Dealing with difficult people at work
Illustration: Istvan Banyai
Her name was Margaret. She had an answer for everything, even questions I didn't ask her. She dominated team meetings, nearly jumping out of her chair with "Look at me!"–type comments aimed directly at the boss. The rest of us sitting there, jaws slack with amazement and disgust—we were merely a load she had to carry on her back.

His name was Mike, and he hadn't done a full day's work in years, but he sure knew how to draw us into his life of woe. One night at 10 p.m., I found myself finishing his report on deadline. He couldn't be there, he said, because his father was sick. By that point, I wasn't even sure he had a father. But there I was, alone, frustrated, and exhausted, in a state of loathing for work so intense I wished I could ditch it all.

And that is exactly where a dysfunctional co-worker—or as I call them, an "un-teammate"—can put you. It's a crying shame, because working alongside a good team player is one of life's most fulfilling experiences. She makes work enjoyable; she makes it feel like something bigger than a paycheck. Working with team destroyers, well, destroys all that. They slow work down; they sap its fun, trust, and creativity. And in the process, they invariably undermine the candid and energized debate that characterizes any successful group.

So why aren't they all sent packing? In good organizations, most are—eventually. But many team destroyers are like workplace Houdinis, escaping damage to their own careers while making everyone else look bad. These are the people you must survive. But how?

The answer depends on the type of un-teammate you're dealing with. Generally speaking, there are five: Boss Haters, Stars, Sliders, Pity Parties, and Self-Promoters. Each species has its own way of poisoning the environment and its own antidote. The first thing you can do is start with the assumption that virtually every team destroyer is an unhappy person. No one tries to damage co-workers, a team, or an entire organization without being a bit emotionally damaged themselves.