We often see really helpful articles and advice for dealing with difficult co-workers. You know, the person whose actions (or maybe more aptly, inactions) lead to stagnation on a particular project. Or the colleague who is in enough of a position of influence that she’s able to take all of the good sales leads, leaving the rest of you high and dry. Many of us who can be difficult at work don’t MEAN to be, of course. It could be something else going on at home that’s being projected into the workplace, for example. Whatever the case may be, it’s safe to say that in the majority of office environments, your co-workers aren’t going to come to you and say, “Sally, you’re our difficult co-worker,” what are some ways of finding out if you are?
Adopt a Sense of Mindfulness: Yes, I’m all about it recently. It can be tough in many of the work environments I hear about, where it’s all about go-go-go and ABC (Always Be Closing),but with practice and boundaries, it IS possible to cultivate a sense of awareness of the environment around you. Take a moment in meetings to read body language, facial expressions and tone. Sometimes hostility or frustration can be overt, and sometimes it’s much more nuanced. If any of it seems directed at you specifically, take note of that.
Take a Look at Your Plate: No, I don’t mean that delicious Mediterranean Chickpea Chili you made in the slow cooker for lunch this week. Instead, take a look at what projects you’re involved in and more meaningfully, not involved in that you should be given your job description, responsibilities and level of seniority at the company. Obviously, I’m not insinuating that because you’re not involved in one project that that means you’re difficult. But taking this factor in the confluence of others can be a helpful barometer of whether or not you’re being a taddddd difficult. If you notice you’re light on tasks that absolutely SHOULD be your domain, speak with the project lead about it and come prepared with what you’d do if such tasks were given to you. Or, ask the project lead or your co-workers with those tasks if you could take a part of the task off their plate to help them out. Be prepared to say that you will have your part done by a certain time so they are not held up or tripped up by your actions.
Ask! Like I said before, ain’t nobody gonna tell you (most likely) that you’re being difficult. Ask a trusted advisor or mentor or former colleague if that makes you more comfortable. I also recommend going to the source. Remember the mindfulness I asked you to adopt in meetings? If you sense anger/frustration aimed at you, approach the person directly in a one-on-one setting later that day. (Don’t let too much time lapse!) A simple, “I couldn’t help but notice some of your frustration about the project’s progress was directed at me, and I’d like to clear the air so I can make sure I’m doing my part moving forward – can we talk?” can be good. Or, if you’re not sure it’s you, you can say, “I noticed your frustration back there- anything I can do to help alleviate the issues with the project so it can go more smoothly?” Both scripts give the person the ability to speak their mind more freely, and will improve your relationship in the process.
And if you get feedback that is less than rosy, make note of it and try to accept it, hard as it might be. Ask a mentor outside the office or someone you trust for advice on how to turn this perception around. Include it in your self-review for your annual review (and make sure you include suggestions for how to improve!). A good manager will appreciate the self-awareness and candor, and the fact that you’re working on this without her needing to hold your hand as much will bring her a sigh of relief and gratitude.
*Disclaimer: If you suddenly realize you’re the difficult co-worker, don’t worry. Everyone, even the Mother Teresas of the workforce, have the capability to be difficult sometimes. I’ve seen some of the coolest, nicest people turn on their Devil Wears Prada hat in the office (heck, that was me back in the day- I lived it!). The good news is that you can start TODAY to be more collaborative and helpful and less road-blocky. What’s done is done, but by using some of the tips above, you can begin to rebuild your reputation in the office as a dependable, hard working, easy-to-work-with maniac.