave the company. This is the most extreme action. When this happens, it may be the catalyst for management to address the situation. Leaving a company is a major decision, and there’s no assurance another difficult co-worker would not exist at your next company.
The common flaw in these strategies is they attempt to either control the co-worker or accept the consequences. Neither is an acceptable option. Attempting to control others can be futile. But accepting the consequences of another’s actions is not conducive to a successful working environment. What we can control are our own actions. This is the first step in understanding and learning how to work with a difficult co-worker.
Instead, take control and try the following strategies to tackle the situation in a more manageable way.
- Address the situation. This should always be the first course of action. While this may appear confrontational, it should not covey as a confrontation. The strategy is to meet with the fellow employee and make him aware of your concerns and issues. Have an open discussion about the frustrations this person is causing you and your work. Then prepare to offer solutions to the problem. Oftentimes, a co-worker may not realize the damage he is causing to the workplace. At the very least, address the subject, allowing for future conversations if necessary.
- Notify Management. No one wants to be the office tattletale. There’s also a level of risk in taking this step. But the reality is that upper management rarely sees what other employees experience. Management may also not realize there’s a problem until it's too late. There have been times in my career as a manager where I learned the damage that an employee was causing to the workplace and culture after they left. In each case, I wish someone had come to me and expressed their concerns and frustrations.
- Manage out of the problem. Difficult people are often driven by a few identified factors. Narcissism, self-recognition, ultra-competitiveness, and fear of failure are common. Once you identify these traits, develop a strategy to manage these drivers. I have found a difficult working relationship can transform just by identifying such traits.
Working with difficult individuals is never easy nor enjoyable. They can create challenges and lead to strained relationships within the workplace. Learning how to control your own behavior around this type of person is the best course of action to ensure a healthy workplace. Then take the necessary steps to manage the situation to the best of your ability. This will allow you to restore your work environment to be more enjoyable, productive and conducive to success.
Brian T. King is the founder and owner of multiple firms encompassing design, construction, real estate, and manufacturing, and currently president of the integrated Design-Build firm A M King. Brian shares his passion for mentoring young professionals, rising managers and entrepreneurs at speaking engagements around the country, on podcasts and via his blog.