People bring to the work environment their personal problems, anger, personality disorders, controlling behaviors, psychological problems, medical issues, addictions, family problems, and criminal and legal issues. These areas of dysfunction can manifest in the work place. If the list above seems worrisome, think about the fact that some people have co-occurring issues, meaning they have more than one problem with which they are trying to cope. Most people spend about one-third of their day at work, and those eight or so hours can either be productive and pleasant or unbearable. We will look at a number of difficult personalities, behaviors, and states of mind and then explore options on how you can deal with them in a productive manner, followed by how therapy can help you cope with difficult people in the workplace. I will borrow material from the book Working with Difficult People by Muriel Solomn as well as other business resources.
Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
As always, it’s better to seek counseling earlier than later, before an issue becomes much bigger. In a business environment, you can always start by contacting your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) for free, confidential counseling services. If your company doesn’t have an EAP, you can find an in-network therapist through your company’s insurance plan.
Let’s start with the tough guys—those mean-spirited folks who harass the people around them. They are threatening, hostile, and angry yet appear confident. They will try to control you through their words and actions. Mean-spirited people often recruit others to get support and to feel more powerful. I once heard of a group of employees in a particular hospital department who wore certain colors to show solidarity against other employees in the same department. This gang-like mentality existed until someone went to their supervisor. Human Resources got involved, but everyone wondered why it had reached a point where the intimidating behavior actually began to impact patient care. Here is a situation where management needed to become involved. Had someone been more assertive, this situation could have been resolved sooner. After an investigation, some employees were written up, put on a performance improvement plan (PIP), or were terminated.
The Rumor Mill
Every job has a mix of people who are pleasant and helpful to work with and people who spread rumors and are chronic liars. And there are those who will be nice to your face but find pleasure in stabbing you in the back. Rumor mongers and liars will stop at nothing to make you look bad or take any opportunity to throw you under the bus. However, there is one question to ask before confronting such a coworker: Is the information you heard from a third party accurate or true? You may have built your assertiveness skills to the point where confronting people in a respectful way is now second nature to you. But this can become a problem if the information you received is only partly true or not true at all. Now you have two problems: the original issue you attempted to rectify and a second issue from which you may wind up backpedaling or apologizing. The effort you made to stand up for yourself now becomes a situation that never should have happened in the first place. So think before you act and do some investigating into what you’ve been told. It may prevent a minor problem from becoming a much larger one.
Narcissistic and Rude People
The colleague who blatantly enters a conversation uninvited can range from being annoying to causing confusion and frustration in the workplace. These people intrude on meetings, break into your discussions, burst into your office uninvited, and pester you while you are on the phone. They are basically narcissists who believe that what they have to say is more important than what others have to say. They have no compunction about hijacking a conversation and making themselves the focus of the interaction. Often, they are not even aware they are being rude and will cause people to hide when they are spotted coming their way. It will take a person skilled at being assertive to put the rude person in their place. Therapy can help develop these skills.
These are people who do not listen very well, are stuck in their own beliefs, and who fear even the slightest bit of change. These stubborn folks engage in selective hearing, are highly obstinate, and may lead one to wonder if there isn’t an invisible “wall” blocking messages from sinking in. They may lead you to question your own methods of communication and cause doubt that the message is being sent effectively. Even in a one-to-one situation, someone who is actively choosing not to grasp a simple concept can cause, at minimum, frustration, which can lead to outright anger. These folks avert change and rely on old patterns of behavior to get by. This becomes a problem when a new technology is installed or a new management team takes over and stubborn people cannot make the adjustment. In therapy, communication and assertive skills can be strengthened, but if someone willingly chooses to not adapt (and they are not cognitively impaired), the process of disciplinary action may need to be implemented.
Unfortunately, there are times where you will come across those who feel powerless and will stoop to sabotaging others’ work as a way to get back at them for some perceived slight. They will plan to discredit or actually withhold information that needs to be passed along so that others cannot effectively do their work. Years ago I heard about a problem in a hospital lab where test results were slow to come out. As it turned out, a staff member who was angry at a coworker had decided to retaliate by holding back on their part of the testing in an effort to slow the work and make the coworker look lazy. It was later discovered that certain work was being put aside and then later put back into the “line,” which caused confusion and delayed the results. The person who sabotaged the other person’s work used control as a way to get back at the other person who’d reportedly slighted him. Not thinking it through, the person who withheld the work was actually delaying the test results from getting back to the doctors, who needed accurate information in a timely manner to know how to treat their patients. Imagine waiting to know if you had cancer, diabetes, or some other serious condition only to have the test results delayed because a couple staff members didn’t like each other. Needless to say, after this was discovered, the staff person was fired and the rest of the team was put on notice.
