6 Ways to Deal with Bad Co-Workers

May 28, 2019

Sooner or later, you’ll deal with an antagonizing co-worker. How do you assert yourself well?

It happens to almost everyone at least at one point during their career-chances are, you’re going to find yourself working with someone with whom you just don’t get along. Maybe it’s another radiologist, perhaps it’s a technologist, or it could be someone in your office staff.

Ultimately, the identity of who presents the problem is of secondary concern. Your primary concern is how the tumultuous relationship can-or is-affecting your daily work and your other relationships. If you want to minimize the impact, you must find a way to handle any negative situations.

“You have to address these problems because these issues will fester over time. Things don’t get better,” says Barry Julius, MD, associate radiology residency director at St. Barnabas Medical Center. “They tend to get worse, and they can snowball.”

Problems often erupt due to difficult personalities, he says. Some co-workers are power hungry and are willing to co-opt your contributions to get ahead. Others will blame you for their mistakes. Or, they might enjoy drama and endeavor to create controversy whenever possible.

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“These are the people who look out for their own interests,” he says, “and they’ll make your life more miserable and difficult.”

If you ignore frustrating relationships and the negative situations they can create, consequences will follow, he says. Your colleagues, overall, will have a waning desire to work together, and your referring clinicians will be less likely to send patients to your practice or department. Turning a blind eye can negatively affect the financial health of your group.

In addition, not addressing the problems that arise from difficult relationships can also lead you or your colleagues to develop feelings of burn out. This can be a particular problem if your difficult co-worker is a supervisor or boss. The stress you feel in trying to avoid any escalations, or meet his or her expectations, can lead to higher levels of stress and job dissatisfaction.

But, Julius advises, you have to be careful how you address a relationship that is faltering or one that is already toxic. Retaliating tit-for-tat is not advised.

“You don’t want to create an all-out war or fight. That will backfire. If someone is doing something abusive or making the work situation uncomfortable for others, you don’t want to do the same thing to them,” he says. “It escalates the situation and can make things a lot worse for you.”

Depending upon your situation and how far gone the relationship is, there are strategies you can employ to try to bring about improvement. In a recent article published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, Neeraj Lalwani, MD, associate professor of radiology at Wake Forest University and Baptist Health, and colleagues outlined several strategies radiologists can employ to tackle any differences, clarify misunderstandings, and diffuse heated arguments.

Try these tactics if you’re faced with a difficult colleague and an uncomfortable work environment.  

1. Avoid the co-worker. If possible, keep your distance from difficult co-workers as much as possible, Lalwani recommends. Let your practice or departmental leadership know about any unprofessional behaviors, and be prepared to report egregious activity to Human Resources.

Julius agrees, acknowledging that completely avoiding the person is not always possible.

“Try to minimize the time you have to spend with that person,” he says. “But, if you have to work with them frequently, make sure they meet you on your level. Do not give them power above you.”

2. Address the conflict. When you choose to tackle the problem head on, be sure to stay calm. Talk slowly and be ready to walk away to diffuse a situation, Lalwani says. Never respond with the same level of urgency, intensity, or aggression. Maintain good eye contact, and speak confidently. If you’re attacked verbally, simply say, “That’s not okay,” and remove yourself from the situation.

“Never fight with them or confront them,” Lalwani says. “If you lose your temper, they will quickly take advantage of that situation and label you as unprofessional.”

3. Handle emails carefully. If you receive an aggressive, provoking, or abusive email, do not answer it immediately. Wait until you’re calm, and then have another colleague read it before you press send.

In fact, he says, consider the long-term impact of the altercation.

“Time travel into the future, and ask yourself whether this situation will still bother you then,” he says. “If it will not, just ignore it and answer that nasty email calmly.”

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Remember, though, Julius said, emails and text messages increase the likelihood that misunderstandings will occur. When possible, choose face-to-face communication instead.

4. Set parameters for discussions. Before discussing any problems, establish guidelines for the conversation. Make it clear that you won’t engage in an argument and will not tolerate unjust and unfair behavior. Be clear when you convey what you would like and would not like to have happen in the situation. And, always have a witness, Lalwani suggests.

5. Seek advice. You aren’t the first person to have problems with a co-worker. If you aren’t having success in fixing the problem, proactively reach out to someone in leadership in your practice or department. Someone outside your institution can also provide perspective.

“They are more experienced and seasoned and might offer you a word of wisdom or share similar experiences and how they dealt with similar issues,” he says.

6. Contact Human Resources. In some instances, taking your concerns and evidence of an abusive relationship to Human Resources can be warranted. However, he cautions, such an action could potentially backfire, so decide whether to do so cautiously.

Leaving

There will be times, however, when normalizing a relationship and ameliorating any problems might seem out of reach. When this happens, leaving your job will likely appear as an attractive option.

But, don’t jump into the decision too quickly, Lalwani says. Take your time and weigh the pros and cons of throwing in the towel.

“You have already invested time and energy in your current position and have built a team and rapport with other colleagues,” he says. “You might do better just staying.”

Before opting to quit, ask yourself if the culture of your department or practice aligns well with your personality. If the answer is yes, reconsider. Be sure you’ve tried every tactic to get your relationship with your co-worker back on track.

Sometimes, though, leaving is still the best, most healthy choice. Unless you’re leaving for a better, more positive job opportunity, try not to leave too suddenly. And, whenever possible, leave with your relationships on good terms with as many people as you can in the practice or department. Be careful not to burn bridges-you never know when you might work with some of the same colleagues again.

Ultimately, Julius says, don’t be surprised if you find yourself faced with a touchy working relationship. When it happens, don’t be afraid to face the problem head on. With enough work, there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to navigate any issues successfully.

“Some people are just intractable. There are people out there who just can’t work with others,” Julius says. “But, for most groups out there, those people are few and far between, and, ultimately, you can usually find a way to work things out.”