8 ways to deal with difficult co-workers

8 ways to deal with difficult co-workers

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Sherrill Hayes, director of Kennesaw State's Master of Science in Conflict Management, says if there appears to be no solution, consult with someone who is higher on the chain of command.

For as long as there's been a workplace, there's been a workplace irritant.

It might be the office gossip, the argument starter, the colleague who can't get to work on time, or the co-worker who sneaks in video games or fantasy sports on the job. With any or all of those employees, conflict is almost sure to follow.

"Conflict is a normal part of our daily lives," said Susan Raines, professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University. "It's how we respond to conflict that makes it constructive or destructive."

Resolving conflicts or disputes at work can provide a sense of harmony. Conflicts can also reveal structural problems that keep organizations and companies from pursuing their mission.

Here are eight strategies for dealing with difficult co-workers and conflict in the workplace, as explained by two Atlanta-area experts:

1. Don't immediately blame them: Sherrill Hayes, director of Kennesaw State's Master of Science in Conflict Management Program, suggests bringing up the issue with an "I" statement rather than a "you" statement.

"You can say, 'Paul, I find it really distracting when you're talking on your cell phone when I'm trying to finish up this report.' It may be that Paul didn't even know he was bothering anyone," Hayes said.

2. Confront it ASAP: It's a bad idea to let a bad situation fester. For one, the longer a conflict goes unchecked, the worse the result. Also, the sooner you acknowledge that there's a problem, the sooner it can be addressed and, hopefully, fixed.

"The trick is to decide the appropriate response to this conflict," said Raines, author of "Conflict Management for Managers." "Things need to be addressed because they'll brew and become a volcano."

3. Wash-rinse-repeat: It's likely that the first time you address a workplace conflict, the issue won't be resolved right away. It's easy to get frustrated, but keep trying.

"One of my colleagues used to say, 'It's five miles into the woods and five miles out,'" Hayes said. "And if you've let a problem go on for a really long time, you can't assume that just because you raised the issue today, that it's going to get fixed today."

4. Keep calm: Hayes, whose preparation for conflict management included working in child development, said it's best to keep your emotions in check when dealing with office conflicts.

"If your emotions get triggered and you lash out, or it's clear you're emotional about it, what you're going to do is probably trigger an emotional response in the other person as well. That doesn't help problem-solving because now people are upset."

5. See the bigger picture: Raines speaks of two different kinds of workplace conflict: personality conflicts and structural conflicts. Personal issues can divert attention from a dysfunctional department or company, whether it springs from overlapping or unclear job descriptions to a lack of resources to unrealistic expectations.

"Sometimes the person who has been identified as the problem is really the canary in a coal mine – they're shouting loudly about something or they're misbehaving, and it's a symptom of a larger systemic problem," Hayes said. "Sometimes it's not so much an individual person, but the system in which that person is functioning."

6. Be OK with ignoring the behavior: This tip may be the easiest to remember but the hardest to execute. Hayes said many attention seekers in the workplace can eventually be shut down by the silent treatment.

"Ignoring people is really, really hard these days," he said. "But you have to keep doing it, because no matter how irritating the person is, if they realize you're not paying attention to them, they'll leave you alone."

7. Realize an S.O.S is A-OK: If the conflict threatens your job satisfaction and there appears to be no solution, consult with someone who is higher on the chain of command.

"It's OK to ask for help, but you need to ask the right people," Hayes said. "If you try to address it directly with the person and it's not working out, before you go to [a friend at the company] and start gossiping, maybe you should address it with your manager or supervisor."

8. An S.O.S. is A-OK, part 2: Sometimes an organization needs professional assistance in conflict management. Raines has taken part in hundreds of mediation sessions all over the world.

"Sometimes, it takes fresh eyes to see where the problem lies or where potential solutions can be found," Raines said. "When we're too close to a conflict, we just can't see it because of our own biases, or denial can get in the way of seeing things from an objective viewpoint."

Hayes cites a stat that found managers who have employees in conflict with one another spend 70 percent of their time managing the conflict. "That means they spend 30 percent of their time doing 100 percent of their job," Hayes said. "It's to everybody's advantage not to spend so much time focusing on conflict, and a lot of what we can do through dispute resolution or coaching is to help people refocus their energy on what they've been hired to do."

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