When you’re stuck with a challenging coworker and feel like you’ve tried everything, well-meaning friends and colleagues may tell you to “ignore it” or “hold it back” and move on with your life. But Suppressing our emotions rarely helps. In this article, the authors outline four strategies that are easy to try but often counterproductive when dealing with difficult colleagues. Another one to avoid: wait and see if your difficult coworker leaves on her own. Your dreams that they’ll get out of the house may come true, but there’s no guarantee the culture will change or that you’ll get along with their replacements. Ultimately, you’re better off trying to create a workable situation with your colleagues now. Remember: even small improvements can make a big difference.
Repress your emotions
When you’re stuck with a challenging coworker and feel like you’ve tried everything, well-meaning friends and colleagues may tell you to “ignore it” or “hold it back” and move on with your life. If you’re really able to let go, this can
be a good suggestion. But usually we decide we do nothing but actually end up doing a lot of things , whether it’s getting upset about the situation, or talking nonstop about it to our partners, or being passive attack. Suppressing our emotions rarely helps. In fact, writes psychologist Susan David, “Suppressing emotions — deciding not to say something when you’re sad — can lead to bad outcomes.” She explains that if you don’t express your feelings , they are likely to appear in unexpected places. Psychologists call it emotional leakage
. David explains:
Have you ever yelled at your spouse or kids after a frustrating day at work – the frustration Feeling has nothing to do with [them]? …When you repress your emotions, you may express your emotions in unexpected ways, either sarcastically or in a completely different context. Depressed emotions are associated with poor memory, interpersonal difficulties, and physical costs such as cardiovascular health problems. In other words, sucking on it usually doesn’t lower your stress levels. It improves it. The risk of venting negative emotions to innocent bystanders is not the only reason to avoid this strategy. Caroline Weber, author of How to Have a Good Day , points out that while pretending you’re not mad at a difficult colleague, the The intentions may be good – maybe you want to maintain the relationship – anyway, they will likely feel your anger. “They may not realize that you have negative emotions toward them because of emotional contagion, but it still affects them. Even in a remote work environment, your passive-aggressiveness can show up,” she said in my blog Book told me in an interview. Research shows that it’s not just you that is affected by a suppressed body. If you hide your anger or frustration, the blood pressure of those around you may also rise. They may not know exactly how you’re feeling and thinking, but they’re also showing underlying nervousness.
Another tantalizing response to abuse is to fight fire with fire. If your passive-aggressive teammates say one thing in a meeting and then do something completely different, why not do the same for them? Or, if your pessimistic colleagues are going to poke countless holes in your thinking, why don’t you cut them out when they come up with new proposals? Unfortunately, succumbing to their level usually doesn’t work. Instead of giving the dynamic a chance to change, you reinforce the feeling of being on the opposite side. Revenge tends to make you look bad. Or worse, it violates your values. To avoid succumbing to the (understandable) desire for revenge, commit to acting according to your values. Sometimes it helps to write them down. What do you care about? What is most important to you? If you’re not sure, consider looking at a set of universal values, see which ones resonate with you, and list them in order of importance. Then, when you come up with a plan to respond to your insecure boss or biased coworker, refer to the list and make sure the strategies you employ are aligned with your values.
When I’m dealing with someone who pushes my button, I often fantasize about emailing everyone who knows them as a jerk. My (flawed) logic is that if the people who wronged me have had enough of the humiliation, they will be forced to change their ways. Bob Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule concludes: “Calling people assholes is one of the surest ways to turn someone into an asshole. One. Assholes—or make them hate you.” That’s because shame rarely motivates us to behave better. More often, they make us lash out more. I like the way Brené Brown differentiates shame and guilt and explains their relative usefulness:
I believe guilt is adaptive and beneficial – It makes what we have done or failed to do contrary to our values and feel psychologically uncomfortable. I define shame as an intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore not worthy of love and belonging – something we’ve been through, done or didn’t do that makes us not worthy of a connection . I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is more likely to be a source of destructive, hurtful behavior than a solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous. Making your coworkers feel like they are a bad person, and labeling them as jerks or victim-players is unlikely to improve your relationship. Likewise, dehumanizing difficult coworkers won’t help. It’s easy to demonize people who hurt us, but hating them will only pit you against each other. Instead, make sure that at every step, you remind yourself that you’re dealing with fellow human beings, not robots or villains.
Hope your colleagues leave
Many of us hope to outlast our difficult colleagues and focus on making the situation workable until they get fired or move to another job. But be careful to put all your eggs in the “eventually they’ll go away” basket. Sutton warns that sometimes “removing the bad apple” doesn’t change the underlying problem, especially if your coworkers’ obnoxious behavior is sanctioned by the organizational culture. Often other things need to be changed to prevent incivility, he said — such as “the incentive system, the people who are promoted and rewarded, the way meetings are run and the execution pressure people are under.” A few years ago, a health Human resources executives at insurance companies asked me to train their employees on how to have difficult conversations. They have a hierarchical culture that makes it hard to get people to speak up, especially ideas that challenge the status quo, she explained. Nine years ago, they conducted a survey showing that employees thought it was a very “command and control” environment. Determined to grow, executives led several cultural change initiatives and hired new leaders known for their more collaborative and less authoritarian styles. These leaders also changed people on the team, so over the nine-year period, almost 80% of employees left, including most of the leadership team. But when they did the cultural survey again, they got almost identical results. Angry HR executives told me, “It’s like being in water here.” Sometimes the problem isn’t the individual, but the system allows, and in some cases, encourages hostility rather than cooperation. Systems are hard to change. The dream that your difficult coworkers will walk out the door may come true, but there’s no guarantee that the culture will change or that you’ll get along with their replacements. Ultimately, you’re better off trying to create a workable situation with your coworkers now than hoping things will improve when they leave. Can you always avoid these flawed responses? No, no one is perfect, and these inefficient methods are tempting. However, if you have a flat tire, you can’t fix the problem by cutting the other three tires. When you attack with the first strategy (or strategies) of your choice, try other methods – or ask for help. Maybe your boss, friend, or mutual colleague can offer a novel solution. The key is to stick with it; remember: even small improvements can make a big difference. This article is from Amy’s Gallo book,
Getting Along: How to Work With Anyone (Even Difficult People )(Harvard Business Review Press 2022).