We’ve all been on our way to refill our coffee cups when we notice a certain coworker is there already – and we retreat to our desks on the double.
Everyone has a person or two in the office that he tries to avoid. Maybe they’re too negative, maybe they’re too needy, maybe they’re a conversational black hole, or maybe they make every project ten times more difficult than it ought to be.
The problem is that they’re still coworkers, and we still have to figure out how to work together productively.
Ask yourself if your quirky coworker is really hindering your work, or just annoying you personally. If your coworker’s routine high-volume phone calls with her doctor keep you from writing coherent sentences, that’s one thing – but if it’s possible to just ignore their weirdness it might make for an easier time at the office.
To put it another way – a coworker’s obsession with cat photos in her cubical may be a bit deranged, but is it keeping you from working? Or is it your obsession with her strangeness that’s getting in the way?
New intern? “I wonder if she’ll be as awful as the last one.” Change in HR policy? “This place is really going downhill!” Cookies in the break room? “Somebody’s trying to make us fat.” The Downer has an amazing ability to find something wrong with every scenario. Where most people see a rainbow, he sees rainclouds, and in his bleak world it seems there’s little hope for change.
Unfortunately, the Downer also thrives on sharing his opinions with others, bringing down your own mood with his tales of doom and gloom.
How to deal:
Figure out if there’s an actual problem, or if the Downer is just looking for someone to vent to. As a listening ear, you may discover the underlying issue underneath the petty concerns, and be able to help.
Keep the conversation focused on finding a practical solution to the problem. If there is none (or he’s obviously not interested in solutions), walk away. Come up with a few escape phrases to get back to work, and suggest that he take his concerns to HR.
As a writer who has trouble blocking out my environment, the Noisemaker is my personal nemesis. She’s the one who listens to her voicemail on speaker, hums to music on her headphones, crunches on chips, and has never ending phone conversations about the most inane topics. Somehow the Noisemaker doesn’t realize that cubicle walls aren’t soundproof.
How to deal:
You have to come to a compromise with this person. Talk to her about toning down some of her more annoying noisemaking traits, but be reasonable. You can’t expect silence in an office, but you can ask your coworker to respect everyone’s eardrums a bit more. Keep the focus on your work needs, by saying something like “I have a hard time focusing on my work when it’s noisy,” rather than making your request sound like an attack.
If it works for you, try noise-canceling headphones or listening to music.
The rumor mill’s working overtime when the Gossip is around. She’s constantly on the hunt for the tiniest scrap to pass on, whether it’s substantiated or not. She loves to speculate on the tiniest innuendo in every HR memo – and in who’s going to lunch with whom. When she’s on a roll, she can spread uncertainty throughout the office.
How to deal:
Don’t get drawn in. The Gossip rarely cares what the truth is – she’s more enticed by the thrill of speculation. If she confronts you with her latest tidbit, press her for actual answers and evidence. If none can be provided, make it clear that you’re not interested in empty speculation – you have work that you should be getting back to.
Avoid telling the Gossip anything, whether it’s a revealing personal fact or a meaty tidbit that could add fuel to the rumor mill. The last thing you want is for the latest gossip fire to be traced back to you.
You know he’s researching his Hawaiian vacation when your boss’s back is turned – meanwhile you’re picking up the slack on his uncompleted projects. Although it seems obvious to you that he’s not pulling his weight, for some reason management never seems to notice, and he just keeps floating along while you grow ever more frustrated.
How to deal:
You need to solve this – and quickly – before it becomes a bigger situation. Confront him directly if you think you can do it diplomatically, and focus on the work rather than turning it into a personal attack. Choose something specific to address, like “When you didn’t finish your portion of our project last week, I had to set aside other duties in order to finish the work, which put other people in our department behind.” Try to brainstorm solutions that will work for both of you in the future, like regular checkins for accountability.
If he’s not receptive, or you don’t feel up to discussing the problem diplomatically, bring the issue to the attention of your managers.
The Chatterbox’s stories are sometimes interesting, sometimes inane, and always impossible to escape. He cornered you in the break room, followed as you inched back down the hall to your desk, and is now leaning against the cubicle while you mumble “mm-hmm” and surreptitiously try to check your email.
How to deal:
This person is normally harmless, although he can be incredibly irritating. Try giving him a time limit by citing a conference call or deadline to get him to wrap up the conversation. If a gentle hint doesn’t work, cut him off with something like “It was nice talking, but I need to get back to work.”
If he’s easily offended by rejection, try to let him down politely and easily – although some Chatterboxes seem perfectly content to break of conversation just to pick up the thread with the next person who walks by.
How do you deal with difficult coworkers? Do you have any tips to share?