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How to manage an impossible coworker Most Liked Hot Conversation

Today’s Featured Comment

Robin Donovan, on How to manage an impossible coworker

I have been in this position many times – with both men and women. I have tried everything – from ignoring it and being a bigger person to attacking them like a screaming howler monkey. All of these experiences have taught me much.

First you have to realize that your impossible coworker is insecure and trying to throw negative attention on you to keep “them” from looking at her flaws. She thinks that if she throws you under the bus “they” will see that she shines. And she’s too stupid to see that it isn’t working. The problem is – it’s working against you. Your boss can’t help you, your co-workers can’t help you. Only you can help you and it’s very freakin’ hard!

Here’s my suggestion.

What you have to do is take control. I have found after many many failed attempts at gaining control that the best way to gain it is to change the dynamic of the situation. This will require enormous focus and preparation on your part – but it will be AWESOME when you see how it works. Here’s how it goes:

The two of you are in a meeting with ten other people, out of nowhere she says “Vicky has done a particularly disappointing job in schedule our upcoming convention.” All eyes turn to you and you feel obligated to defend yourself – big fat mistake. This is what you do: you take a moment (very pregnant pause) you turn to her and slowly and in a low voice you say “Debbie we are both aware that that was an inappropriate comment to make in this meeting – why don’t you come and see me afterward and we can explore why you’re having more and more of these explosive outbursts.” Then you turn back to the meeting as though the last two comments were never made. All negative thoughts are concentrated directly on Debbie. You haven’t made a fool of yourself – you’ve been the grown up.

You have maintained your professionalism and begun a course of behavior modification in Debbie. If you ignore her comments – she wins, if you yell back – she’s cracked your professional shell and brought you down to her level – she wins again. If you change the subject – it’s not about Vicky’s performance it’s about Debbie’s outbursts – you’re in control.

I have killed with this technique – and I can still look at myself in the mirror afterward because I took the high road!

[This comment was originally posted as part of this conversation. ~ Eds.]

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9 Responses

  1. Generic Image everyone says

    this advice only works if the person says these negative things in front of you.   if they however cut down your work with an eye roll to a supervisor when it is discussed or a snide remark to another coworker.   It comes back to you but since you weren’t there – you cannot confront it directly and if you try they treat you like you are crazy – because they didn’t SAY anything.

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  2. Generic Image Marilynne says

    You are playing her game, but playing to win.  A very old book (Games Your Mother Never Taught You) written about how to function in corporate politics advises you not to play the games.  When a coworker wants to involve you in a game, refuse to play.  In your example, you played her game – to win, but you were still playing.

    A better way would have been to respond with “Debbie, how would you have done it differently?”  or “would you like to be included in the next planning session” or, as you did, “let’s talk about this later and get back to the topic at hand.”  

    If you play her game, she’ll keep playing it back.

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    • Robin Donovan, Menologues Robin Donovan, Menologues says

      I disagree – Marilynne. If I ask Debbie how she would have done it differently – I acknowledge her comment that my work was flawed. To acknowledge any of her derogatory comments plays into her game. By changing the paradigm, e.g. Debbie your behavior is the problem here – you remove yourself and commentary on your work from the table. 

      By doing it in a controlled and disciplined fashion you are not giving her an opening to attack your behavior.

      Even if you really are the problem – this puts all of the onus on her defending herself – and takes the onus off of you and your performance.
      Your suggestion invites her to continue her attack of your work – and will not be productive since that’s not the real problem here.

      Anonymous – if your co-workers are also your bosses there are a couple of things to think of, a/are their comments hurting your career path – it’s not like they’re hurting you in front of the boss – when they’re the boss, if you’re the type who can – laugh in their face and say “maybe you need to grow up yourself.” b/are their comments taking a toll on your spirits – they would be mine – if so, get out! When the boss is a real jerk you have to take care of yourself first.

      I have known people who have discounted a stupid and immature boss – ignored them or yelled back – done well in the job and moved on when they were ready. Not everyone can do that – some have to feel a sense of loyalty in order to perform at their best – if that’s you, it’s really time to move on!

