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Career Coach: Telltale signs of a difficult co-worker

By Cynthia Kay Stevens,

Have you ever worked with someone you considered to be difficult? Chances are good that one or two people spring to mind.

As it turns out, these aren’t just people with whom you simply have a personality conflict. Along with Smith doctoral student Deborah Woods Searcy, I interviewed 58 managerial, professional and technical employees ranging in age from 27 to 64 in different organizations. Of all the people we interviewed, only one reported never having had a difficult co-worker; most people had two or three examples.

We found that, regardless of the occupation or workplace, there were consistent characteristics that define those coworkers who are difficult.

First, they can be found at every level in organizations — from the administrative staff up through the agency head or chief executive. So while there are certainly horrible bosses, these aren’t the only types of work relationships that create problems.

Second, other people in the workplace find the co-worker to be difficult; in other words, there is consensus that the person’s behavior is problematic.

Finally, difficult co-workers behave in ways that have a detrimental direct or indirect impact on other people’s job performance. That is, they create problems that cause others to have to work harder or longer, they reduce work quality through distractions or lowered motivation, or they create the need for inefficient work-arounds because people refuse to work with them or try to get needed information elsewhere.

In over half the cases we studied, these performance problems were noticeable to internal or external customers and in once case, it caused a consulting firm to lose a client and payment for services.

We found that, while each difficult co-worker was unique, there were consistent patterns in the types of behavior that made them difficult. In every case, they violated other people’s expectations about appropriate workplace behavior in one or more of six areas:

Aggressive or disrespectful behavior: Many difficult co-workers used intimidation, sarcasm or personal attacks, which creates stress and hostility in the work environment. Others were disrespectful or inconsiderate, which are milder but also make the workplace unpleasant. One amusing example involved a high school band teacher who sent his students to practice their instruments in the hallways — while other classes were in session!

Poor communication style: Some forms of difficulty stemmed from problems with effective communication. These difficult co-workers may choose the wrong medium to communicate (for example, criticizing others via e-mail), talk too much, too loudly or too bluntly. And sometimes, the difficulty comes from being poor listeners.

Too much or too little control: Another set of problems arose from trying to exercise too much or too little control over decision making, information or resources. Too much control via micromanaging, constant monitoring or inflexibility led to work backlogs and frustration. On the flip side, it was also problematic when co-workers were disorganized and exercised inadequate oversight of tasks, decisions or information.

Emotional displays: Co-workers also created problems when they were unable to manage their emotions. This showed in frequent public outbursts, creating lots of drama in the workplace, and excessive negativity, which made it difficult to be productive or enthusiastic.

Unethical or excessively self-interested: Some co-workers were difficult because they looked out only for themselves, without regard for others or the organization. Occasionally, they crossed ethical lines by lying or blaming others. One interviewee described a situation in which a difficult co-worker damaged a company truck and then blamed it on a maintenance worker who didn’t speak English well and was actually a passenger. Fortunately for the maintenance worker, a videotape proved he was innocent.

Sub-par work quality: Finally, some co-workers caused problems because they were unable or unwilling to perform to expectations. They may be overwhelmed with simple tasks, make excuses for why they can’t meet deadlines, or make frequent preventable mistakes. Regardless, this increased the workload for others.

One surprising finding was that, while some difficult co-workers were disciplined or fired, many were not. Moreover, managers often seemed to pass the buck and expect employees to handle problems on their own. Many of our respondents lost respect for their managers and the organization when they failed to address people who were creating performance problems.

If you are the manager of a person flagged by your team as difficult, consider taking action. Meet with your team members to understand their problems and document the consequences of the difficult co-worker’s behavior. Use that information to confront the person with constructive advice and solutions for improvement. Set goals and hold the employee accountable. Otherwise, you may end up losing money, important clients or good people on your team who escape to less problematic work environments.

Cynthia Kay Stevens is an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is an expert in workplace issues and her research focuses on recruitment and staffing, decision making, diversity and how to work with difficult co-workers.

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