As employees, we’ve all been struck by wanderlust—the feeling of being shackled to our desks when the weather outside is gorgeous. As we curse our long commutes or roll our eyes at the latest bureaucratic snafu, we can’t help but think, “If I were my own boss, I wouldn’t have these problems.” Or, “If only I could work from home and have a more flexible schedule.”
In your personal life, you have a choice about dealing with difficult people: Sometimes, you just don’t. But when it comes to your career, you don’t usually have that luxury. You’ve got to find a way to work nicely with your colleagues to get the job done. And many times, it’s not that easy. When Linda Byars Swindling, JD, CSP, and author of Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers: How to Negotiate Work Drama to Get More Done, surveyed 1,000 professionals, she found that 78 percent of them spend three to six hours per week dealing with energy- and time-draining employees.
Here are some of the dysfunctional personalities you may find in your own workplace—and our tips for how to go from fed-up to fully functioning despite their knack for mucking things up.
“The biggest one [problem] for most people is the complainer,” notes Swindling, of the common personality type. He’s easy to spot: He’ll moan and groan to let you know just how put out he is to do his job. Everything is too hard, too inconvenient, too complicated or not his responsibility. The more you listen, the more he complains.
How to deal with it
Though doing whatever it is your negative colleague is complaining about yourself seems like the easiest solution, Swindling cautions against it. “Do not offer suggestions. They will argue with you and think you are on the other side,” she says.
Instead, she suggests listening to them, empathizing with their situation and asking them how they’re going to solve the problem themselves. This helps get them focused on positive forward momentum—and gets you off the hot seat.
You’ll recognize Cate by the way she swoops in, inserts herself in your project and takes over the whole thing before you even know what happened. When she doesn’t get her way, she’ll “bully you, bulldoze you, won’t let you explain,” insists Swindling.
“It’s bullying. We have seen this all over,” says Dr. Mitchell Kusy, professor for the Graduate School of Leadership & Change at Antioch University. With Elizabeth Hollaway, PhD, he wrote Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power, based on their research with more than 400 leaders.
Deal with it
Many employees don’t report this kind of behavior to their supervisors or human resources reps. “One reason is some of these behaviors are tremendously intimidating,” Kusy notes.
But Swindling argues that it’s important to stop this kind of coworker in his or her tracks. “You have to stand up to them as you would a bully,” she says. Being prepared is the best solution, so think ahead and come up with a plan before she attacks.
Kusy advises describing their behavior back to them using fact-based terms, such as telling them they interrupted you three times and asking them to stop. If the behavior doesn’t abate, “next time don’t go it alone,” he says. “Bring in HR or a colleague to do it with you.”
Do you work with someone who loves attention? Chances are, you do. This person thrives on recognition and wants to be at the center of everything. When they’re not talking about themselves, they’re talking about everyone else behind their backs.
“These are the divas, the drama kings and drama queens,” Swindling says. “They are there for the show, and they are exhausting.” They often gossip about others in an attempt to keep themselves in the limelight, which can undermine office morale.
Deal with it
First of all, acknowledge them. “Say hey, I see you,” she suggests, which appeals to their ego, “but don’t let yourself get lost in their drama.” Be aware and stay focused so you don’t get sucked into their game or gossip.
Swindling recommends giving them responsibilities where they can use their limelight-loving natures, such as being in charge of communications on a project or speaking at an event. And, much like children, a little positive reinforcement goes a long way with the dramatic set. “Make sure they know that positive recognition beats negative recognition,” she adds.
Passive Aggressive Peter
Have you ever had a coworker or boss who couldn’t meet with you face to face or gave you the silent treatment? If so, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of a passive aggressive personality. Passive aggressive coworkers seek to manipulate and sabotage through veiled hostility, sarcasm and procrastination. They may communicate only through email, tease or put you down in front of others, show up late to an important meeting or leave you hanging as you wait for information from them so you can meet a deadline.
“Think of passive-aggressive people as ‘snipers,’” describes Swindling. “They leap out of hiding and take pot shots at you to try and unnerve you.”
Deal with it
Take a confident, positive and poised approach when communicating with them.
“You are calling them out in a way that shows you know what they are doing,” notes Swindling, “However, you are choosing not to engage. Basically, you are no fun because their passive-aggressive behavior has no effect on you.”
There’s a good chance you’ve seen Tammy hanging around your building. She’s hard to miss. She’s the one who listens to your big idea over a casual lunch and then presents it as her own during a private meeting with the boss. She’ll manipulate others to further her own agenda without giving it a second thought. The hardest part is that she is probably well-regarded by her supervisor for her performance. The result? A once-enjoyable work environment is poisoned.
These toxic coworkers know how to look good to while climbing over anyone in their way to get ahead. “They’re charming so they can be disarming,” says Swindling. “They have their arm around your back so they can stab you with it. If you are vulnerable, they will go for the jugular.”
Deal with it
The best way to manage this kind of behavior? “Steer clear,” advises Swindling. “You will not be able to out-manipulate them.” Be sure to document everything so you have a record of what transpired if and when things take a turn for the worse. Sometimes these poisonous colleagues have what Kusy calls a toxic protector or toxic buffer. In essence, toxic protectors see the toxic individual as highly productive and skilled and allow him or her to get away with the bad behavior because they see it as worth the trouble. “We have found that feedback to the toxic protector or toxic buffer regarding the toxic employee’s behavior may decrease the enabling behavior,” notes Kusy.
So, while we can’t always choose who we work with, we can almost always find a way to make things work and get the job done. Doing so speaks volumes about your own personality—in all the right ways.