Apr 15, 2011

How to Deal With a Difficult Colleague

There are times at work I feel like flypaper. I attract difficult colleagues.

You know what I’m talking about. They were hired because someone knew someone. Or they were expert at interviewing, but not actually doing work. Or they’re in over their heads. Or they know that some organizations prize political skills over getting actual work done.

They are the ones whose promotions get announced, and people ask, “What are the bosses smoking?”

I attract them. I’m like their Holy Grail. Like the one who’s first spoken words to me were, “Tell me where the power centers are around here.” I pointed her to the light switches. Or the one who coveted – and coveted is exactly the right word – the newsletter my team managed, because he thought he could control the whole corporation that way. He eventually got it, and promptly destroyed it (really, it was just a newsletter). Or the one, recently appointed a team leader, who plopped herself in one of my office chairs, asking for “tips” on how to “manage the worker bees” because I “made it look so easy.” Or the one who felt my existence was a total threat to everything he believed in because it reminded him there was no substitute for hard work.

I attract them. Like flypaper. Call me Horde of the Flies.

In any workplace requiring cooperation within and between teams, these individuals operate at the margins, where the light is weakest. Work becomes miserable. For some unknown and likely genetic reason, management is often blind, even when it can’t be ignored. Even when they know better. Even when they admit they know better.

There’s no silver bullet for dealing with the difficult colleague, although a mirror or necklace of garlic may help. But there are three things I try to do (please note I said “try,” not “succeed”).

First is to be thankful – the hardest and most essential. I try to give thanks for these individuals, even if my first prayers are “Lord, thank you for not making me like them.” Giving thanks leads to prayer, and prayer can lead to change. Sometimes I’ve been the one who needed to be taught something.

Second is to be salt. Of all the things we’re assigned because of who we are, being salt is the most critical. Our behavior, our actions, and how we handle difficult colleagues are all the salt that seasons our immediate workplace and those around us, even if we happen to be the only salt shaker in the building.

Third is to be light. People who maneuver best in darkness usually can’t stand the light. When it’s appropriate, the light has to shine. This can mean confrontation and conflict. Once, when things were particularly desperate, I let the light shine in a staff meeting, right there in front of God and everybody. I held the difficult colleague accountable. It worked; it stopped an avalanche of stupidity. (She also never forgot or forgave, so there can be a price to pay.) My boss told me how glad he was I had spoken out.

There’s no guaranteed way to handle a difficult colleague. There’s no guarantee that the organization won’t continue to let the situation fester, or that the individual will change. The only thing you can be assured of is that God loves the flypaper. And he probably even loves the fly.

Post by Glynn Young.

Image by Zach Klein. Used with permission via Flickr.

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