Everyone complains, but some people take complaining to a whole other level, griping about anything and trying to get you to see their point of view no matter how skewed it may be. They complain when they come into work in the morning, at lunchtime, and at the end of the day. And they start up again the next day. It makes you wonder that if they are so unhappy, maybe they should take responsibility and make some changes in their lives. But they probably won’t and will continue to make your life miserable. Complainers are not happy people and can be annoying by making the work environment an uncomfortable place to be in. These are people who perpetuate problems without coming up with solutions. You may need to develop your own coping strategies to tune out the repetitious whining of these unhappy individuals.
People who gossip, like rumor mongers, are another group of people who like the control of having information they believe others don’t have but want. They are the “gatekeepers” of their precious information and will disseminate it at a time and in a way that gets them the most enjoyment. They can also control the degree of accuracy of the information or change it entirely. As we discussed with those who tend to undermine others, it is important to check the facts before passing the information along. Most people will not do their own investigating and just say, “So and so told me . . .” or “I heard . . .” to try to deflect ownership if the information turns out not to be true. It’s human nature to enjoy a juicy bit of gossip every now and again, but some people like to spread rumors as a kind of game. Unfortunately, false rumors can wind up disparaging the innocent. We can decide not to spread gossip and rumors just as we would like others to do for us. It comes down to self-control in whether we want to perpetuate a rumor or be mature enough to stop it.
People who procrastinate and vacillate in their work can carry with them varying amounts of anxiety or may struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These “perfectionists” can never seem to complete a project or get much work done because they are always thinking about or “tweaking” their work. Some procrastinators may actually be able to get a good start on their tasks but get stuck in the end because they believe it can always be better. This is frustrating to employers who have to be on the backs of these folks to get work done and extremely annoying to a team of coworkers relying on everyone to get their part of a project completed. The anxiety that builds in a procrastinator can be tremendous. I once managed a staff member who had difficulty getting out of his own way at times and had a lot of trouble completing even the smallest of tasks due to his OCD. When this particular staff member decided to leave his position, I politely asked him to clean his office of the stacks upon stacks of papers he had accumulated so the next staff member could come into a clean office. I first asked about a month before he was scheduled to leave, then weeks before, and then during the final week. I went into his office the day before he was leaving, and when I asked why he hadn’t cleaned out his office, he claimed he didn’t have the time. I spent the following week cleaning out the office, finding papers from ten years prior that had absolutely no value. He just couldn’t part with removing even one scrap of paper. To get the office in shape for the new staff member, I went in, rolled up my sleeves, and threw out what amounted to ten shredder loads of useless paper. I don’t think the outgoing employee did this out of spite; he was leaving of his own accord. I just think he couldn’t bear to throw these items away.
The Benefit of the Doubt
Working with difficult people can be annoying, frustrating, anger producing, unproductive, and even scary when we face unpredictable behavior. When working with difficult people, the first place to begin an assessment is with yourself. Are you overreacting? Did someone inadvertently hit a “hot button” from some past trauma? Are you overly stressed? Are you overly sensitive? Or is the behavior of the difficult person so blatant you can clearly see where the problem is coming from? Some situations can be worked through with a non-blaming, non-challenging conversation with the problematic coworker. Perhaps they are stressed due to a loved one with a serious medical issue or an adolescent with a drug addiction, or maybe their marriage is on the rocks. If you are close to your coworker, you may already know what is going on, but in many cases, you won’t. Be aware that any questions you ask could hit a sensitive spot in your coworker, and they may be unwilling to discuss their issues. That is their prerogative. However, if coworkers are acting in a way that negatively impacts your ability to do your work, or if sides have been drawn and employees are behaving in a threatening manner, this must be reported to management.
These are just a handful of situations that can make the work environment unnecessarily stressful, unhealthy, or toxic. Your work setting should not be a place that is physically or emotionally damaging to your well-bring. In some cases, problems in the workplace can be resolved by just talking to a coworker in a respectful manner about a disagreement. Other times, a supervisor or manager may need to be notified to help rectify a conflict. In severe cases, the human resources department, in conjunction with your direct superior, may need to be called to try to bring a resolution for all parties. Sometimes, if a problem cannot be worked out, people may need to be written up or let go or you may need to leave to protect your sanity. No one should have to work in an environment that makes them sick or cause dread having to go into their workplace every day.
*This article was taken from the book, When to Call a Therapist – Expanded Edition (December 2021) by Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW, psychotherapist in private practice in northern New Jersey. www.rciampi.com