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  3. Paula Ellen Paula Ellen says

    Reminds me of the computer in the movie Wargames. After trying to win at a billion games of Tic-Tac-Toe and failing, it’s comment is, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

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  4. Generic Image Anonymous says

    I like that, the only winning move is not to play.  but what do you do when your only coworkers are your bosses and they are continually denigrating you. I don’t ‘play’ but it still bothers me intensely.

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  5. Generic Image btkdiva says

    Thank you Robin.  You made me so very happy that I retired last year.  I worked with a total slacker.  The people in power changed our jobs from social workers to call center workers. The jerk in my “pod” would just put people on hold and walk away from his desk. He would also hang up on people – and say “Oops”.  He was praised in a staff meeting because his call volume was so very high!  Made me feel like a fool for actually taking calls.  Just wondering what you would have done in my situation?

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  6. Robin Donovan, Menologues Robin Donovan, Menologues says

    That’s a really tough one Btkdiva. I’ve been in plenty of situations where the low-life scum got the accolades and trying to set something straight was considered sour grapes on my part. I take these situations with a series of if/then scenarios and see where I net out. It’s not perfect, but what is? Here is an example:

    I worked with a guy who lied and said that I took too much time on a project and the client was unhappy. I knew that wasn’t true so I checked with accounting. I was right and I thought the guy would be thrilled to know he could explain to the client that there wasn’t a problem. He became violently angry – told me to mind my own business (the nerve of the little scum) and told my boss that I was obsessive and could never leave things alone and that I was causing trouble.

    When my boss tried to politely tell me that I needed to chill out – I ripped his head off and stuffed it down his neck. I told him that he knew me well enough to know this was bullshit and I explained that the other guy was lying. He gave me enough of the benefit of the doubt that he apologized – but I never felt he really meant it.

    Several years later, when I was in another job in another city my old boss called me to tell me that this same little s.o.b. had been lying about him and was probably going to cost him his position. He actually said “you tried to tell me years ago but I wouldn’t listen.”

    That was one time I was sad to be right.  

    There are some things you have to factor in, they are: is it impacting me and my ability to get my job done or is it just making a fool out of my supervisor? If that’s the case fighting it isn’t going to benefit you in any way.

    Is it really hurting anyone? If it is, i.e. a nurse that  doesn’t hook up IVs right – you have to do something. If is really isn’t – wait until the system catches up with the slacker – the system will get them if Karma doesn’t get them first! 

    I know it’s not much Btkdiva – but you have to evaluate each of these situations – and you have to be honest about whether they cause a problem more than irritating you (which is a problem – don’t get me wrong – but not one you’ll probably be able to correct without causing yourself untold grief).

    One thing I will say as a business owner now – a lot of people think we don’t know who the slackers are – we don’t right away – but we get there. Once we know – the time isn’t always right to take action – but we watch until the time is right – and then we pounce. But we never put it in the newsletter – so the hard workers may not get their just rewards – at least not publicly.

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    • Generic Image btkdiva says

      Thanks for your quick response. In my perfect world the slackers would be called out and very publicly. Bring back tar and feathering! or pounce and announce – within legal guidelines of course.  That might stop them from ever doing it again. The hard workers all know who the slackers are and just get frustrated and demoralized when nothing happens for months.  I think the real problem was that we were state employees and pay increases were not linked to job performance. There was no accountability and no rewards for hard workers either. Seems like having a personal moral code and integrity are no longer valued or practiced by many people.  Wow, I felt a lot younger before I wrote this!. LOL.

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  7. Robin Donovan, Menologues Robin Donovan, Menologues says

    You’re welcome, Btkdiva!

    Getting rid of the dead wood fast is always best. Sometimes the process takes way longer than it should. I recently experienced a serious case and it was one that required more time than we’d hoped. Once dead wood was out the door the whole staff celebrated – but it still came back to “why didn’t you make it happen sooner?” You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Those same people sat on information that would have made a faster resolution possible – out of fear – but some of them still think we should have figured it out and made it happen sooner.  

    Not that getting thanked and appreciated is the reason for removing “problems” from a company culture – but it would be nice.

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