Difficult bosses are hard enough, but some of your difficult colleagues can seem more like the enemy than members of the same team.
The four most common workplace peers to generate unnecessary difficulties are those who are hyper-competitive, the bullies, those who try and freeze you out of what’s going on, and those who seek to gain recognition and credit for work you have done.
The hypercompetitive ones are perhaps the easiest to deal with. Broker a conversation over coffee and probe the person’s motivations and energetic directions. Try and gauge the roots of any problem between the two of you, and position yourself as an ally, and not a threat. You may need to build and invoke alliances with others to combat the energy flowing in unproductive directions – because if this behaviour is disturbing you, chances are it’s impacting others too. If you are the target of a peer’s competitiveness, you will need to try and demobilise them with some public charm offensives, and not let yourself experience anxiety by suffering in silence. Rather, you need to speak up in your own defence, and best interests.
Bullies are tough to deal with, notwithstanding that there is now greater legislative protection under our federal workplace laws. Bullying generally occurs because of feelings of inferiority, or fears related to that, or a desire to control you for their benefit. One early option is to uncover the person’s motivations and objectives, and see if it’s possible to realign your objectives with theirs. You may also need to garner support elsewhere, and seek out the bully’s other targets. It’s worth observing whether the bully’s disruptive tactics fit a predictable pattern, and whether techniques to break those patterns can be developed. Also avoid rising to the bait yourself. Sometimes you will need to go toe-to-toe with the bully, and expose their behaviour, preferably with a witness present who will back you up from their own experiences.
Further, you will often need to ignore the bully’s questions, call them out on their attempt to disrupt, and then make it clear you are pressing on with what you were doing, and why. That is likely to disarm and deflate them by discounting the relevance of their actions, because one objective of bullying behaviour is to intimidate and prevent you from doing something.
Clique formers and credit thieves can also be tough characters to manage. A clique is often a syndicated form of bullying, so you may need to enlist different coalitions of your own. Their objective is to win the hearts and minds of the bosses to get either the best work, and/or employment conditions. You need to assess what they are targeting, and their relative skills and culture, so that you can determine whether you need to cooperate with them (at least in part), or develop different relationships at a more senior level to combat them.
Credit thieves can be dealt with more directly. They will usually aim to keep close relationships with you and then select tactical opportunities to claim credit for what you are doing, as and when results are emerging. You will need to make them aware you know what they are up to, but also discontinue the blood flow of information to them, and tell them so, because of your mistrust.
It’s better to state that these aren’t operable ground rules of engagement and seek to end the behaviour before it percolates too far, as it is something that can wound all parties if left unchecked.
With globalisation and the more intensive competition arising, HR practitioners often find themselves in the firing line. Whether you are dealing with difficult bosses or colleagues, there is a new and higher obligation to articulate what you are doing and why, show a preparedness to accept and drive change, manage conflict constructively, and to build dynamic individual and group networks in order to achieve, but also to mitigate any risks related to that. Including your job!
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the July 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Workmates from hell’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.