Strategies for Dealing with an Unsupportive Coworker

iStock_000006665839XSmallBy Isabel Eva Bohrer (Madrid)

“I once worked with a boss who yelled at everyone in her office – she used words that were demeaning and dismissive,” recalls Kathi Elster, co-author of Working with You Is Killing Me and Working for You Isn’t Working for Me and the soon to be released Who Does She Think She Is? Elster continues: “She might yell at you for talking too much then the next day she might yell at you for not talking enough. There was no way to please her, she was an angry person who took her frustrations out on her staff. She did not seem to know that she was yelling or being a bully. When I confronted her she would say that she wasn’t that bad. Needless to say she had a 100% turnover every year.”

Elster isn’t the only woman who has encountered such horror stories about negative behaviors in the workplace. Quite the contrary; queen bees, idea-thieves, and other co-workers that just don’t play nice are common. So much so that, for some, they are becoming an undesired yet integral part of the day-to-day office experience.

“Most problems that drive people crazy in the workplace are not egregious, shocking events. It is the passive-aggressive, subversive personalities that are the real horror stories for people,” explains Stephanie Somanchi, MBA PhD and Executive Life Coach. Elster adds: “Women can be very competitive, and many women participate in covert competition. So instead of letting another women know that she is going to compete with her to win an account or to win a job promotion, she might go behind her back and bad mouth her to erode her reputation (covert competition). Men do this also, but usually they are much more upfront about their competitiveness towards another.”

Being able to resolve such negative behaviors diplomatically and productively is a skill to acquire. Deb Spicer, a 25-year senior level executive, consultant and author of the new book Power Teams, proposes the following five techniques, which she believes are gender neutral.

1. Talk to the person. Communication is the tie that binds, and dealing with a conflict or the uncomfortable feelings one has when dealing with a conflict is why most negative behaviors go unaddressed. Tell him/her what you need from them in terms of direction, feedback and support. Be polite and focus on your needs. (Expose to the person the affect their behavior has on you. Avoid the “everyone” or “a lot of us in the department” feels…as you do.) When possible tie their behavior to a business issue. Maybe people in meetings won’t speak up out of fear of embarrassment. This leaves creative and new solutions or direction off the table, which can hurt the company. Make the business purpose of the conversation clear.

2. Listen closely during the discussion. A Cherokee Indian saying states, “Listen. Or your tongue will make you deaf.”

3. Let the employee know that not only is the behavior affecting the business and the employee’s coworkers, it is impacting their career – raises, relationships, promotions. If there are reductions made to staffing levels, negative employees are usually the first people selected to go.

4. Rise above the fray. This is easy to do when the person is just socially obnoxious or annoying. It is tougher to do when the bull’s-eye is on your back. Model professionalism and set limits on what you can tolerate. If the negative behavior is bullying, repeat 1-3 and if there is no change, document the issues and speak with HR. Most companies have a policy about bullying.

5. Model the behavior in which you wish to be surrounded. Take responsibility, accept accountability, speak professionally, and deliver quality. If you yourself begin to serve as a model, the chances increase that co-workers will treat you with the same respect. “What goes around comes around.”

A difficult team member can be a drain on productivity and professionalism. Working to defuse bad situations and modeling the behavior you hope to see in others means more than making a brighter day for yourself – it can mean a better outcome for your business as well.