Ask Anna: How do I deal with a difficult colleague?

In latest question for our creative advice column, CR agony aunt Anna Higgs offers suggestions for how to cope with a complicated colleague and a less-than-interested boss.

Dear Anna,

I’m doing well in my career but have a colleague who I feel is holding me back by being competitive and uncooperative. I’m not sure my boss is interested in my problems – what can I do to make my work life better?


Dear Anon,

Work is challenging enough these days without a colleague turning it all a bit Devil Wears Prada. While competition within a team can be useful to drive that whole team forward, when it starts to get personal, it’s not good for anyone.

To get started, it’s important to stop and assess the situation. A question I like to ask is ‘what’s that really about?’. Because there’s usually a deeper motivation or explanation underneath the obvious that, when unlocked, can give you powerful insight into what’s actually going on.

So, hard as it may be, it’s time to get empathetic. What’s really happening with this colleague? Are they being competitive and uncooperative because they’re threatened by you? Are they insecure in their own position, or under any particular pressures? Of course, this doesn’t excuse their behaviour towards you, but understanding it more fully could help you deal with it.

Then depending on your assessment the best response, like a good cake fork, has three prongs.

The first is focusing on your own work. Although unreasonable behaviour can be really distracting, sometimes that’s the very point of it, so you should do your best to hone in on challenging yourself to move forward. Are areas where you’re being blocked ones you can make improvements in and excel in new ways? Can you demonstrate that you are great at tackling challenges and proactively moving beyond them?

To support yourself during this focused phase, it’s good to nurture other relationships in the workplace. Where do you have allies that recognise your skills and integrity? Where can you show that you’re striving to work with professionalism, positivity and purpose? Doing this, and having it recognised, can help you remember your network values and supports you, and has the added benefit of building your opportunity for growth within the team.

Then back to the tricky colleague, and the second prong in tackling their behaviour towards you.

Summoning up as much empathy as you can is the best, but by no means easiest, starting point. Once you’ve really buoyed yourself up with your individual focus, can you try to make an ally out of someone acting like an adversary? If they’re threatened by you, does giving them a genuine compliment on a piece of work help ease that situation? Could asking their advice on something you are doing open a new door?

That said, if your colleague is not receptive to an honest and open response, then you have to move on. They may have these behaviours far too ingrained, and it’s not your job to do their self-development for them. Maybe they’ve watched Swimming with Sharks too many times. This doesn’t mean it’s time for a Hollywood transformation into a ‘no more mister nice guy’ throw down, but if this is still materially affecting you personally and professionally then it is time to talk to them seriously about the issue.

A great tool I use for difficult conversations like this is the somewhat awkwardly named BOFF. This stands for Behaviour, Outcome, Feedback, Future. The model works like this:

Keeping the focus very much on facts, start by describing the behaviour that you have observed, e.g. “you gave the presentation to the team on our project and my name wasn’t on the reports”.

Then explain the outcome, “so it looked like I hadn’t contributed to the work”. Then express your feelings about that, e.g. “and I felt that wasn’t fair to me”.

Then – and this is the key piece – shift the focus to them. Ask your colleague specifically what they can do differently in the future. Then it’s down to them to offer up a solution and, implicitly, take the responsibility for that not happening again.

Keeping it factual helps to ensure you don’t descend into tit for tat, as it’s structured as an open and positive conversation based on mutual respect and listening.

Hopefully these two strategies will help ease the situation, but in some cases even the most professional and proactive approach doesn’t solve things. At which point, if they haven’t engaged in this so far, it is definitely your boss’s job to care about this now, whether they like it or not.

Prong three means you need to arrange a time to talk to them and go prepared with specific facts and instances like those you prepared for the BOFF conversation. It’s important to keep it professional and not personal – all about the impact this behaviour is having on productivity and the team – because that’s incontrovertibly a leader’s key concern.

If you’ve done all this and your boss still doesn’t engage, then take a wider look around. This could be reflective of a broader workplace culture of competitiveness. While that culture might bring short-term gains, in the long term it is toxic for employees, teams and the organisation as a whole.

If you look around a see an environment where this toxicity is ignored, or worse, encouraged, then I’d say it’s time to stick a (cake) fork in it: you’re done. Make the ultimate focus your own needs and find a new place in which you can thrive. You’ll have tried everything you can, and your career trajectory can only be boosted by the empathetic resilience you’ll have grown through this process.


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