We’ve all had—and maybe still have—a difficult coworker. The woman who’s subtly hostile, the suck-up guy who attempts to undermine you with your manager. You can probably think of other examples from your career.
So, how can you stop feeling helpless in the face of their behavior? What can you do?
Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and author of HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, presents some excellent techniques for managing a difficult coworker in her article, “Dear HBR: My New Coworker Is a Nightmare … and I Helped Her Get the Job.”
I’ve broken Ms. Gallo’s recommendations into the following steps. (Her article links to other truly valuable articles, and a free online HBR subscription gains you access to a certain number per month.)
Start with cognitive empathy
“One of my first instincts in any conflict situation is to try to think about it from the other person’s perspective,” says Ms. Gallo. It can be really helpful to figure out what’s motivating your peer’s behavior. Is it insecurity, a desire to impress others, a successful history of being a weasel, or what?
Gather more information
Do others in your office see this person the way you do? If not, don’t waste time trying to persuade them there’s a problem. Instead, try to understand why others aren’t having the same experience. This person may be pushing your buttons in a way that you need to look at more closely. (My thought.)
Change your behavior
It’s likely you can improve the situation or at least your own feelings about it. (My thought.) The key here seems to be to remain calm and matter-of-fact. It may be uncomfortable, Ms. Gallo notes, to be direct with a troublesome person, but you need to establish boundaries—whether it’s about a usurped desk or a project your coworker is attempting to foist on you.
Assuming positive intent—at least initially is also important—so that you don’t escalate a conflict.
In her article, Ms. Gallo cites the research of Joseph Grenny, whose work in peer accountability notes that a team’s health can be measured by “the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems. The shorter the lag time, the faster problems get solved and the more the resolution enhances relationships.”
Try a direct conversation to clear the air
This suggestion may chill the blood of those who don’t like confrontation, but Ms. Gallo recommends following five steps from Caroline Webb, the author of How to Have a Good Day. (They’re found in this article.)
Engage the boss
Maybe your annoying colleague will listen only to a talking-to from a superior. But this is a risky step. Not just because bosses probably don’t enjoy this kind of thing, but also because it makes you into a tattletale. So, says Ms. Gallo, if you decided to engage the boss, tell them how you’ve tried to resolve the situation and what you’d like them to do, rather than just dumping the problem on them.
Change your mindset about your peer—let go of what you can’t fix—or be prepared to see your work experience ruined. Easier said than done, I know. Ms. Gallo suggests finding a way not to work with this colleague or sit near them. If you’re in an open-plan office, that could be challenging.
If you feel tempted to stoop to your co-worker’s level, don’t. Stay true to your values, and you’ll have something to feel good about at the end of the day.
Of course, you can always leave your job. But if you do that without learning these lessons, you’ll only put off the inevitable, because there’s bound to be a problematic colleague wherever you go.