It’s Monday morning and rather than being excited about the start of a new work week, your heart drops because you wonder what is in store for you from a passive-aggressive colleague. Will it be a snarky email, sulking, unreasonable behaviour, not responding to emails or full on aggressive behaviour? In this article, Grace shares some ways to deal with difficult colleagues while keeping your sanity.
Thud! I looked up to see the retreating figure of my colleague as she walked out of the office slamming the door behind her. She had just thrown a pile of paperwork on my desk. Ten minutes later I received an email informing me what she would like me to do with the documents.
This was not the first time she had acted aggressively towards me and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. However, this incident proved that things were escalating and and it was time to do something about it. The strategies I share in this article are based on my personal experience, particularly from the mistakes I made. I hope these steps can help someone else going through a similar experience.
Refuse to embrace a victim mindset – When my colleague’s unprofessional attitude started, my first response was ‘Poor me.’ You see I had been bullied at school and her behaviour brought back horrible memories. I was sad, depressed and starting avoiding working from my office which affected my productivity. Decide not to be a victim. We have the power to choose our response to any situation no matter the challenge. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore what is happening but rather than being in a place where something is being done to you, prepare an action plan about what you are going to do about it. You are not a victim. You are an intelligent, capable person who has every right to work in an environment free of intimidation and passive-aggressive behaviour. You have rights that are protected not only by law but by your company’s policy.
The difficulty with this type of behaviour is that it is not overt and can sometimes be subject to interpretation. Make sure you document every event where your colleague has behaved inappropriately. Date, time, location as well as an accurate summary of what happened. Write it like a statement of facts and not a reflective piece. This is both for your sake and theirs.
If this helps, remember that people who exhibit this type of behaviour often have more serious unresolved issues and if I daresay, require some sympathy and support. Doing nothing is not an option. Develop a plan and execute it.
Read more – Developing a resilient mindset
Talk to the person involved – Confront the issue. By confront, I mean that you should face up to and deal with the problem. I am not encouraging you to have a shouting match in your office! To react to their behaviour in a tit for tat manner is easy, anybody can do that. Responding to it though requires discipline and high levels of emotional intelligence.
Not directly confronting the issue I had with my colleague proved to be a costly mistake. I have learnt to subscribe to the rule ‘discuss the issue with the person involved before discussing the person with a third party.’
This type of conversation is not easy, expect to stretch your ‘courage’ muscles. If you are someone who naturally avoids confrontation, think of it as a meeting with a colleague. Be focused. What is the purpose of your meeting? What do you want to say? What concrete examples of inappropriate behaviour will you use as evidence? You must take all your interpersonal skills with you to this meeting. Speak boldly, listen genuinely. Focus on facts, figures and events. Stay calm. Do not allow the other person pull you down to their level. In the words of Michelle Obama, ‘when they go low, we go high.’
Decide where the best environment to have this discussion is. If you think a neutral environment is better, go for it. What is important is that you are direct and honest. Let them know what the impact their behaviour has on your ability to do your job effectively. Use more I’s for e.g. When I do not receive emails on time, it prevents me from being able to meet my work targets.’
Some people believe that as a professional, you should be able to do your work regardless of what the external environment is like but I respectfully disagree. In my experience I have found people to be more productive and efficient in a cooperative environment as opposed to a hostile one. My greatest achievements have been accomplished in teams where there is mutual respect and a spirit of unity of purpose.
End the meeting by informing your colleague what the consequences associated with continuing their behaviour will be. Accept they may not change. Your goal is not to change them but to inform them.
Be consistent – Always stand your ground against bad behaviour. If your colleague is delaying a task to sabotage your work, send an email reminder of the deadline and cc your team lead. Focus on what they are doing not who they are as a person.
Every time they act out, take steps to correct the behaviour. This sounds tiring but you can’t afford to be inconsistent. When we think we can get away with bad behaviour, we tend to repeat it.
Seek Support – You cannot deal with this on your own. Don’t try to. Ensure you have a good support network. You need people to listen, encourage you and give you good advice. Be honest. You don’t need pity, you need support.
Limit what you discuss with other team members especially those without management responsibility. I learnt this the hard way. If people aren’t part of a solution, they are usually part of the problem. Ask yourself ‘Will telling this person help bring about resolution or will it just aggravate the situation?’ Have a good friend you can ‘vent’ out to but choose wisely.
Escalate your response – When you confront the situation, do not use empty threats. If you know that you have no desire to escalate the situation, do not tell your colleague you will. You will come across as weak and people with these sort of issues thrive on weakness.
Speak to your line manager in the first instance. This is where your record of events come in handy. Again, stick to the facts. What happened, where it happened, when it happened.
Tell your manager how the situation affects your work and you personally. Most importantly, ask what they are going to do about the situation! Pastoral support is good but you don’t need a counsellor. You need someone who has the power to do something about the situation. Someone who has the responsibility and is paid to manage both you and your colleague.
Let your manager know you will escalate via HR employee grievance policies if nothing can be done locally. Again, you must be willing to follow this up.
Leave – If all else fails and you believe this is the best decision for your mental, physical and emotional well-being long term. This is personal and depends on different factors that each individual knows best. I decided to leave a job I enjoyed doing because I could no longer work with a passive-aggressive colleague. If I knew then what I know now, maybe the outcome would have been different.
If there is no will by your managers and HR to deal with the situation and reporting it only leads to more passive-aggressive behaviour or in my case overt attempts to sabotage my work, consider moving your skills and abilities somewhere else.
Do what is best for you.
About our writer – Grace works in the public sector and is writing her first book about building strong teams.