220: How to Work with a Difficult Co-Worker


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We’ve all had to work with difficult co-workers. Of course, what makes a co-worker difficult to work with for one person may not be an issue at all for another person – maybe they even view that co-worker’s idiosyncrasies as a strength.

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The most important thing to understand here is that YOU CAN’T CONTROL ANYONE ELSE. Only yourself. The only person you can change is you.

Your co-worker has the right to talk too loudly, gossip about other co-workers, even steal from the company. They may well have to pay for the consequences of their actions, and you may choose to report their unethical or illegal behavior, but you can’t actually change them.

That is not to say that you can’t make requests of the difficult co-worker or have a conversation about your concerns.

It DOES mean that you have to own your feelings about the situation and the toll those feelings are taking on you.

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So, if the only person you CAN change in this equation is YOU, what steps can you take to live with this unlivable human being in the next cubicle?

1. Get to know them.

Sometimes, just opening up the lines of communication to understand the co-worker makes all the difference. For example, you may perceive that your co-worker is unfriendly towards you in the mornings. You say a bright and cheery “hello!” and they seemingly ignore you.

After a conversation, you find out that they are a) not a morning person AT ALL, and b) they schlepp a lot of stuff to work, which they want to unload before communicating with others.

Now that you understand, perhaps you can have some grace about their preferences and wait for their friendliness to thaw in the mornings.

2. Focus on the relationships at work you enjoy.

From a brain science perspective, that which we focus on expands. By focusing on the positive relationships you’ve cultivated at work, your issues with your difficult co-worker will take a back seat and seem less critical.

3. Talk to your boss.

If your co-worker’s behavior has crossed the line into unethical, illegal, or immoral behavior, it’s time to speak with your boss. If he or she is unresponsive or, worse, defends the co-worker’s behavior, go to Human Resources.

4. Accept them as they are.

Accept that you may just not like the co-worker’s personality…and be okay with that.

5. Stay neutral.

No matter what, don’t engage in gossip about this co-worker in the office. Not only does gossip feel bad to the gossiper, it can come back to bite you.

6. Limit your interactions.

To the degree that it is possible, avoid being around this person.

7. Be the better person.

Continue to treat others with kindness and respect, and deal with any conflicts in private rather than bringing coworkers into it.

8. Know your trigger points.

Once you can identify the behaviors your coworker displays that you find the most challenging, you can immediately remove yourself from situations where he or she is exhibiting those behaviors.

9. Focus on the positive.

What do you love about your job? What about other aspects of your employment, such as the hours or the benefits? By adopting an attitude of gratitude, you can minimize the impact of the co-worker on your life.

10.Reflect on your own actions.

Think about how you act around this co-worker…how you respond to them. How can you change your behavior in relation to this co-worker?

In summary, recognize your thoughts about your difficult co-worker – and decide if those thoughts are serving you.

Notice the question isn’t “Are those thoughts true?” but rather, “Do I like how those thoughts make me feel?” “Do I like the results I am experiencing from the way I am currently thinking about this situation?”

If you decide you want to think different thoughts, understand that the old thoughts will continue to rear their head – they are neural pathways in your brain, created to make thinking more efficient. In other words, those negative thoughts are playing on a loop in your brain.

After you decide you want to think differently, don’t beat yourself up when the old thoughts come up – just recognize that they are there and that they don’t serve you any longer.

Practice thinking the new thoughts – say them out loud, write them down, speak of them with family and co-workers. Then notice how you feel – and contrast that to how you felt when you were obsessing over your co-worker.

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