Dealing with difficult people at work
Illustration: Istvan Banyai
Whether they're pushy, lazy, boss hating, self-promoting, or haven't done any actual work since 1973, dysfunctional colleagues can make everyone look bad. Here's how to win at work with a losing team.
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.

Let's start with the boss haters—you know the type. Harry will tell you his disdain for authority is a reasonable reaction to the tyranny of incompetent bosses. Elizabeth will tell you she refuses to be oppressed by corporate lackeys. Other Boss Haters have personal issues behind their nitpicking resistance to every directive from above. I once met a manager who told me, "For a long time, I hated all my bosses because my father was a cruel authoritarian—I almost ruined my own career. Thank God I came to my senses."

Such conversion experiences are rare, however. Most Boss Haters persist, using every kind of subterfuge from eye-rolling to outright belligerence, until management loses patience and ousts them. Some Boss Haters are hard to extricate because of union rules or special skills. If that's your situation, your best approach as the peer of a Boss Hater is a freeze-out. Don't belabor Harry's resistance or try reasoning with Elizabeth. Simply isolate; refuse to listen to their ongoing complaints. Once they're cut off from the group, Boss Haters tend to lose their energy.

Now for Stars. Make no mistake—organizations could not survive without their results. Fortunately, many key players are Stars largely because they are the best kind of employee, inclusive and inspiring, but some Stars can develop into real bullies. My team at a consulting firm had to endure Chad, an articulate (and, yes, brilliant) economics major from M.I.T. whom our clients adored. (Like other people in this piece, his name has been changed.) Sensing he was untouchable, Chad would bulldoze his ideas through the team process and ridicule anyone who dared to disagree. Another group I worked with suffered through Gwen, a marketing "guru" who'd been stolen away from another firm to bestow her genius on us. She passively disrupted our discussions by not participating, her silence sending the message "This nonsense is beneath me."

We didn't have much recourse. Few bosses want to hear nattering about a goose that's laying golden eggs. Your best option in terms of self-preservation is to accept Stars for the good they do and ignore the bad. I've seen only one other approach work, but it's hard to recommend. This technique involves playing to a Star's weakness—the need for constant praise. As strange as it may seem, many Stars are deeply insecure and cannot receive enough ego stroking from bosses. Co-workers can play the same game, thereby drawing a Star back into the team process. But don't try this unless you really feel the love for your own Chad or Gwen; a phony intervention won't work.

Sliders are former Stars, resting on their laurels and undermining their teams with apathy. Their unspoken excuse is "I've proven my worth around here; I don't need to scramble anymore." Take John Smith, a crusty old newsman who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Vietnam. I met him when we were both assigned to the same investigative team 20 years ago. The young reporters, myself included, fairly trembled in John's exalted presence, but within weeks, it became obvious to us that he had no interest in interviewing sources or late-night stakeouts. He preferred to sit around the office drinking coffee and telling war stories to his in-house fan club.

Fast-forward to the end of the project: a front-page article under the byline—you guessed it—John Smith and the newspaper team. The editors knew John had done minimal work, but in the newspaper business, one way of keeping score is by the number of Pulitzer Prize winners on staff.

My solution at the time was to moan and groan with my teammates about the injustice of it all. What a waste. Sliders will always live inside a protective bubble that no peer can pierce, because they deliver tangible value to an institution. Don't bother griping; instead, buck up and join the Slider's fan club, respecting him for contributions you can only imagine making. With that mind-set, you might even be able to turn your Slider into a mentor. To this day, I remember what John Smith taught me about reporting—when I finally dumped my pointless indignation and asked him.

Pity Parties are those un-teammates who have an excuse for every act of inaction. Their computer melted down. Their elderly aunt came to visit or, like Mike, their father is sick. The most expert Pity Parties concoct long-running sympathy stories: bad backs, bad marriages, bad childcare, and so on. I don't want to sound harsh. Sometimes people really do need time off or special accommodations, but Pity Parties make an art form of wriggling out of responsibility, and you're left wondering if you're a heel for resenting them—or a dupe for helping them.

Your best strategy is to steer clear of Pity Parties and their appeals for help. You'll need to steel yourself to say no as often as humanly possible, even if they promise you, "This is the very last time." The line I ended up using with Mike was "I'm in a bind too. Did you ask Rory for help?" (Rory was our boss.) That response did not put an immediate end to Mike's ways; he went looking for other enablers. Still, it sent the signal—both to Mike and my co-workers—that I would not cut side deals. When enough of us started saying no, he left us alone.

The final form of dysfunctional coworker is the Self-Promoter, like "Look at Me" Margaret, who saw every team assignment as an opportunity for personal advancement. In their pursuit of fame and glory, Self-Promoters occasionally sabotage peers. I once had a co-worker who used staff meetings, with the boss in attendance, to vociferously attack every other writer's work as "hackneyed" or, her favorite word, "superficial." If we pushed back against her critiques, she accused us of being competitive with her. There was no way to win.

Usually, that's the case with Self-Promoters. They can drub you with their narcissistic "logic"—they're right; you're just defensive—and wear you down with their egocentric career campaign. But they can't smite everyone forever. After a few promotions, the moment comes for every Self-Promoter when they need a favor or help, and there is no one left to ask. So keep your head down and wait. And most important, keep overdelivering, even if your local weasel tries to steal all the credit. Self-Promoters might get more praise than they deserve, but in any good organization, real team players ultimately get what they deserve: respect and admiration.

If you have any doubt about that, you might ask Margaret. I stopped working with her years ago, but I recently heard that the company asked her to move on—just when she thought she had achieved the position of vice president, the goal she'd been gunning for. Colleagues tell me she interviewed for jobs for a year afterward, but with less than enthusiastic references, she couldn't land one. She ended up going out on her own as a consultant, and I just learned she's a tireless and admired mentor for young women in a leadership program in Boston. I don't know what she tells them, but I can venture a guess: Do everything you can at work to be a great team player, and learn to survive (and thrive) around those who are not.


Next Story