How To Deal With Difficult Co-Workers

Regardless of what kind of job you have, chances are, you have to interact with a number of people with widely different personalities — and sometimes, those personalities just don’t mesh with yours.

For many employees, it’s a serious enough issue that it causes a problematic work environment that prompts the search for a new job.

But if you like everything else about the work you do, there are a few steps you can take to minimize a toxic co-worker’s negative impact on your workdays, says counseling psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD.

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    Why it’s important to navigate coworker relationships

    “We spend eight to 12 hours a day at our workplace, which is almost more time than we spend with our families,” Dr. Childs says. “The atmosphere there can have a heavy toll on our mental and emotional health.”

    We spend so much time at work that difficult colleagues can have an outsized negative impact on our quality of life. A 2018 study on workplace behaviors reported that “[e]ven the actions of a single toxic person can have ripple effects, creating more widespread discontent and conflict. In other words, one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.”

    If you don’t find healthy ways to cope, you may begin feeling isolated and depressed. You might experience sleeplessness, anxiety and low self-esteem.

    “We begin to worry if we’re good enough to be here, if people like us, if we’re going to lose our job,” Dr. Childs says. “There are a lot of rabbit holes that we start to go down as we worry about the workplace we enter on a daily basis.”

    What to do about a toxic co-worker

    Most people don’t like tension or confrontation, so it probably feels way outside of your comfort zone to set physical and emotional boundaries. But doing so is necessary for tending to your mental health, especially in a toxic space.

    “We teach people how to treat us,” Dr. Childs says. “Fire can’t burn without fuel, and the same is true in the workplace. If we refuse to be a part of something, we starve the fire.”

    She shares tips for managing your interactions with a co-worker whose personality doesn’t mesh well with your own.

    1. Create physical distance

    If you work in an office space together, you can try to literally distance yourself from your difficult co-worker. This could mean reworking your office layout so your desk faces a different direction or capitalizing on an opportunity to relocate to an empty cubicle down the hall.

    “Create a space that allows you to set physical boundaries, which in turn, protects your mental and emotional space, as well,” Dr. Childs says.

    2. Avoid, if you can 

    When you find yourself in a spot where people are infecting you with cynicism, criticism, gossip or always wanting to be right, try to protect and insulate yourself by refusing to participate.

    “Try to change the subject. Don’t indulge and don’t commiserate with them,” Dr. Childs advises. “It can be easy to get sucked in.”

    3. Set your conversational boundaries

    If your coworker doesn’t take the hint about conversational topics that make you uncomfortable, it’s time to say so.

    “Let them know that this is not a comfortable space for you and not a topic you want to indulge in,” Dr. Childs suggests. “If they continue to do it, you can be upfront with them. Say, ‘This is not something that I want to do,’ and remove yourself from the situation.”

    4. Take care of yourself

    “Work should be left at work, even if we’re working from home,” Dr. Childs says. “But because that isn’t always possible, self-care is pivotal.”

    Build your coping skills by starting a self-care routine that helps you stay in a healthy mental space. The more serene and secure you feel, the better you’ll be able to manage what you’re experiencing at work.

    5. Stay true to yourself and your values

    “What are your goals? What do you want for yourself? What is your purpose? What are you here to do?” Dr. Childs asks. “Figure that out and then try to create a safe space for yourself so that you can be happy no matter what your job is.”

    When to involve your supervisor or HR

    What if the situation doesn’t get any better? You’ve done everything you can, but your co-worker continues to gossip or bully (or both!), and you just don’t know what to do at this point. Now what?

    • Document everything. If you’re having ongoing issues with a colleague and suspect you may need to go to HR, keep track of your interactions with your co-worker — especially in case of issues like microaggressions and sexual harassment. “Document the time, date and a quick bullet point of what happened,” Dr. Childs says.
    • Ask a colleague for guidance. “It can help to bounce it off somebody else,” Dr. Childs notes. “Tap a trusted co-worker and run your concerns by them.” They can give you a gut check on what’s happening and help you figure out whether you should escalate your concerns.
    • Follow the chain of command. If you decide it’s time to speak with a higher-up, take your company’s prescribed path for doing so, whether that means starting with a boss or with human resources. “Speak up for yourself and advocate for yourself,” Dr. Childs encourages.
    • Speak about the incident, not about the person. Even though you may feel emotional and upset, try to keep a level head when you go to your boss or to HR. “No blaming — just stating the facts,” Dr. Childs says.

    When it’s time to consider another job

    Yes, you have to pay your bills, but you also have to be a functional, healthy human — so it’s worth exploring your job options. Maybe there’s an opening in another department, or you could be transferred to a different location.

    “Looking for a new job isn’t always a realistic immediate option,” Dr. Childs says, “but if you learn to prioritize yourself, you’ll start to get some clarity on what to do about your job.”

    Employers, take note

    Research shows that toxic co-workers cost companies far more than what the high performers add to the workplace, so it’s beneficial for employers to take a holistic approach to hiring. This means not only hiring people with the right experience and skills, but also those who are likely to mesh well with the team.

    It’s important to take into consideration who might be able to create a positive culture that promotes productivity, Dr. Childs says. One negative personality is all it takes to drag everyone else down.

    “Positive people build positive companies,” she notes.

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