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4 Types of Difficult Co-Workers | How to Keep Your Cool

Someone showing their coworker how to do something on an iPad.

Awkward office dynamics may at times seem laughable, but difficult coworker relationships are no joke. Here are our suggestions for keeping the peace if you regularly find your patience—and your productivity—being put to the test.

1. The chatty Charlie

You’re racing to meet a deadline, but your cubicle mate is regaling you with their take on the morning news ... or stressing about the date they went on last night ... or asking your opinion on the upcoming season of Game of Thrones. Sound familiar?

Most of us enjoy some degree of office socializing, but if constant chatter is getting in the way of your work, then it’s time to take action:

  • Set a time to chat later. Usually honesty is the best policy. If you generally enjoy talking to your coworker, but simply don’t have the time at the moment, try scheduling a chat into your day. You can say “I hate to cut you short, but I’m really pressed for time right now. Can we continue the conversation [DURING MY COFFEE BREAK THIS AFTERNOON/AT LUNCH/AFTER WORK]?”
  •  Invest in some good headphones. If you find yourself constantly bothered by your coworker's talking, headphones may be the answer. They not only help to block out sound, but also send a visual signal that you’re not in “talk mode.” Good noise-cancelling headphones have many other uses—helping you to concentrate while teleconferencing or to stay on task if you work while traveling—so your organization may help you foot the bill. Ask your supervisor or your IT department if this is an option.

2. The inconsiderate scheduler

You’ve arranged with your supervisor to leave the office early once a week for a standing appointment, but one of your colleagues keeps scheduling meetings for exactly that time. Or maybe a particular coworker regularly fails to complete their own work before they take a long weekend or go on vacation, leaving everyone else struggling to pick up the slack. Here are some things you can do to stop scheduling problems in their tracks:

  • Make sure your calendar is visible to everyone—and vice versa. This could be a simple technology issue. Many organizational scheduling tools allow people to view the calendars of everyone on their team. But your coworker might not know how to view other people’s calendars, or they may have their calendar set to "private." If you suspect this is an issue, talk to your supervisor about sending out an instructional email on organizational calendar usage. You could even schedule a short meeting to demonstrate calendar set-up and address any questions.
  •  Plan, plan, plan. If you know a coworker has a vacation coming up, ask them to help you plan for their absence. At least one week before their time away, send them a friendly email: “Hi [NAME], I saw on the calendar that your vacation is fast approaching! Since the deadline for [PROJECT] is scheduled during the time you’re gone, I just wanted to check in and see if you needed any help tying up any loose ends before you leave.”

3. The protective project manager

Working on new projects or helping out with work outside your usual job description can be exciting. Having the opportunity to learn new skills, branch out into different areas, and get inspired by new ideas is a necessary component of any fulfilling job. But sometimes your coworkers may not seem thrilled when you rise to meet these new challenges—especially if it means you’re encroaching on their territory.

If a coworker seems hostile to the idea of you working on “their” project, keep in mind that this is often due to feelings of insecurity. They may be afraid that the work they’ve already done won't be recognized, or that they are being pushed out of their position. To help ease the transition, make it clear that you want to build on their success, not steal their thunder:

  • Schedule a one-on-one meeting to discuss the project. Ask your coworker about the timeline and scope of the project. Let them know that you are looking forward to working as a team, and ask them where your support is most needed. Be sure to compliment them on the great aspects of the work they’ve done so far.
  •  Suggest using a project planning tool. Project management software encourages clear division of labor by listing clear deliverables for everyone on the team. This will ensure that both of you can track your involvement on the project, reducing the likelihood of anyone's contributions going unacknowledged.

4. The one-upper

Anything you can do, they can do better. For every eight hours you’ve worked, they’ve put in 12. For every successful project you’ve carried to completion, they have something even better on the horizon. They might even claim your ideas as their own.

Unfortunately, one-uppers exist in just about every walk of life—but at work they can do some real damage. Again, this is largely due to their own work-related insecurities, but you may need to enlist some of our strategies to hold your ground among competitive colleagues:

  • Keep as much correspondence in written form as possible. If your coworker has a habit of taking credit for your ideas, it’s best to keep major project discussions over email—preferably with supervisor(s) CCd. For in-person meetings, offer to send meeting minutes over email to make sure everyone’s ideas are reported accurately.
  •  Give credit where credit is due. One-upsmanship is fueled by a need for validation. Make sure that you recognize your colleague for their successes, and maybe they won’t feel the need to try to overshadow everyone else’s.
  •  Don’t become a one-upper yourself. It can be tempting to fight fire with fire, but being a one-upper isn’t a good look for anyone. Try to keep a distance from the toxicity and shift your focus to being the best employee you can be.

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by Elyse Franko



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