How to deal with a tricky colleague

3 Jun 2019 By Bernardo Moya

Rushing to judgement is less effective than pursuing a measured strategy when facing conflict at work, says Bernardo Moya

There's no single strategy for the many flavours of tricky colleagues – whether they might be aggressive, jealous, insecure, negative, competitive and downright sneaky. However, there are some things you can do to build your relationship and make sure they don't undermine you. 

Remember, in every case, stay calm so you, at least, can get perspective and evaluate what to do. More than in any other business function, as an HR professional, it’s essential to be seen handling tricky situations within your team well. This will not only make for a nicer atmosphere in the office but also help to build the respect and trust of others around you.  

First, assess yourself 

Sometimes our own perceptions and blind spots colour how we understand others. Be honest: are you reading a deliberately difficult attitude in a colleague just being themselves? Assess the dynamic. How much is their behaviour genuinely an issue? A colleague's laziness affects everyone, but if they are getting their work done, is their need for that cheeky longer lunch so bad, or is it just how they get the best from themselves? Consider, is a colleague really argumentative, or are you being defensive unnecessarily?

What are their drivers?

Look for the reasons behind what they're doing. Is the overly competitive co-worker just seeking to outdo everyone else, or does their insecurity make them over-compensate? Do they really see themselves as heroic warriors smashing down rivals, or do they have a complex they're seeking to mask? Do they need to be reassured that they can relax and let off steam, and their job is safe? Seek to understand.

Build rapport where you can

Try building friendships with all your workmates beyond them being colleagues, even if you don’t immediately see them in this way. Find what you have in common. Maybe have lunch or dinner with individuals or groups. Foster group connections, and show an interest in their lives and families. It's amazing how goodwill can grow in a group from simple acts of interest and kindness.

Take the heat out of situations

It's too easy in a pressured environment to allow bad emotions to drive you. So while keeping your own emotions in check, how might you bring some positivity to the workplace? How can you turn crazy competitiveness into something more cooperative? Can you make some of what you are doing into a friendly game, to maintain morale? With good morale, the pinch-points where people's weaknesses and less useful character traits come bubbling up create far less drama.

Are you reading them right?

Check you're reading your aggressive or confrontational workmate correctly. Are they classic polar responders who take the opposite view as a matter of course? Or are they testers, who feel the need to test your ideas to see they will work? If so, it isn't personal. But if you are genuinely affected by that dynamic, let them know you find it wearing, with a mature discussion.

If you realise someone is being negative out of jealousy, then reassurance and friendship may be the way forward, letting them know you aren't a threat, and that being on your side will bring them greater rewards than undermining you. 

These are just a few strategies available to you. If you are part of a team, find out how others feel about that colleague, too. Do they have similar issues, or is it something to do with your combined chemistry in particular? Knowing this can help you get a handle on what's going on. 

With each of these approaches, the rapport-building and assessment you've already done is vital. In that way, you are most likely to read things right and hit the right response.

Remember, too, that in some cases, if a working relationship is poisonous and is really troubling you, it might be necessary to take things higher up the chain. 

Bernardo Moya is a personal development coach, founder of The Best You and author of The Question: Find Your True Purpose

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