Picture this: The stars have aligned to deliver the perfect blissful moment of uninterrupted work – no fires to put out, no meetings, and you’re focused and powering through deliverables. Until your difficult coworker comes around and disrupts your flow.
“A difficult coworker is anyone who is destructive to productive processes of the organization such as creativity, growth, service, engagement and teamwork,” says Elizabeth J. Sandler, a senior executive, career strategist and senior certified HR practitioner. “Difficult employees can take many forms but they are often long on words and short on action. This is true for complainers, bullies, slackers, backstabbers, combatives, etc.”
How difficult coworkers can impact productivity
Some people are a pleasure to work with and others…not so much. That’s part of the reality of the workplace. Unfortunately, though, a difficult coworker becomes more than a small annoyance when they start to have an impact on your productivity.
“Some people find it hard to work with someone who is constantly disagreeing with them, while others may have trouble with a coworker who is always trying to be the center of attention. There are many possible signs that you may be having difficulty with a coworker, but some of the most common include feeling like you can’t communicate effectively, feeling like they’re always putting you down, or feeling uncomfortable around them,” says Ryan Fyfe, the COO of Insightful, a workforce productivity and analytics platform.
According to him, a difficult coworker can have a negative impact on productivity in several ways. “First, they may be overly critical or demanding, which can lead to pressure and stress. This can make it harder to focus on work, and can reduce the quality of your output.”
Also, a coworker who is disruptive or always making negative comments can interfere with your concentration and make it harder to get things done. A difficult coworker may end up monopolizing more of your time and attention than you bargained for, leaving you with less energy for your own work. And they can even affect your levels of motivation and engagement.
“They may create an overall negative atmosphere that makes it hard to enjoy coming into work each day,” adds Fyfe.
How to deal with difficult coworkers
If this sounds familiar, it’s important to be proactive about dealing with difficult coworkers before they destroy your productivity. Here are a few strategies to try.
1. Be aware of how your coworker affects you
“The antidote to a difficult coworker is awareness and action,” says Sandler. According to her, being mindful of the behaviors that make your coworker difficult and their impact on you is the first step to avoiding getting drawn into them. Once you know what to expect and look out for, you can take steps to safeguard your productivity.
For example, if you narrow down the issue to the fact that when your coworker complains in the open office space, it really derails your concentration, you can take steps to change desks or work remotely on the days when that person is in and you have a lot of high-priority tasks.
2. Speak up and use a call to action
Sandler also recommends a tactic that she regularly uses when confronted with difficult people at work. “My top tip for handling difficult coworkers is to pause, acknowledge their destructive behavior and direct them towards action. I use this with complainers and combatives a lot, but also with bullies,” she says.
“I was once called by my boss’s boss and he was shouting at me because a client had called to yell at him. I cut him off mid-rant and said, ‘First, I’m sorry that happened to you, it’s never nice when someone calls yelling at you (hint-hint) and second, I have no idea what you’re talking about, could you please walk me through the issue?’ He never shouted at me again.”
Bold? Perhaps. But this can be incredibly effective because it neutralizes the difficult behavior and stops it in its tracks. “If everyone in the organization diffuses difficult people in the same way, eventually they shift their behaviors and the culture becomes more solution-oriented.”
You may be tempted to ignore your coworker instead, but that could be counterproductive. “It doesn’t satisfy their need for attention so the behavior will continue. Letting these individuals run around unchecked hurts the overall culture of the organization and may lead to resentment among the productive employees,” adds Sandler.
3. Escalate things if you need to
When all else fails, it may be worth escalating things. Even when you don’t want to point fingers and you are determined to resolve the situation on your own, you can’t always control what others do. And if your coworker’s problematic behavior starts seriously affecting your productivity, having a conversation with your boss about it may be a good idea, says Fyfe:
“If the situation becomes too difficult or distracting, it may be best to talk to your supervisor about finding a different way to collaborate with that person.”