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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

How To Deal With Difficult Coworkers

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

There’s a reason for the saying, “we spend more time with our coworkers than our family”. We spend a lot of time at work! When we work with wonderful peers, we can create an amazing work environment that fosters growth and promotes teamwork. However, this isn’t always the case. Most teams are not perfect!

As a nursing student, I purposefully sought out employment by a hospital where I had a positive experience in a clinical rotation. Teamwork was the undoubted strength of the hospital. I felt useful and respected there as a student, which was a stark contrast in comparison to how I felt at some of the other big hospital organizations in the city. However, no team is perfect! As a new grad, I experienced some of the phenomena “Nurses eat their young”. Just thinking about difficult coworkers and work situations brings memories and specific people to mind – I bet you have someone in mind too!

How do we deal with coworkers that are not team players? Create drama? Try to delegate their workload? Manipulate others? Complain all day? After talking with experienced nurses and doing some of my own research, I found a few important things you can do right now to manage difficult coworkers.

Have a strong, positive mindset and stay true to your personal brand. Avoid gossip. Don’t take the difficult coworker’s actions personally. Set boundaries when you can. Make peace with things you cannot change. When possible, limit contact with the person. Confront the person if needed. Talk to a mentor, peer, and/or a supervisor if needed. Reduce stress in healthy ways.

Know your personal brand and be authentic in difficult situations

Your personal brand reflects what people think about when they hear your name. Are you generally positive and kind, or are you known for losing your temper when problems arise? Know your core values and what really matters to you. This will make it easier for you to be yourself during a situation that makes you irritated, angry, or upset.

Do you value kindness and positivity? Channel these values. If confronted with a coworker who is talking negatively about everyone you work with, you’ll be more successful at diffusing the situation. This will decrease your own stress and tension.

Be the bigger person, and don’t engage with complaining. Typically, if a negative person sees that you’re not going to engage with them, they move on!

Avoid gossip at work (and always)

Personally, I have found that if you can avoid gossip in all aspects of life you will be a more successful and more trusted friend, sibling, daughter, spouse, and coworker. There are a few ways to do this, but I’ve found that validating the feelings of the person who is gossiping works best.

Ironically, I was not aware of my methods for side-stepping gossip until a med student shadowed me at work – she later told me she admired how I avoided gossip! The next time a coworker is complaining about another nurse or coworker, try simply validating the person for how they are feeling without directly agreeing or disagreeing with them.

For example: When on lunch break, you find yourself eating with Tina. Tina complains about your coworker Lisa every chance she can. Instead of fueling the discussion by agreeing or adding to the complaints, you can say simple statements, such as “that sounds really difficult” or “I hear you.” The complainer often feels validated and can move on to another topic. I know this sounds way too simple, but this has worked for me for years!

If the person continues gossiping even after you’ve validated their feelings, you can ask them to stop. Buffer the request by beginning it with the phrase “I can understand how you feel that way”. Then, say “I feel uncomfortable talking about this” or “This doesn’t sit well with me.”

A chronic complainer might need help problem solving. You can try to help them problem solve if you like, but watch for patterns that show that the person can’t manage a situation without running to you. At that point, direct them to a supervisor or manager!

Try this with gossiping family members and friends as well. The more you work on avoiding gossip by validating the emotions of others and being direct in how you feel about it, the better you will get at it!

You are not personally responsible for improving the attitude of others

Some of us want to believe that with enough effort we can change others for the better. I get it (don’t we all think we can do this with our spouse/bf/gf at some point? Haha, joke’s on us!). Guess what? People don’t change unless they decide to change themselves. Can we will another person to be more positive, less grumpy, happier? No!

Furthermore, this is not your responsibility. You are responsible for being aware of your own emotions and managing how you react to those emotions. You are not responsible for other people’s attitudes or actions. You can certainly set an example of a great coworker by being optimistic, kind, and helpful (remember your personal brand!), but you are not in charge of changing the attitude of your grumpy coworker.

