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How to "deal" with challenging co-workers

Updated: May 2, 2022

First things first folks; we do not condone the concept of "dealing" with someone. That positions you as a sufferer, and them as the offender. Perspectives on challenges is EVERYTHING. So let's start there, with a growth mindset and a good ol' reframe that conflict, challenges and difficult dynamics are opportunities for clarification, growth, and creativity.

Why this is important:

Toxic work environment is the leading cause of early retirement, resignations, and low productivity. That's no good for a company's bottom line, work satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. When work culture becomes combative, it can cause all these elements to suffer.

What to do with a "Negative Nancy"

Could "Negative Nancy" just be rebranded as "Keeping it Real Ralph?" At the core of the complaints are usually a desire/need(and that's easier to empathize with). It is easy to get exhausted by someone who focuses on the negative, but they don't need you to throw rainbows and sunshine at them. They need validation for seeing all angles of the situation as a critical thinker. They often just see themselves as a realist. Validate their observations, ask for details on their complaint and keep the conversation short. Negativity has an incredible snow-ball effect, and it can easily turn into a laundry list of what else is wrong.

What to do with a "Competitive Chris"

We can all think back to a time in our lives where we constantly felt like we were in competition, even though we never signed up for it! That can really put a bee in my bonnet. Whether it was someone who loved to compare grades in school, stats in sports, or salaries in the cigar bar; we all know the feeling when a competitive colleague sours the work culture. If comparison is the thief of joy, then competition is the little brother that can make a situation more fun or miserable. That is where you, the colleague, comes in. Reframe their approach and call it ambitious, motivated, or a game changer. Remember you aren't in a race and try to not take their approach personally. Better off to acknowledge that competition, when blended with collaboration, is the birthplace of innovation. Let them do their thing and keep bringing their competitiveness back to a shared mission.

What to do with a "Loose Lipped Larry"

"Some researchers argue that gossip helped our ancestors survive. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar first pioneered this idea, comparing gossip to the grooming primates engage in as a means of bonding. Instead of picking fleas and dirt off one another to bond, Ludden explains, we now talk, which is “where gossip comes in, because chit-chat is mostly talking about other people and conveying social information.”

"Gossiping, Dunbar’s work argues, gives humans the ability to spread valuable information to very large social networks. “Were we not able to engage in discussions of these [social and personal] issues, we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do,” she explained in a 2003 paper published in the Review of General Psychology. “Gossip in this broad sense plays a number of different roles in the maintenance of socially functional groups through time.”

So with that, let's shake up the perspective on Loose Lipped Larry. Validate that he likes to be in the know as a means of progressing ideas and cohesion. Understand that most gossip is actually neutral and sympathetic rather than malicious. If a gossip queen or king starts to ask you about your opinions on other people, keep turning the reflection back on them and ask more personal questions or stick to the project, not the person. Gossips love focusing on others, and hate "gossiping" or disclosing about themselves, so it is a sneaky way to short-circuit the conversation.

What to do with a Bully

As a former school teacher, I am saddened by bullies and I am exhausted by the parents who defend them. It is no different in adulthood unfortunately. Bullies are mean, finger pointers, who will justify their behavior and throw others under the bus while they are at it.

So forgive me when I say that the only way to deal with a bully is to remove yourself from them as much as possible and build a case against them for HR to deal with. The more you engage, the more fodder for the bully to work with. I think is is sad that adult bullies are incredibly stunted in emotional intelligence and are easily threatened by others. They are insecure. Hold onto that for empathy, notice when they are being vulnerable (if ever) and validate that, but otherwise ignore them as much as you can. In reality, it is their internal battles with themselves that they are actually avoiding or fighting, and that is their work to deal with, not yours.

What to do with a "Procrastinating Polly"

Working as a team can be awesome when everyone knows how to shoulder the load, ask for help, and notice the hard work of their co-workers. Good leaders should be able to teach and encourage this. When there is someone on the team that tries to pass off work or has a hard time providing material in a timely way, talk to them 1:1 and start from a place of empathy. Then ask for what you need and follow up with a question like, "Is there anything getting in the way of accomplishing this?" Big side note: this personality type easily get overwhelmed. Chunk the tasks down into manageable pieces and you will usually find more success.


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