Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

How do I deal with my difficult co-worker?

I'm sure there is a whole section in bookstores devoted to this question but in response to a friend of mine asking me about this topic, I'm going to take a run at it in this blog. 

The cold, hard, crappy truth is that you are probably not going to change them. You're going to have to change you. When this difficult person in your life has experienced enough broken relationships and failure to decide they need to make some changes, they will. Until then, here are a few things you can do to protect you. 

  1. Don't try to shield them from the consequences of their behavior. This might mean that the projects you work on together may not be as successful as you want them to be. Unfortunately, the longer you act as a buffer between them and the lessons they deserve, the less likely they are to experience the failure they need to learn. If you are in a position where people's lives are on the line (say a doctor or something), maybe you can't do this because people will die if you let your coworkers "experience failure."
  2. Protect yourself with firm but friendly boundaries. Perhaps you need to prevent yourself from listening to their voice mails or reading their emails on certain days or at certain hours so that you don't get too fed up with them. Communicate in person and then confirm your understanding in a casual-sounding email (even if you know the purpose of that email is to cover your butt later). 
  3. Assess your willingness. There must be some reason that you value for putting up with this individual so far. Remind yourself frequently why it is important for you to tolerate them. Make it visible so that you can connect with that reason when they are being challenging. 
  4. Reflect, reflect, reflect. No, not in the meditative sense. Make reflective statements so they can hear their own voice. Let's say that your coworker makes an unreasonable request. "I need you to finish your part of the project tonight so I have the rest of the week to finish mine." You might say, "It's five o'clock right now and I estimate that this piece will take seven hours to complete. So what I hear you saying is that there is no reasonable way you can deliver the second phase of the project unless I work until midnight tonight." Reflecting simply restates their position using different words. It sounds stupid but it's powerful because often, people don't really hear what they're saying. 
  5. Seek to understand. Sometimes by just inviting someone to "tell me more about that," they end up sharing details of their thought process that ultimately reveals that they're not quite as big of a jerk as you thought. You might find out that they're anxious, worried, sad, stressed-out, feeling like a failure, scared, etc. and they come off like a total **** (pick your favorite swear word) when they feel pressure. If nothing else, it may be somewhat gratifying if they start to realize their unreasonableness as they share more and more of their position. 

They may never become the co-worker you wish they would be, but you might be able to learn to live with them just a little bit better, to accomplish the stuff that is important to you. 

Katie Playfair