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Coworkers From Hell!

Strategies for Coping with Work Jerks

The Coworker from Hell--just about every company has one ... more if you're particularly unfortunate. They come in all shapes and sizes. The Diva. The Know-It-All. The Complainer. The Suck Up. The Bully. The Back Stabber. Whatever nightmarish shape your Coworker from Hell (CFH) may take (and sadly, some have more configurations than a Metamorphagus in the magical world of Harry Potter), they can wreak havoc not only on a workplace, but on your emotional and physical well-being by adding unnecessary stress to your life.

Unfortunately, I don't have a magic wand to give you that can transform these dreaded CFHs into pleasant, harmless, or wonderfully collaborative creatures. However, I can offer a few tricks you can keep up your sleeve that should help reduce your conflicts with these people and thereby reduce your stress in the workplace.

Trick #1 - Anticipate and be prepared.

If CFHs are anything, they're fairly predictable. Divas will be divas. Complainers will complain. Suck ups will ... well, you get the picture. Although you may not always be able to predict the exact details of each and every drama they'll create, you can probably predict the "theme." Use this to your advantage by anticipating the next conflict and being prepared with a response.

As Lifescript staff writer Jennifer Gruenemay writes about dealing with CFHs, "When you're unprepared, you're likely to react instinctively to your anger and annoyance with childish behavior that accomplishes nothing. This will only succeed in making a bad situation worse." Instead, Gruenemay suggests that you practice how you will respond before an inevitable encounter. You can do this by playing out the anticipated conflict in your mind, or by role-playing with a trusted friend. In fact, you should try out a few responses to see which one is most likely to effectively resolve the issue in the most efficient and rational manner possible.

Trick #2. Don't reinforce bad behavior.

CFHs are reinforced by the chaos they cause, and they're further fueled when you engage in it. Although it may be tempting to jump into the ring and throw a few of your own punches, resist. Not only will it bring you down to their level, the truth is that unless you're a CFH yourself, you're going to be badly outmatched in their kind of fighting anyway. Most CFHs can rise to heights that you would never dream of going--and shouldn't.

Instead, use psychological jujitsu. Don't react to the emotions CFHs bring to the situation or to the emotions they create in you. Doing so just gives them home court advantage. Instead, keep the interaction as short, as polite, and as rational as possible. If the conflict is over an opinion, don't get into a battle over who is right or wrong. Simply say something to the effect of "I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree," or if a decision must be made and there is a supervisor you can go to, you might want to say something like, "We can't seem to agree, so let's let Susan decide." When you bring a third party in, don't expect the decision to always come out in your favor, but whatever is decided, it will take you out of the line of fire (at least until the next drama arises).

Although it's hard to override the instinct to defend yourself when you're under attack, if you consistently respond succinctly and without emotion, the bad behavior will either get extinguished or the CFH will move on to someone who will play the game the way they like to play it.

Trick #3. Don't take it personally.

Sometimes, CFHs are the way they are because of unresolved personal issues, or because their social skills are underdeveloped, or because they're insecure and use provocation as a shield to protect themselves. This doesn't excuse the bad behavior, but it may explain it. So when CFHs begin to cause chaos, keep in mind that it's probably more about them than it is about you. Try not to take their actions personally, and whenever possible, try to find common ground, something that connects the two of you or helps you understand their motivations better. I'm not saying you should become best friends with your CFH; just try to find something that can help you civilly coexist in the workplace.

Let's practice.

Let's say your CFH has a habit of angrily or tearfully accusing you of being overly critical of her. Use this knowledge to practice how you will respond the next time this happens. Resist that immediate defensive reaction that makes you want to snap back with "That's not true!" or "You're crazy. I don't do that." Instead, in a soft, even tone, say something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way. What did I do to make you feel like I was being critical of you?"

What if the CFH responds by bringing up a long laundry list of perceived affronts from the past? Do everything you can to keep the conversation in the present. First, you can't change the past. And second, by letting the CFH go there, it will just prolong your contact without resolving anything. Instead, hold your CFH to the present by saying something like, "I can't change the past. But I'd like to know how you think I was critical just now, so that we can try to work this out and move on." Or "I've noticed that this same theme keeps coming up between us, so I'd like to just focus on the present and see if we can't figure out a way to work this out."

Asking for specific details does not mean you have to accept the claims as true or accurate (although there sometimes is a kernel of truth to a CFH's complaints - see "Before You Do Anything Drastic" on page 2 of this article). It simply puts the ball in her or his court to come up with specific instances rather than making wild and sweeping accusations, which is often their MO. The goal of communicating with a CFH is to get in and get out with as little drama and stress as possible.