Don’t take on that responsibility! I’m fairly certain you have enough responsibilities on your own. That burden is not yours to carry!

One mentality that has always helped me is remembering that your coworker’s attitude is not about you. It has nothing to do with how hard you work, how friendly you are, or how much you genuinely want to improve their day. Your coworker has likely already made up their mind that they are going to complain all day – unfortunately, you are not going to change this.

I usually think, “Dang, I wonder how their family members can stand this attitude all the time!”. It might sound silly, but I try to be grateful for only working with them for 12 hours today instead of living with them!

Try to remember that your coworker’s negative outlook is not personal. Their behaviors reflect only themselves and typically have nothing to do with anything you have said or done. Sometimes a difficult person just wants to be heard - but they don’t have the skills to express it appropriately. This is when validating how they are feeling can help.

Set boundaries/confront the person if needed

Let the person know that you will respect him or her, but you also expect to be treated with respect. Set boundaries, such as not tolerating yelling or put downs. If possible, decrease the amount of time you spend with this person. Avoid break rooms when the disgruntled employee is there or choose a workstation away from him or her when charting. Feel no obligation to attend an event that they are hosting or attending.

Use short, concise messages to share how you feel with them, and set a boundary by limiting the amount of time you engage with them. It’s okay to get up mid-conversation and say you need to get back to a patient or respond to a phone call.

If the coworker oversteps a boundary you’ve made, call them out on it. Teach them how to treat you. Confrontation doesn’t necessarily need to be aggressive or hostile, though it may be uncomfortable. If the person is obviously too upset to have an effective conversation, remove yourself from the situation or wait until they’ve calmed down to talk. Try being open-minded and curious. Tell them how their behavior affects you and try to understand their intentions.

For example, you can say, “From what you’ve shared with me it sounds like you dislike working with Kate. This can cause friction on the nursing unit. When I am scheduled to work with the two of you, I have a hard time getting help when I need it. What can I do to make this better?”

Talk to a mentor within or outside your work environment (and go to a supervisor if needed)

Is this person making other coworkers miserable too? Find out what others are doing to manage their work environment. Ask a trusted colleague what they would do in your situation or talk to a mentor outside of your nursing unit.

If you have decided to bring the issue to your supervisor, be prepared to tell them what you did to deescalate or problem solve before you brought the issue to them. I once brought an issue to my nurse manager but had never first attempted to correct the issue – I just grumbled about it to myself and whoever would listen.

I could have easily confronted the employee in a kind and open way and tried to resolve the problem on my own, but I was afraid of the uncomfortable conversation. If you can attempt to problem solve before getting your supervisor involved, it shows initiative and leadership. Do this first if you can!

If the person has a habit of abusive behavior, you may need to record when the events happened before you tell a supervisor. This way, you will be more accurate and detailed when you approach management.

Use the chain of command on your unit – this might be to discuss the problem with charge nurse first, then nurse manager or assistant manager, etc. Escalate as appropriate.

Reduce stress in a healthy way after working with a difficult coworker

A tense work environment can make your emotions go haywire. It can be tempting to grab a glass of wine after a stressful day (and that’s okay occasionally!). Most of the time, choose to let off steam by exercising, walking your dog, seeing your family – whatever makes you happy!

Self-care must be a priority, especially when dealing with a difficult coworker. Journal, meditate, get enough sleep, and take care of yourself in general. Surround yourself with positive people outside of work (and inside, if you have the choice!).

You can also do some of these things during your shift, such as walking laps around the unit or going up and down a set of stairs to expel frustration and get a rush of endorphins.

Working among difficult people can be hard, especially on a nursing unit. Your job is already stressful – you might be understaffed, not get enough time to care for yourself during your shift (a full lunch break and plenty of bathroom breaks might be unheard of where you work), and you are often in critical environments making critical decisions. Doing things that you love outside of work can help diffuse the stress on your mind and body after a difficult day (whether with that one crabby coworker or not).

Follow the above steps and your work environment should improve in no time. Let us know if it does!

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