Collaborating with a difficult co-worker: Do’s and don’ts

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No matter how much you like your job, it doesn’t mean that all your co-workers are a pleasure to work with. In fact, it’s possible that one of your colleagues never fails to push your buttons, and you always dread having to bring up the issue.

If this sounds familiar, then it might help to know you’re not alone. According to Gwen Moran in her FastCompany article titled “How to Deal with a Coworker You Can’t Stand,” approximately 80 percent of workers reported experiencing moderate to severe stress due to having to collaborate with a difficult colleague.

Regardless of whether you’re justified in finding someone “difficult” or “unpleasant,” the truth is that it’s critical to your professional success that you have the ability to work with anyone. The reason for this is simply that if you let someone else’s behavior get to you, you’re likely to be thrown off your game, and your work will likely suffer. At the same time, some of the most brilliant people you might encounter in your career could be very difficult—and if you avoid them purely because you don’t get along, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to do great work. What’s more: you could even run the risk of earning the reputation of being difficult yourself.

It’s far more constructive to understand that while it’s nice to like your colleagues, it’s not a prerequisite to doing good work together. What is a necessity is that you develop strategies for working with difficult people. Keep the following do’s and don’ts in mind:

  • Do examine your own behavior before blaming the other person. In many cases, we form a dislike for people because they remind us of people who have hurt us in the past, like a bossy sibling or a disapproving neighbor. If this is the case, you need to acknowledge it, and then keep reminding yourself this colleague is an entirely different person.
  • Don’t let it get personal. Regardless of your colleague’s behavior, take the high road, and avoid bringing any personal issues into the workplace.
  • Do communicate what issues you’re having. Your coworker might be unaware he or she is doing something that irritates you. Phrase what’s upsetting you carefully to avoid being accusatory or hurtful. For example, if this person always leaves things to the last minute when you’re working on a project together, you could say something like, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I’ve noticed you procrastinate when we work together, and that makes it difficult to meet our deadlines. Is there something I can help you with so you can start sooner?” While the person might simply be a procrastinator, it’s also possible that he or she has trouble knowing where to start and would really appreciate your help.
  • Don’t get baited into unprofessional behavior. Arguments, unhealthy rivalry, and gossiping about each other are all destructive behaviors, and you should never take part in them. Keep it professional at all times.
  • Do remind yourself of what you stand to gain by working with this person. Whether you can learn from your difficult colleague or produce great work together, keep in mind how you can leverage your collaboration to your professional benefit.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your manager for assistance. In some cases, it’s simply impossible to solve the situation on your own. That’s when it’s time to ask your manager to step in to help diffuse the tension. Just keep in mind to only approach your supervisor when you’ve exhausted all other options.

Working with a difficult colleague is never fun. However, it’s important for your career and reputation that you never let interpersonal problems get in the way of your professionalism.


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