What to avoid.

Although there isn't one "right" way to handle CFHs, there are some ways that are likely to make the situation worse rather than better. Here are a few tips to avoid escalation:

  • Avoid "you" statements ("You're not making any sense." "You are the one with the problem." "You need to suck it up and stop complaining about everything."). Instead, use "I" or "we" statements ("I don't understand what you're trying to say." "It seems like we have a problem." "How can we work this out?").
  • Avoid emotion. Keep your voice soft and your tone even. It's hard to maintain a high level of emotion when the person you're interacting with consistently maintains a calm, unemotional tone (although some of the best can do it - see discussion on page 2 about UCFHs).
  • Avoid sarcasm.
  • Avoid defensiveness.
  • Avoid engagement. If the anger, drama, or whatever craziness is going on doesn't subside, politely disengage. It's hard enough going against your instinct to not defend yourself when the attack first starts. The longer the attack lasts (especially when you're trying your best to diffuse it), the harder it will be to stay calm and unemotional. So if your best efforts don't diffuse the situation, say something like, "I'm having a hard time listening to [or understanding] what you're saying when you're [yelling, sobbing, glaring, etc.]. Maybe we can try to resolve this later when the emotions aren't so high." Then, walk away.

If these strategies aren't effective, try removing yourself from CFH situations as much as possible. For example, if you're involved in a discussion and your CFH walks up, politely excuse yourself. If coworkers are going to lunch and you find out the CFH is going, gracefully bow out. Whenever possible, choose assignments that the CFH is not involved in. And when you do have to interact, make it short and sweet. Remember, don't engage. Get in, get out, and move on. Save that energy for more productive challenges.

And then there are the Ultimate Coworkers from Hell ... If you get to a point where you've tried everything under the sun and the problem is not only not getting better, it's getting worse, you may be dealing with what I call the Ultimate Coworker from Hell. UCFHs often are personality disordered, which means they engage in dysfunctional and inflexible patterns of thoughts and behaviors that significantly interfere in their ability to maintain stable relationships both in and out of the workplace. These patterns are difficult to modify even with therapeutic intervention, which, for you, means that you're not likely to see any significant change in their behavior regardless of how you react or respond to it.

What to do in these kinds of extreme situations can be a tough call. The key, however, is to not let their dysfunction affect your quality of life. Ongoing and high levels of workplace stress can lead to a host of unpleasant consequences including burnout, depression, anxiety, and physical illness. So the question you need to ask yourself is if the day to day stress of having to deal with the UCFH is worth the stress and strain on your mind and body.

If the answer is no, consider your alternatives. Can you transfer to another department or location (or get the UCFH transferred)? If not, is there a boss or supervisor you can speak to frankly to let her or him respectfully know that it's either you or the UCFH, but someone has to go. Be prepared, however, if your boss says it's you. Stranger things have happened in workplace dramas. In fact, you may want to explore the job market and have something else lined up before you have this heart to heart with your boss, especially if you need a job to financially survive. You never know what kinds of deals with the devil some bosses get drawn into with these kinds of highly emotional and provocative workers.

But before you do anything drastic ... like quit or give your boss an ultimatum, you should first have a heart to heart with yourself and ask what's likely to be the toughest question of all, and that is, are you a completely innocent victim of a nightmare coworker, or are you contributing to the problem? Could you be presenting your own challenges in the workplace? High-achievers are usually superstar employees, but they can be particularly challenging to work with because of their own patterns and tendencies. For example, high-achievers are often perfectionists. They also tend to be a tad on the obsessive-compulsive side, they're often impatient, and they can be intolerant of mistakes (theirs and others). These aren't necessarily qualities that are easy to work with, so in CFH situations, it's important to ask yourself, "Am I doing anything that is contributing to the problem?"

If you want to have a little fun, here are two quizzes (completely unscientific, of course) developed to see how much of a CFH you are:

Belding's Are You a Coworker from Hell?

Lifescript's Do You Fight Fair?

But if after all is said and done, you come to the realization that a CFH has been wreaking havoc on your health, happiness, and well-being, remember this: the only power that difficult, demanding, or even impossible coworkers have over you is the power you give them by your reaction to the pandemonium they create. You can take that power away by controlling how you react and respond to their workplace antics, and ultimately, in worse case scenarios, whether you are going to allow them to hijack your life (or at least the one you live 40 or more hours a week).

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Dr. Bourg Carter

is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

Dr. Bourg Carter

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