Practice Politics: Surviving Dysfunctional Coworkers

Dysfunctions between coworkers and between owners/managers and employees can cause difficulties in the workplace. Here are tips to address those problems.
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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

As a practice management consultant, every year I have the privilege of going into dozens of veterinary practices all around the country. What always strikes me is that no matter how large or how small, many practices struggle with toxic “office politics.”

The repeated power struggles, disputes and tension do not usually occur because of an impending deadline, a super-busy schedule or the occasional “bad” day at work. Instead, most of the problems we tend to identify as “office politics” are really just symptoms of some basic dysfunctions between coworkers.

In order to get a handle on office politics and begin to overcome them, we must identify the different types of dysfunctional coworkers.

The Office Bully

The Office Bully is one of the most common types of dysfunctional coworkers. Workers of this type use intimidation, manipulation, undermining, negativity and confrontation to get their way and control others. Office Bullies can come in several forms:

The Rage-aholic tends to lose his temper and throw tantrums; he also yells at and insults employees. Rage-aholics often seem to be in “attack mode.” When criticizing a perceived behavior problem, they seem to not only attack the behavior, but you as well.

The Backstabberis nice to your face, but sabotages you as soon as you leave the room. Backstabbers are often very conniving, gaining respect by attacking the efforts of their coworkers. Through manipulation and meddling, Backstabbers are usually masters at convincing others they are vitally important to the practice.

The Queen Bee uses her position and power to actively thwart the growth and advancement of others, especially other women. Queen Bees have risen to a position of power within the organization, are deemed “indispensable” and are often the most powerful person in the practice.

The Prima Donna senses he is “untouchable” and bulldozes other team members, ridicules any ideas but his own and otherwise disrupts any progress that does not revolve around him. Prima Donnas usually are the stars of the practice and are necessary to keep around.

The Bossy Coworker thinks she’s the voice of authority when the boss isn’t around. She may try giving you assignments, distracting you with unplanned meetings or manipulating you into doing what she wants. The Bossy Coworker is usually insecure in her own status and will prey upon coworkers whom she feels pose a threat to her success.

Credit: Thinkstock Motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation and exaggeration.

Credit: Thinkstock Motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation and exaggeration.

The Gossip Monger

Unlike other normal office talk, Gossip Mongers often seem obsessed with picking holes in another person’s character by sharing details in a way that tends to undermine the credibility of that person. These details may be given with moral undertones and are often more personal than you care to know about.

The Gossip Monger will often adopt a confidential tone and use the information about somebody else to become the center of attention. The motivations behind gossip includes attention-seeking, self-inflation and exaggeration. The Gossip Monger seems unable to make it through the day without gossiping. However, gossip and backbiting are the number-one killers of trust in teams. Gossip damages relationships, invites retaliation and creates an environment of distrust that causes the workplace to feel emotionally unsafe.

The Habitual Complainer

The Habitual Complainer finds faults with everything. The complainer is never content and constantly gripes about everything he perceives is wrong, from how dirty the floors are to how hot it is outside to how he can’t possibly get all his work assignments done (maybe because he is spending too much time complaining).

The worst type of complainers tend to complain about other people, especially coworkers, managers and supervisors.

This type of complainer creates “drama triangles,” i.e., Sally doesn’t like Mary so she complains to Doug. This draws Doug into a situation that doesn’t concern him and over which he has no control. This robs Doug’s productivity and leaves him feeling frustrated and tired.

The problem is that complainers tend to focus their attention on the things over which they have no influence. Because of this, complainers often feel like victims—powerless and controlled by others. Complainers tend to resent it when others do not conform to their ideas of how they should behave. Complainers can be very hard to deal with in work situations because they drag others down and drain productivity.

The Negativist

A similar creature to the Habitual Complainer, the Negativist finds fault with every new idea, every new work initiative and every proposal. The Negativist believes that any tasks not in his or her own hands will fail. Negativists use phrases like “That won’t work,” “We’ve tried that before” and “They won’t let us do that.” Like complainers, they feel they have no power over their own lives.

Negativists are extremely detrimental in work teams because their negative tone can be very discouraging and contagious. Their pessimistic views lower morale, dampen creativity and cause coworkers to doubt any new initiatives.

Overcoming Dysfunctional Coworkers

Credit: Thinkstock Veterinarians want to practice medicine, but the headaches of running a business can sap the joy out of your daily practice.

Credit: Thinkstock Veterinarians want to practice medicine, but the headaches of running a business can sap the joy out of your daily practice.

Above are some of the more common types of dysfunctional coworkers. There are more … many more. Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself and perhaps even transform a difficult coworker into a manageable one. What follows are five simple steps to help you deal with any type of dysfunctional coworker.

Stop wishing your dysfunctional coworkers would change. They are not going to change, at least not just by you hoping they’ll magically see the error of their ways. You are going to have to change what you are doing first.

Distance yourself from the situation. You need to gain some perspective on the situation by looking at this as if from the outside … even while they are talking to you. Imagine yourself as a third person watching the conversation. What patterns of behaviors do you see from your dysfunctional colleague? What are the sources of those behaviors? In what category described above do they fit?

Formulate a plan.The best way to head off a problem is to be ready for it before it comes through the door. Be prepared for conflict. Plan in advance how you’re going to react. It’s when you are unprepared that you are likely to react with anger and impulse, but that will only make the situation worse.

When you are prepared, you have the upper hand.

Implement the plan.Go over how you see yourself behaving when the time comes. First, see yourself acting with immaturity, name-calling and attacking your coworker’s performance. How does that make you look? Do you look good? No, I didn’t think so. Next, see yourself as the mature adult, the consummate professional working toward resolving the conflict. You must be willing to compromise, but be firm in your morals and values. If your coworker begins taking cheap shots, see that for what it is: attempts to bring you down to her level.

Monitor your results and, if necessary, modify your behavior. How’s it going? If it’s working, great! Keep it up. You are making progress. No change? Try a different approach. But be prepared; the truth is that difficult people are difficult for a reason. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you cannot get a leopard to change its spots. If you have honestly given it your best try and it’s still not working, it may be time to admit the situation just cannot be resolved. It’s not worth the stress to work day in and day out in a toxic environment. You have four options: Move to a different department, request that she is moved, find a new job or, if it’s in your power, let her go.

Take-Home Message

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve never had to deal with the practice Prima Donna, Queen Bee, Office Bully, Pushover Boss, Slacker, Constant Complainer, Gossip Monger or Jealous Coworker. These dysfunctional coworkers are what we think of when we hear the term “office politics.”

If you’re like most of us, you have been the victim of at least one of these dysfunctional coworkers and the resulting “office politics” at some point in your career. Difficult coworkers sap all the fun from a job, undermine trust, drain productivity and can make your professional life a living hell.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be like this if you can identify the different types of dysfunctional coworkers and learn how to deal with them. Few things in life are as rewarding as being part of great team that effectively and successfully fulfills its mission. When you are part of a great team, the work is fun, gratifying and so much more than a paycheck!