A grumpy boss, whiny colleague or a petulant customer: all recognizable characters from the everyday drama of work. Modern workplaces can be stressful, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it doesn’t always bring out the best in people. Thankfully fistfights at work are rare. However, we’ve probably all experienced a time when the destructive behavior of a colleague or boss has left us reeling.
So if there is someone behaving badly in your workplace, here are some tips to help.
Remember that we’re all human
It’s important to remember that we all have off days and times in our life when things are trickier, and this may on occasion lead us to be less than lovely to people at work. So patience and some time may be all that is needed for the individual to get themselves through a sticky patch. Rather than a knee-jerk response to their bad behavior, instead ask them how they are as you want to make sure they are OK. This is incredibly disarming – and as they see that your aim is to be supportive and not a threat, they may well decide to see you as an ally rather than an adversary.
Be upfront with others
Some people are not very self-aware so maybe you just need to tell them constructively what the problem is or what you need from them. For instance, if a colleague is making barbed comments in your direction, then take them to one side, and ask them why. They’ll either be apologetic as they genuinely didn’t realise it was a problem, or they’ll make some excuse or even try to counter-accuse. Either way, they’ll know it will be risky for them to attempt this again without you hauling them up on it and perhaps escalating it further.
Manage your expectations
It might be a customer making unreasonable demands, your colleague expecting emails to be answered at midnight or your boss continually dumping urgent work on your desk just as you are heading for the exit. Choose a quiet moment when you can talk to them about their expectations and agree on how you can best work together, including what you can and can’t do, realistic timeframes and, if needed, a system for dealing with urgent issues. Having this conversation ahead of time enables a far more rational discussion about what’s needed, rather than one in the heat of a last-minute panic.
Be tolerant of different approaches
Every team needs a mix of different personalities and approaches – the pessimist who will point out the flaw in the plan, the ideas person who challenges the status quo, the “do-er” who is impatient with discussion and wants to get things happening. So maybe your nemesis at work is simply someone whose approach is different from yours. Your styles may clash but that doesn’t mean to say they are dysfunctional – in fact it might be just what the team needs.
Observe them closely. How does their approach compare with yours? Are they a detailed person, glass half full or empty, task orientated or relationship focused? Then adjust your style when you communicate with them. For example, if they tend to be a nitpicking pessimist, then they may be more receptive to your ideas if you focus on which might be the least worst of possible scenarios and supply lots of detail. Read up on neuro-linguistic programming to find out how to build rapport and influence the thinking of individuals with very different thinking styles.
Handle aggression assertively
If someone is being highly aggressive with you, either verbally or physically, then regardless of who they are it’s OK to walk away or say that you are going to put the phone down – and that you will return when they have calmed down. No one at work has the right to compromise your sense of personal safety and wellbeing through engendering physical or psychological fear.
Be mindful of psychological health issues
When an individual continually behaves in a way that is problematic or destructive, then the roots often lie deeper than whatever is happening at work. People are complex and it’s worth remembering that according to Mind statistics, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year. So where their behavior seems emotionally charged or oddly disproportionate to the issue at hand, it may be that there are more deep-seated psychological issues at play.
Sometimes just keeping your cool, using logic and rational argument will be sufficient to de-escalate a situation. However, someone needs to have an honest and supportive conversation with them about what is happening. This may be you or you may need to bring it to the attention of someone else in the organisation to deal with. Organisations on the whole are becoming more aware of their responsibilities to support individuals with mental health issues.
Seek alternative methods as a last resort
Where you’ve tried everything you can to improve a difficult relationship at work but the individual still seems hell-bent on making you miserable, then it’s time to look at your options. You could try to ride it out, forge some allies, avoid them where you can and become adept at “covering your back”. You could consider raising a grievance or formal complaint about their behaviour but these rarely end in dismissal so you may still find yourself working with them – and yes, they going to be very angry with you.
The sad reality is that sometimes you come across individuals at work who are psychopathic in their behaviour. Utterly ruthless, these individuals are incredibly resilient, fearless and not constrained by ethics or a moral code. Beware if they have you in their sights, because they are smart, manipulative, very plausible and have no compunction about causing damage.
By the time you’ve wised up to their true behaviour they may already have engineered to get rid of you or beaten you into submission. Will you win against them – unlikely! At least not unless you are prepared to play a similar no holds barred game. It might just be better to run and don’t look back.