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This Is Not The Career I Ordered – A Survival Guide to Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

Written by Caroline Dowd-Higgins. Posted in Business, Featured

Published on November 11, 2015 with No Comments

Professional behavior should be a given expectation amongst working adults but in reality, most of us have experienced unprofessional conduct in the workplace.  You can choose your friends but you don’t always have the luxury of choosing your colleagues.

In the iconic words of the late leadership guru, Peter Drucker, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop.”

The poor behavior list varies greatly from those who are constantly passing judgment, to those who make destructive comments and deflate morale.  Some of you may work with a toxic colleague who sucks all the oxygen out of the room and diminishes the strengths of individuals, or the team. Perhaps you are experiencing a colleague who steals your ideas and makes them their own?

The list goes on and on but you need not relinquish hope when experiencing bad professional behavior. Reclaim your power and take back your control by setting a positive example and teaching others how to treat you.

It’s important to start by making changes in yourself that will impact others.  You have a choice about how you react to difficult colleagues.  Meaningful behavior change takes effort but if it begins with your self-actualization, you will be better able to deflect the negative and move forward in a more productive and harmonious work environment.

Consider these ideas to set your personal ground rules and the best example for good behavior in your workplace.

Let it Go – like the movie Frozen and the ubiquitous theme song, “Let it Go” we can benefit greatly from releasing the negativity and the emotions they evoke.  I liken it to small children on a playground. Arguments and fights erupt, but most often the same kids laugh and play together moments after the initial kerfuffle. By tapping our beginner’s mind, like the innocence of a child, we can more easily let go of issues that bring us frustration. Fueling the fire will only make it stronger – letting go will bring you peace.

Breathe – you need not be a yoga practitioner to benefit from the process of controlled breathing. This natural exercise resets your mood and helps you regain composure while feeding your brain oxygen and releasing your stress. When you are in the midst of poor behavior breathe deeply and slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this a few times until your mood shifts. It only takes the brain 30 seconds to redirect and let go of a stressful sensation.

Don’t Over Process – if you obsess about a snarky comment from your colleague for days, you may be over analyzing. Don’t succumb to a negative act by giving it energy, which is your most precious commodity. Let is roll off your back and wipe the slate clean for the next interaction. Holding a grudge is also a waste of brainpower. The time it steals and the aggravation it brings could easily be spent on something more positive and constructive that will bring you satisfaction. The reality is that you don’t have control over everything at work so focus on what you do have control over – your peace of mind.

Fierce Conversation – let me be clear that harassment or egregious behavior is something you should never, ever tolerate in the workplace. Seek the counsel of a Human Resources representative that can help you document the situation and take action.

Having a frank conversation about any inappropriate conduct is an opportunity to set your ground rules for behavior that requires dignity and respect. If this candid conversation with detailed examples of the infraction does not lead to better behavior, it’s time to look for a healthier workplace. Bad bosses and bad colleagues happen, but suffering is optional.

The Power of an Apology - I once had a colleague with whom I did not click. Although we feigned civility, I preferred not to work directly with him whenever possible. Inevitably, we were paired for a very special project that would require a lot of direct contact, collaboration, and communication.

I knew that détente was essential in order to succeed with this project so I scheduled a private meeting and at the suggestion of my career coach, began the conversation with this:

“I recognize our relationship is strained and I want to take ownership of how I can behave in a manner that works better for you. I apologize for my past actions and I want to meet you half way so we can work this out together and be more productive so we can enjoy working together on this project.”

To my pleasant surprise, this authentic apology opened up a new world for my colleague and me. Taking ownership of half of the difficult relationship validated to my colleague that I was earnest and willing to make changes in myself that would positively impact him. In the past, he was bombarded with accusatory comments about how only he needed to change. No one had ever before met him half way. We nailed our special project and became colleagues who enjoyed working together.

Circle of Trust – build and steward professional relationships you can trust when you encounter funky behaviors in the workplace. Having a trusted mentor or coach can give you a sounding board to work out collegial issues. It’s wise to ask for help and also provides you with an accountability master that can help you identify self-sabotaging behaviors you may be unaware of. Remember, to help others develop, start with yourself.

Clarity of Expectations – set your ground rules, command respect, and ask others how you can interact with them in a way that meets their need. Colleagues are not mind readers and if someone’s loud music in a shared workspace is distracting to you, they won’t know unless you tell them. Take advantage of the opportunity to ask that same colleague if their workspace needs are being met by you. By setting ground rules at work you will teach others how you expect to be treated and honor their needs as well.

Triggers - Be aware of the triggers that set you off. Document what upsets you and why so you can trace the triggers and be mindful of how they make you feel. Once you identify your triggers you can develop techniques to conquer them.

Marshall Goldsmith’s new book, Triggers: Creating Behavioral Change That Lasts was transformative in helping me identify ways to navigate around the triggers that cause me angst in my professional (and personal) world.

As Goldsmith points out, “…our reactions don’t occur in a vacuum. They are usually the result of unappreciated triggers in our environment—the people and situations that lure us into behaving in a manner diametrically opposed to the colleague, partner, parent, or friend we imagine ourselves to be. These triggers are constant and relentless and omnipresent. Our phone chirps, and we glance instinctively at the glaring screen instead of looking into the eyes of the person we are with. So often the environment seems to be outside our control. Even if that is true, we have a choice in how we respond.”

Goldsmith offers a simple solution in the form of daily self-monitoring questions. These questions measure your effort, not your results. There’s a difference between achieving and trying; we can’t always achieve a desired result, but anyone can try. Goldsmith has created a list of active questions that begin with “Did I do my best today to…find meaning” or “set clear goals”, among others. You can also create your own questions and this self-accountability will help you create positive behavior change in yourself, which is the best place to start.

Will difficult colleagues always be part of your career world? Most likely, yes. Consider how your behavior can impact these situations and help you regain your control and your peace of mind.  It all starts with you.

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About Caroline Dowd-Higgins

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All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" now in the 2nd edition, and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Director of Career & Professional Development at the Indiana University Alumni Association and contributes to AOL Jobs, CNN Money, the British online magazine – The Rouse and More Magazine online. She is hosting and producing an online webisode series called: Thrive! about career & life empowerment for women. She hosts the international podcast series Your Working Life - on iTunes. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter.

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