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How to deal with difficult colleagues

colleagues pointing at a woman's back

There will always be people you don’t get on with at work: a senior nurse who tries to undermine you, a mentor who makes impossible demands, or a colleague who doesn’t pull their weight.

Dealing with difficult colleagues can add to the stress of an already challenging job, and have a knock-on effect on your personal life. You may not be able to change your co-worker, but there are things you can do to change the dynamic of the relationship.

See things from their view

Sometimes, tensions can arise due to a clash of working styles. One source of conflict common in nursing is the value of experience versus qualifications, particularly with the changes in nurse training over recent years.

Some highly experienced nurses may resent younger, or less experienced, colleagues with higher formal qualifications and try to “put them in their place”. Equally, recently qualified nurses may flaunt their qualifications and not give due respect to the experience of longer-serving colleagues.

Respecting different types of knowledge that come from academic study and practical experience and pooling those resources is far more constructive, but that doesn’t always happen.

‘When someone tries to put you down, it’s because they feel threatened in some way,’ says Ann Griffin-Aaronlahti, Managing Director at Professional Connections nurse staffing agency.

‘If someone belittles your background, counteract that by showing a genuine appreciation for their experience and knowledge. Being the “bigger person” and asking for their input, and not feeding into their narrow mind-set, can be incredibly disarming and change the dynamic of the relationship.’

Modify your approach

We all handle stress differently, and understanding what makes your colleagues tick can help.

‘The working environment in medical settings can often be incredibly fast-paced and at times highly stressful, and your colleagues will likely have different ways of coping with the pressure,’ says Nick Simpson, CEO of nursing agency MSI Group,.

Observe the person closely and try to figure out where they are coming from – you don’t have to agree with their viewpoint, but it helps to understand their way of thinking.

How does their approach and attitude towards nursing differ from yours? Are they task orientated or relationship focused? Are they overly emotional or fixated on figures, are they optimistic or focused on worst-case scenarios?

Then adjust your communication style accordingly. A highly emotional person may not respond well to a detailed, logical argument. Instead, acknowledge their feelings on the issue (you don’t have to agree with them) and paraphrase their concerns back to them. Relaying your understanding of how they see things will make them feel heard.

‘Understanding other people’s points of view is key in diffusing disagreements – especially if you are trying to compromise on an appropriate decision. Even though you may be pressed for time, try not to dismiss a colleague’s opinion without letting them explain their reasoning first,’ adds Nick.

We’re all human

We all have off days and there may be things going on in someone’s personal life that are affecting their behaviour. In this case, patience and a sympathetic ear can work wonders.

‘Voicing your concerns with genuine care and asking if they’re OK may be enough for them to stop treating you as an adversary. Do this falsely though, and it will inflame the situation,’ warns Ann.

If the incident isn’t a one-off but follows a pattern of behaviour, someone (either you, your senior manager or someone else in the organisation) needs to have an honest conversation with them.

Tackle the issue head on

If you decide to tackle the co-worker in question, you need to be as objective and calm as possible.

‘An upfront approach can work, especially with people who are not very self-aware and may not know what impact their behaviour is having on others,’ says Ann.

‘If you take them to one side, they are likely to do one of three things: apologise as they were genuinely unaware of the problem, make an excuse for their behaviour, or attack you in defence.

‘Either way, they’ll know that you won’t tolerate being treated badly, and may escalate your complaint if it happens again.’

Zero tolerance on bullying

Finally, it’s important to set boundaries if someone is bullying you. Don’t tolerate yelling or heated conversations in public places and make it clear that you expect to be treated with respect.

‘If you feel like a situation is escalating rapidly or a colleague is being aggressive towards you, walk away and return to the issue once they have calmed down,’ says Nick.

‘You should always take a zero tolerance approach to bullying or harassment in the workplace. It’s important not to become consumed emotionally by a bully’s comments and to recognise that criticism or personal remarks are not connected to your abilities, they are more likely to reflect a bully’s own insecurities,’ says Nick.

‘If a colleague’s behaviour continues you should start to keep a contemporaneous record – this will be useful should you decide to take it further at a later date. You should always seek help, whether this is in the form of support from other colleagues or raising the issue with a manager.’


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1 comment… add one
  • Hi Rachel, another very informative article. When I speak with people working in healthcare, they often cite run-ins with colleagues as a source of stress. In fact, its often the first thing they say when I ask.
    I think its really tricky to consistently respond in helpful ways. I also hear a lot of stories about how people aren’t challenged nearly enough. The impact then is that it rolls-out in negative ways to other team members.
    I think solid leadership is key, but of course this isn’t within a person’s direct control. You can influence managers, but I agree with the premise of your post; that you can change things when you focus on what you can do differently – putting yourself in their shoes, taking different perspectives, choosing what is important and communicating openly.
    I often role-play with clients assertive communication, which embraces fairness, compassion and persistence. It takes practice, but the opportunity to rehearse in a safe environment can be a rich learning experience.
    With thanks, Jim


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