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How Leaders Can Handle a Bad Coworker

Is that someone using your favorite coffee mug again?

Is that someone in a sour mood, all of the time, and seems to just drain the life out of the office?

Is that someone sitting right next to you every single day?

I’ve been there with a coworker too. You get an almost knot in the pit-in-your-stomach, please God don’t interact with me today, feeling every morning as they walk in. You dread having to deal with *that* coworker because no matter how excited you are going into a day, they seem to drain the ever-living-soul from you.

How is an aspiring leader supposed to deal with *that* negative coworker?

Most of us can relate to being forced to deal with a less-than-stellar teammate. From little league sports to our first corporate job, the chances are high that we’ve had to work closely with someone we don’t necessarily like. Anytime you take a group of people with diverse personalities, agendas, and backgrounds, throw them together on one unit, and you’ll have an adjustment period.

Did anyone else get stuck doing all of the work for your class project like I did?

School projects. Youth/High School sports. Corporate teams. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team where everyone loved being around everyone else.

And guess what? That’s ok. You don’t have to like everyone – but it’s your responsibility as a leader to help them.

It’s never ideal to have friction with a coworker, yet it happens every day in offices and locker rooms. People are thrown into a situation and despite needing to work together, will still butt heads. And we both know this one fact: some people simply love being negative.

All of the time.

It’s as if they embrace being miserable. I don’t understand it, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you don’t either. However, it’s on us to still work with them – even if they’re a pain in the butt.

Leaders are the ones who can successfully navigate these tricky people and still excel beyond the immediate situation because they know how to do this:

Control Their Controllables.

We 100% control…

  • Our attitude
  • Our effort
  • Our actions
  • Our focus

…every day. We each face situations and individuals outside of our control, but only we dictate these four things in our lives. Unfortunately, most people seem to forget that they 100% control these things.

  • Bad attitude? Blame it on your negative coworker.
  • Poor effort? Blame it on the fact you wish you had a different job.
  • Complacent? Blame it on the idea that you “just don’t have the same motivation” as so-in-so

It’s easy to blame others for our bad attitude, effort, or lack of action. It’s easy to show up with anything less than our best when we don’t love our job or the people we work with. That’s easy.

But easy isn’t what makes us proud – or a great leader stand out. Blaming others for our controllables is simply creating an excuse to shift the responsibility off of us and onto others. But it’s not their fault, it’s ours.

That coworker may be toxic to work with, but they don’t control how hard you work. You do. It’s still 100% up to you if you:

  • Choose to adopt their negative behavior or learn to ignore it.
  • Engage in their game of misery, or encourage them (relentlessly some days) to change their perspective.

What your coworker chooses to do shouldn’t impact how you show up and what you do. However, if it continues to escalate, here are four things you can do to (directly) address the situation:

  1. Control your controllables. Despite their negativity, remove yourself from situations involving them (happy hours, water cooler talk, etc) and commit to yourself that you’ll maintain a positive attitude with your teammates. Focus on what you control.
  2. Have a direct conversation with the employee. You shouldn’t be rude or aggressive, but there are healthy reasons for having a candid conversation with your coworker about how their negative or toxic behavior is impacting you, your work, and the environment that you both share. Ask them if something is going in their personal life or why they might feel negative. In some instances, the individual is acting out because they don’t know how to process a situation outside of work.
  3. Discuss the situation with HR or your direct boss. If direct conversations fail, schedule a meeting with human resources or your manager to discuss your coworker’s behavior and how it’s negatively influencing the culture. Share steps you’ve taken to remedy the situation and some potential solutions you believe could help everyone involved. Make sure you’ve taken personal steps to talk with the coworker before immediately meeting with your superiors or HR so it’s apparent you’re interested in helping your team.
  4. (If all else fails) Look for a new opportunity elsewhere. There are some instances that a compromise or positive solution can’t be found due to the employee’s position, overarching situation, etc. In these cases, your best option may be to look for employment in a new organization. One thing to keep in mind when interviewing – make sure you interview your interviewer heavily about their culture and addressing toxic employees so you have a strong grasp of how they operate and what they do/don’t tolerate.

It doesn’t matter if we’re a high school athlete or a VP of sales for a nationwide organization, we will work with people who we don’t always “click” with. Most people use it as an excuse to shirk responsibility off of themselves.

Leaders should hold themselves to a higher standard. They control their controllables – their focus, effort, attitude, & actions – and don’t give that control to a toxic coworker.

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