On Difficult Coworkers

No matter the workplace, one thing is for certain: not everyone is lucky enough to be surrounded only with people with whom they get along and work well. What’s more: people will be asked to work closely with individuals with whom they do not get along. Grinning and bearing it is often easier said than done, especially when someone’s mind is already made up about their coworker. Somehow, differences and biases must be put aside—or managed—in order to complete the task at hand.

People are often quick to form opinions about others; it often only takes a matter of minutes to decide whether a person likes or dislikes another. Part of being able to work with one another is understanding the root of the attitude. Is this feeling of dislike because of a wrongdoing, or have you misattributed bad qualities to an individual because he or she got a project you wanted? Do you think this person is a brownnoser because they have a good rapport with your boss, or are they actually just personable? Natural tensions tend to tip into feelings of disdain, and we begin to make faulty assumptions about another individual based on limited information. Surely, we cannot reason ourselves into liking someone we do not, but understanding the foundation for the feeling can help determine if the contempt is worthwhile. Try, for example, to find one or two things you respect about the person with whom you are working, and try and put these above the traits that are generally discouraging.

What if you must lead a set of individuals who are having a difficult time working together? There are three factors to keep into consideration when managing conflicting coworkers: role clarity, basic human relationships, and shadow sides. Here are some scenarios that lead to conflict:

  • Role clarity + basic human relationship = no shadow side: If people know what job they must perform, and can get along with one another, you tend not to have conflict. This is obviously an ideal scenario.
  • No role clarity + no basic human relationship = shadow side: When your people don’t know what they must do at their job and either don’t get along well with one another or don’t know each other well enough, it becomes a breeding ground for conflict. This means that your people don’t know how to relate to one another in either a personal or a professional manner, or else refuse to do so effectively.
  • Role clarity +no basic human relationship = manageable shadow side: If your direct reports can work well with one another but cannot get along personally, focusing on the task at hand will help keep them from being distracted by interpersonal difficulties.
  • No role clarity + basic human relationship = manageable shadow side: This is when it is most necessary for a manager to step in. There needs to be more time and attention paid to draw on role clarity. Generally, role clarity acts as a good point of entry for a leader looking to quell conflict because it marks an easy fix; once employees are made to understand how they can integrate their jobs, any tension that may arise from ambiguity or overlapping tasks can be easily dissipated.

In “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, they advise that leaders—and conflicting employees—learn to separate the people from the problem. Leaders must recognize when their feelings about a person are affecting they way they perceive the problem and thus ultimately hurting their chances of solving it. Working with difficult people is not something that people can expect to avoid. It’s learning to do so effectively and professionally that is the key to a leader’s success.

How have you dealt with difficult coworkers?

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