Search form

Dealing With Difficult Colleagues

Education World is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction. Don't miss Part 2 of this article.

Too often, work stress and burnout involve problems with coworkers. Whether someone’s behavior imposes petty annoyances or deliberately sabotages your efforts and energy, this person can make life at work stressful and unpleasant. How you handle these interactions will depend on a number of factors, including how often you encounter difficult people, how closely you have to work with them, the types of behavior they present, your flexibility and sense of humor, and the mobility and options you believe you have within the system.

Although there is much involving interactions with others that will be outside your control, here are some things you can do to minimize the potential for problems at work.

Consider: Is It Really Any of Your Business?

Not every challenge deserves our time and attention, so consider whether you even need to become involved. If you work with others, there will surely be some who work differently than you, people whose personality, preferences, and politics will be significantly different from yours. And while at times you may find the differences irritating (or even personally offensive), your involvement is not called for unless these differences keep you from doing your job.

For example, if I listen to music all day, as long as you can’t hear it, my musical preferences (or even my need for constant auditory input) are none of your business. If I skip a procedure that you would never overlook, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work or ultimately compromise the organization, you probably don’t need to bring it up. However, if I want to chat when you need to concentrate, if my perfume is disturbing your respiratory functioning, or if my work habits will eventually end up creating more work for you, we need to talk.

Don’t Take it Personally

It’s hard to be objective when someone has interrupted your train of thought, exhausted the supplies you needed, or complained for the tenth time about something she has no intention of changing. But these events probably have nothing to do with you. As Goethe said, “Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.”

It will be much easier on your mental health to imagine that most oversights come from forgetfulness, indifference, narcissism, unresolved control issues or incompetence. For your own sanity, try to assume it’s not deliberate, even when it is. You don’t need to rationalize hurtful behavior (or even understand it), and you can respond in the same self-caring ways regardless of the other person’s intent.

Think Ahead

Generally speaking, the best way to resolve a problem is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. The better you can anticipate your own needs in any situation, the better prepared you will be to prevent potential problems that might arise. Consider the constraints that might be likely to trip you up. Identify the resources you’ll need and the most likely sources of support.

Whether in day-to-day functioning or in anticipation of instituting a change or trying something new, plan ahead and think through as many details as possible, creating as clear a picture of what you’ll need before something becomes problematic, or before an existing problem gets worse.

Think of Others

Anticipation and simple courtesy can help avoid problems arising from assumptions that no one has conflicting needs, or that no one cares. Ask your colleagues ahead of time for input on plans or changes that might affect them (or at least let them know that these things will be happening so that they can plan for them). Consistently modeling respect in your relationships could even help your colleagues become more considerate of how you might be affected by their plans and the choices they make.

Watch the tendency to assume that others know—or should know—what you want. We are all products of individual experiences, and what’s important to you may not even be coming up on another person’s radar. (Self-righteousness may feel good for a time, but it’s not much of a relationship builder.)

Learn to Ask for What You Want

When something comes up, be direct. Many people dance around a problem, never getting close enough to actually resolve it. One of the most important skills in human interactions—if not the scarcest—is the ability to ask for what we want, and to do so without attacking or making anyone wrong. Our culture provides few models for a direct approach, so instead we see a lot of complaining, manipulating, triangulation and passive-aggressive behavior, any of which can add a great deal of stress to relationships.

difficult colleagues

Fear of anger (“He’ll have a fit”) or disapproval (“She won’t like me”) makes for some rather convoluted and dysfunctional interaction patterns. If you want me to continue my conversation away from your office, for example, ask me. Something as simple as “Could you guys go chat down the hall, please?” can elicit consideration and cooperation, not just now but in the future as well.

On the other hand, sitting and stewing over what an inconsiderate person I am won’t get you what you want. (Even the most hypervigilant person probably isn’t as good a mind-reader as you’ll need in this situation.) Blowing up at me might get me to move, but even if it doesn’t bring out my defensiveness, justification or a counterattack, it’ll cost you down the line, if only in terms of my ability to trust you in the future. Likewise, telling me about it a week later, long after I can do anything about it, can also erode trust and respect. And I don’t need to know how my behavior makes you feel or what issues it brings up for you. Seriously. Just ask for what you want.

Believe in Your Own Power

Many indirect approaches mask a belief system that excludes the perception that we actually have the ability to change things. Successful relationships require a belief in our power to influence our lives and interactions. (A “why-bother” approach is an adequate response only as long as you can live with the consequences of not bothering—quietly and happily.)

A more constructive alternative involves taking responsibility for meeting your own needs while considering the needs of the other person: “I think we have a problem. I signed up to use the room this afternoon. I won’t have another opportunity to run this meeting and we can’t really do this anywhere else. Is there some way we can work this out?” You identify the problem, giving your coworker additional information in a way that puts you both in a position to negotiate.

If the other person has any flexibility, especially if you have a history of cooperation and mutual respect with this individual, you’ll probably get the room (or arrive at an alternative solution you might not have otherwise considered). Even if you don’t get the resolution you like, you probably won’t burn any bridges, either. A positive result is more likely when you believe in your ability to achieve it.

Watch Your Own Issues

Our professional self-concept can be rather fragile at times. If most of our experiences with authority figures have been critical or negative, we have years of practice judging ourselves against other people’s standards and reactions. If approval from others is a high priority, we become extremely vulnerable to the coworker who doesn’t sanction our methods, the client who would rather work with one of our colleagues, or the associate who always seems to be weeks ahead on his paperwork. Learning to hear, respect and operate from our own internal guidance, vision, or priorities promises a great deal of freedom; however, it requires a certain amount of faith in what drives us, as well as a commitment to internal congruence to enable us to stand our ground.

In the face of criticism or disapproval, sometimes the best way to avoid a potential conflict is to simply agree with the other person. Watch what happens when you respond to a disparaging remark by saying something like, “You could be right,” “No kidding,” or, “I appreciate your concern,” and then changing the subject or walking away, which communicates that you don’t care to discuss the issue further. No need to explain or defend!

Note that we’re talking about criticism and put-downs, not reasonable requests to cooperate. There’s a difference between, “Please return the file on this particular client,” and “How do you ever find anything in this mess?” (Remember, many people are more comfortable attacking than they are asking for what they want.) The point here is to not get hooked emotionally, to whatever degree that is possible, and respectfully disengage.

Be sure to read Part 2 of this article.

Note: This article was originally written for EAP Digest and includes excerpts and adaptations of material from The Win-Win Classroom, by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

Education World®    
Copyright © 2012 Education World