In my work as an executive coach, one issue that pops up over and over for my clients is how to manage difficult coworkers. That’s no surprise, because all workplaces, no matter how functional, are filled with a wide variety of individuals, each embodying a wide variety of quirks, priorities, communication styles, and habits. Someone is bound to rub you the wrong way!
Whose fault is it, anyway?
When a client gives me the scoop on a certain, conflict-ridden situation, and asks, “Is it them, or is it me?” the truth is it’s always both. Difficult situations with coworkers tend to occur because both sides are contributing to the conflict, either intentionally or inadvertently. Nobody wants to hear this, but more often than not, the conflict is being created not only by the other person’s irritating behavior but also by your response to it: assumptions being made but not verified, misunderstandings about what’s behind the behavior, lapses in communication that exacerbate the situation.
What can you do?
For one, dive deeper. I often say to my clients: “The first thing someone says is not what they mean to convey.” It takes patient probing to uncover what’s really going on. For another, extend some grace and empathy to the other person. I like the Stephen Covey quote that says, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” It’s a good reminder to step back from the blame game and look for solutions. Here are a few tools I offer my clients to help them do just that.
Use the ladder of inference
In the social psychology world, the ladder of inference is well known for helping people recognize that different individuals can see the same situation in entirely different ways. Based on which data an individual selects and his or her interpretation of those facts when viewed through a lens of personal experience, each person will draw different conclusions. The ladder of inference invites you to accompany someone else up his or her ladder, and then encourages you to bring someone else down yours. It’s a simple but powerful exercise in noticing how different people come to different conclusions when examining the same issue.
Examine the impact of different communication styles
Breakdowns in communication can cause all manner of workplace difficulty. Often, conflict can stem from different communication styles—for example, someone who intends to come across as efficient and forthright can instead come off as arrogant and intimidating, or an analytical coworker who values accuracy and facts may come off as unenthusiastic to an expressive teammate who values big ideas and spontaneous approval. Locating yourself (and your office nemesis) on the communication styles quadrants can help you move beyond superficial assumptions and remind you that intent does not necessarily equal impact when it comes to what people say and do.
Check yourself for blind spots
When we’re triggered by difficult people, it can be a signal to us that what we dislike in others is actually reminding us of a similar attribute we don’t like within ourselves. The stronger our negative reaction to someone else (within reason; assuming they are difficult and not a psychopath), the more likely it is that we’re avoiding the identification of that trait in ourselves. At the core of emotional intelligence theory is the belief that self-awareness and self-management of emotions must be mastered before trying to interact with others. One famous grid, The Johari Window, can help you think about your blind spots:
So if you’re gritting your teeth at the thought of that awkward water cooler conversation or constantly complaining to a friend about every email from a certain coworker, take a little time to play some mental chutes and ladders, ponder your communication style, and work through the uncomfortable idea that the irritating attribute you chafe against in your cubicle-mate might be something you need to address in your own life. When it comes to difficult coworkers, it takes two to tango, so jump in and dance on!