How To Handle That Terrible Team Mate
February 22, 2017
A difficult team mate can threaten your happiness and sense of security at work, through bullying and belittling, undermining your performance, passive-aggressive behaviour, or dragging the whole team down through poor effort or attitude.
For some life science professionals, a terrible team mate might cause them to dread coming into the office, or perhaps even consider finding work elsewhere. This is particularly the case when senior management doesn’t seem to notice the person’s poor behaviour, or is unwilling to intervene—a problem that can arise when the individual is considered a star player, such as a lead scientist or top salesperson, or has managed to ‘get the ear’ of a decision- maker.
This is all too common: according to a survey by Fierce Inc, only 40% of bosses will fire an employee whose toxic behaviour is hurting morale. In this situation it can be all too easy to feel powerless and deeply frustrated, leading you to think that the only answer is leaving the company or transferring out of your current team.
Stop. It needn’t come to that. After all, why should you run away from your job because of this person’s toxic attitude? There are better ways to fight this battle.
1. Assess the cause. Dispassionately assess why this person might be behaving this way. Are you the only person they do it to, or does everyone get the same bad treatment?
2. If it’s just you, consider why that might be. Have you got a role they want? Were they passed over for promotion? Are they jealous of you in some way? Have you slighted them somehow? Is it just an old-fashioned personality clash- and in which case, what’s your part in the clash? Be honest with yourself.
3. If they treat everyone badly, then consider this: most bullies behave the way they do because of fear that they’re not good enough, so they rip everyone else down to make themselves look and feel better. Their behaviour stems from something you have no control over, so it’s pointless to take it personally. Of course, you do get the odd office sociopath who enjoys causing trouble for others for sheer fun, but again: why take it personally?
4. Learn to control your emotional response. The last thing you want to do is show them that they are getting to you. This gives the bully a gleeful sense that their campaign is working- and if you decide to leave, they really have won! Instead, shock them with a cheerful smile and a wave each morning, and when they criticise or put you down, just answer with a breezy ‘thanks for the input’, and walk away.
A word of warning: once they’ve recovered from the surprise, they’ll almost certainly accelerate their bad behaviour towards you to try and put you in your place, but if you stay the course they’ll end up giving up and finding an easier target.
5. Don’t become a bully. If your team members are also suffering from this person, it’s all too easy to form a pack and start talking behind the offender’s backs and even plotting against them. Before long, you’ve become bullies too. Even more worryingly (remembering what we said about bully behaviour being anchored in fear) you’re probably reinforcing the sense of inferiority they already have and this will only make them angrier. By being mean to them as payback, they’re very unlikely to become compliant and apologetic: you may have just ratcheted up the conflict to the point where it becomes truly vicious.
Remember, your manager will notice and remember your role in leading the bullying against the bully (even if they realise the bully started it), and such behaviour is very unlikely to feed into future promotions and positive references. Don’t sink to their level.
6. Speak to the team member. Sometimes interpersonal conflict gets out of hand partly because neither party was willing to outline their issues with the other.’ We’ve obviously got a problem, and I think it’s starting to impact our work performance and our reputations. Shall we get it sorted and start with a clean slate?
This will give the other person a chance to clear the air too—one which they might be very happy to take if they’ve been feeling the conflict is getting too problematic! Of course, if you’re dealing with a really nasty character this won’t work, but it is a necessary step to take before you take the problem higher up.
7. Speak to your manager. If the problem gets beyond your capacity to deal with it, you must involve your manager. If you’re facing the scenario where the manager either professionally values or genuinely likes the team member, you’ll need to be delicate.
It can be helpful to point out that you understand the person’s value to the team, and simply state your issues in a calm fashion with clear and persuasive examples of the person’s behaviour. Even more importantly, explain how it is impacting your work performance. Explain that you want to find a positive solution and you’re hoping the manager might help you do so. If the manager doesn’t want to intervene, decide if you want to take the matter further with HR or a formal complaint.
Of course, there are no guarantees that these 5 steps will neutralise your toxic team member, and if the problem continues then you may have to make the professional decision to find another job. But if it does come to this, you’ll be content in the knowledge that you didn’t just run away.
You fought your battle and did everything you could, before deciding to find a better job. You chose to leave this situation, you were not pushed, so hold your head high and move on to better things, chalking it down to a learning experience. Next time you encounter a terrible team mate (and you will), you’ll know how to act straight away so that it doesn’t escalate again.