Focus on the relationship

Working with others is a fundamental part of almost any job. The people you chat with by the coffee pot every morning are your teammates, and ideally, you’re working together to achieve a common goal.

But what if your cube mate can’t stop gossiping about others? Or what if they’re consistently taking credit for your work? Do they nitpick everything you do, drop the ball and avoid responsibility, or play Kanye West at a ridiculously high volume from their office? You might want to correct them on their behavior, but you also don’t want to be embarrassed just walking by their desk every afternoon. Besides, nobody wants to be known as the drama-starter.

Here are a handful of tips for handling difficult coworkers while avoiding a dramatic scene.

01. Foster a relationship first.

Nobody’s going to be very open to criticism from someone they hardly know. Do you actually know your coworker? Have you chatted with them about anything besides the weather? If you lay a foundation of friendliness, any constructive criticism you have to offer will be taken much more kindly.

You might even learn a bit more about why your coworker does the actions that bother you. For instance, maybe he’s consistently ten minutes late because he has to drop his kids off at school in the morning, or maybe she keeps missing deadlines because she recently had a death in the family and is distracted. It’ll help you be a calmer, more empathetic person if you’re able to understand a bit about who they are and what their life is like. You have to get your relationship to a place where vulnerability will be accepted, not eschewed.

02. Be upfront, but kind.

Most workplace issues could be solved pretty quickly if people were honest with each other. Letting things fester is a recipe for disaster—you shouldn’t feel as if you need to leave your job because of one difficult coworker.

Being upfront is a tricky thing to do well, and so this is why a prior relationship is key. A co-worker who truly feels like you’re on the same team is likely to be more receptive to your honest feedback. A relationship will also give you context to make sure your conversation is not all negative.

A good formula for this kind of conversation is:

1) Give a genuine compliment, 2) identify the problematic behavior, 3) say how it affects you, and 4) explain what you'll do if it happens again.

For example: "Hey George, thanks for setting up these weekly meetings to discuss the new project; I can see real headway being made! One thing though; when we go over time, it pushes back my next meetings for the rest of the day. If we don't end on time, I'll have to step out exactly at 11 next time. Thanks for understanding!" 

This conversation might feel awkward and uncomfortable, but you’re trying to cut an issue off before it gets worse. It’s much more awkward to be having this conversation after years of frustrations.

03. Ask questions and offer suggestions.

Sometimes your coworker will be more than happy to explain themselves. Make sure to ask questions to make it a two-way conversation instead of a dramatic confrontation. Saying something like "I felt as if you painted yourself as the creator of the new marketing project, when I was the one that developed the original concept. Was that your intention? or I feel as if youve been really frustrated with our intern lately. Do you think speaking to her directly might be a more efficient way to handle the issues youre seeing?" can go a long way.

Offer to brainstorm a way to help them solve an issue, suggest rescheduling meetings that are at an inconvenient time for them in order to ensure their punctuality or offer techniques you’ve found have motivated the intern in her work.

04. Keep it in perspective.

Yes, it’s hard to deal with difficult coworkers—especially if you’ve tried your hardest to solve the problem and you still feel as if it isn’t getting solved. But try to keep things in perspective. Do you enjoy what you do at your job? Do you feel as if you’re making a positive impact in the world? Does your job help support you and your family? If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then try not to let one frustrating person ruin this opportunity for you. If the answer to one—or all—of those questions is no, maybe the coworker is really just a symptom of a larger issue. If you’re feeling generally unhappy at your workplace, consider making a change. But if this one person is just a blip on your otherwise great experience, treat it as such, and try not to let it color your entire work day.

Lastly, it’s important to remember a little self-reflection can go a long way. The truth is, we’ve all most likely had our moments of being a difficult coworker without even realizing it. Challenge yourself to look at your own habits and see where you could work to improve your working relationships. Don’t let feelings of resentment overshadow what could be a positive relationship. Instead, try and practice empathy for your coworker and what they may be going through behind the scenes. You never know what someone may be dealing with outside of work that’s causing them to act in a negative way. After all, you’re in this work together!