How to neutralize (and cope with!) that obnoxious co-worker
By Kerri S. Smith
I used to live in fear of a woman named Louise.
She was pushing 40, a single mom, dumpy and uneducated, in a dead-end job; I was just 22, fresh-faced and fresh out of college, with few work skills but the confidence that comes from knowing better things are ahead. We worked at the same company for 18 months.
Louise made my life hell. She was supposed to train me, but "forgot" to pass on important instructions that led to bodacious mistakes. She left me out of important meetings and ostracized me at lunch, hinting to my peers that I was too stupid to bother with.
My stomach knotted every morning while driving to work. I dreaded catching her eye or passing her desk. Louise even appeared in my dreams, chasing me down endless, dark alleys, sneering and laughing.
When I complained, my supervisor snapped, "Stand up to her! She's a bully! Don't let her push you around!" But I didn't want to fight with Louise, a company old-timer who seemed on good terms with everyone else in the office.
The Louises of the world can sometimes be turned around with a few carefully chosen words that establish a good-faith bond, says Karen Faith Heller, a Texas career consultant.
"The 'office beast' often has great insecurities that have nothing to do with the workplace, so if you approach her in a friendly way based on something outside of work - like a mutual love for cats or a habit of collecting silly frog figurines - she likely will soften towards you," Heller explains.
This approach worked with Louise. I started a casual conversation with her about children after overhearing her say how frustrating it was to raise a toddler alone.
That single moment of empathy was the beginning of a thaw. She eventually quit dogging me, and we eventually became comfortable with each other.
Learning to disarm a cranky, unpleasant co-worker is a necessary skill, since almost every office has a resident beast, Heller says. The savvy career woman gets a jump on this by learning to be a little bit nice to "everyone across the board," instead of picking only a few favorites to chat with, she suggests.
What if the smiley-face routine doesn't stop the nastiness? Maybe it's time to demonstrate you're not one to be trifled with, says Dr. Gary Blau, a business professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Blau calls workplace bullies "tanks," and says they roll over people who don't stand up to them. But there's a right way and a wrong way to make your stand, he cautions.
"(Don't try to) shout back and be rude - to 'out-tank a tank,' basically - because that leads to emotional escalation that can get pretty dangerous," Blau advises. "Instead, step back. Let the tank rant and rave, and eventually run down. Listen carefully and stay calm. Then get your points in as rationally as possible."
If the tank interrupts, say, "Let me finish, then I'll turn the floor over to you again." The point is to stand up to the hard-nose in a professional, face-saving way. Do it again and again and again until the tank gets tired and finds someone else to flatten, Blau adds.
Another key to disarmament is observing the other person's behavior so you can outmaneuver them, Blau reveals. He suggests listening closely to them, then paraphrasing their words back to them to prove you're listening - ".... So what you're saying, Beth, is that you'd really like to get these reports by Friday as that gives you enough time to recheck the figures, right?"
Once the other person feels "heard," move into problem-solving mode as soon as possible. "Focus on behavior, not emotions," he exhorts. "Remember that you're here to work, not fight with anyone. Keep your attention on the job, not on getting angry and showing emotion about how people are behaving."
Whatever you do, don't try to change or reform an office beast, advises Eileen Shapiro, author of The Seven Deadly Sins of Business, a new career-strategy book.
Shapiro classifies beasts as benign or malignant. The benign beasts usually are people who don't quite fit in the organizational structure. Possessing the potential to be a worthy team player, they awkwardly march out of sync with co-workers. She suggests asking the hostile marcher a simple but in-your-face question: "What's bugging you?"
"Often you find out what sets the person off and can begin to think about how to address the issue to make life easier for both (of you). What are they thinking? Try to put yourself in their shoes," Shapiro says. "It may be something you can resolve together."
The bad beasts are another story, experts agree. There are some very maladjusted people in the world, and many of them work for a living. It's likely that at some point, you will work with one.
Blau defines them as malicious troublemakers whose schemes are best confronted calmly and, if possible, headed off with a few discreet words.
"If someone is being malicious, surface and say, 'what did you mean by that?'" Blau says. "Anticipate who they will leak information to and take direct action. Say, 'I don't appreciate this sort of thing.' Sometimes troublemakers roil the waters because they think they can get away with it."
Their currency is knowledge - especially secrets and gossip - which they trade, in a sort of influence-peddling scam that harms peoples' careers, Shapiro says. An on-the-ball employer purges such employees. If your company keeps them on the payroll, both Blau and Shapiro counsel distance, distance, distance.
"Once you know their motivation is negative, get out of their way," says Shapiro. "Stay away. They can make life miserable for you otherwise. And if it seems like this is the sort of person who gets promoted in your company, leave."
Is leaving a job because of a horrible co-worker a cop-out? Not when it makes good career sense to find a new position rather than stay in the ring says Dr. Sander Marcus, a clinical psychologist and co-owner of a Chicago career consulting and testing firm.
Marcus says if you've given the troubled co-worker maximum attention - through friendly bonding, asking questions, listening, rephrasing, being firm about your limits - and the situation still is detrimental to your well-being, it's time to dust off your resumÈ.
The defining moment: when the personalities involved - you, the beast, perhaps your weak-kneed supervisor - become bigger issues than the job priorities. Everyone gets caught up in emotional nuances - such as the tone of voice X used to talk to Y - and work performance slips.
"Once you are truly miserable, and you feel, in your heart of hearts, that this relationship isn't going to work out, ask yourself, what is the situation likely to be in six months or a year?" Marcus continues. "If things deteriorate and there is no real hope of it getting better, bite the bullet and start looking for another job now."
As for Louise, I hear she's still terrorizing the new people.
Tools for Coping
1. Calmly evaluate the situation. Leaving emotion out of it, write down what happened during your last unpleasantness with this person. What triggered their behavior? Did you over-react? Could talking about it help resolve the conflict?
2. Realize that you can't make the difficult person behave, but you can change your reactions. Give up getting angry. Focus on making reasonable accommodations so that you can get your job done with less disruption.
3. Distance yourself from the difficult person. Minimizing contact is the name of the game here, so consider taking an earlier or later lunch hour, ignore antagonizing comments and avoid working together whenever possible.
4. In a very few cases, a difficult person can become dangerous. Report anything truly out of line to management or the company's employee assistance program; if that doesn't work, consider leaving the company and/or reporting the situation to police.