Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

There’s a time-honored tradition that occurs in many corporate classrooms. It’s a game called “Stump the Teacher.” The proceedings are fairly basic. A learner asks a question, not because they want to know the answer but because they’re curious if the trainer does. As a former corporate trainer, on numerous occasions I’ve become an inadvertent player of this game. However, this type of showing off can happen just as easily around the watercooler as it does in a class. If you’re dealing with a showboater in your workplace, here are a couple of my past experiences and things you may want to consider to help nudge them towards being a team player.

Recognizing the Need for Personal Acknowledgement

I noticed a trend in the employees who felt the need to prove themselves in front of their peers. Typically, they were more advanced in their careers and, at that time, I was teaching an introductory service training course. I recognized that they were probably just bored, as they already knew the vast majority of what I was teaching. After a couple rounds of gentle jabs from an employee, I’d casually ask to speak to them during a break. Once I had them one-on-one, I’d say that I noticed that they already understood this content and that if we had the option, they probably would have passed out of this class.  Then, I said that since they would need to attend this class, regardless, I could use their help. I would point out a colleague who was struggling with the lesson and express how difficult it is to work individually when I’m accountable for validating the learning of the entire class. I’d ask if I could team them up with this inexperienced employee, trusting in them to help me by acting as a mentor. Almost every time, this employee would go from being my temporary nemesis to my biggest advocate. Not only would they assist in ensuring that the lessons hit home, but they would also call out others who were messing around or being a distraction from the lesson at hand. Even after the class ended, these employees would go on to stay in contact and help provide me information that would keep my courses pertinent. Recognizing the craving for acknowledgement of their knowledge and skills resulted in a complete change of behavior. Instead of being a distraction in the classroom, they partnered with me such that we accomplished more than I could have possibly done alone.

Verbally Recognizing the Undesirable Behavior

On another occasion, I had a superior who was displaying behavior that didn’t conform with our corporate culture. To spare the guilty, we’ll call him Tom. But not only was Tom my superior, he was my boss’s boss’s boss. During an impassioned speech in front of a group of colleagues, he swore frequently and passionately. As much as I enjoyed watching this leader give a good swearing, it went directly against the corporate policy that I, as a trainer, was expected to uphold and reinforce to newly hired employees in the classroom.

Here again, I waited until I could talk to Tom alone during our lunch break. I honestly impressed upon him how I admired the enthusiasm with which he expressed his ideas. I then began telling him a little about my job as a corporate trainer and some of my struggles in the classroom. I explained how my role in the company included not only teaching the skills these new employees would need to do their job, but also upholding the company’s professionalism policies in the classroom. I mentioned some of the pushback I had received from newly hired employees regarding the latter. At this point, Tom became visibly upset and wanted to know the names of the employees who had acted in an uncouth manner. I assured him that I had handled it properly at the time. But then I asked him whether I had been right to do so. Here I was admonishing my colleagues for swearing at the workplace, when they were now seeing our leadership doing it. Upon hearing this, Tom looked slightly taken aback. He said he was expressing himself so that the employees could understand how much he cared about their issues. He didn’t realize he was creating additional issues by doing so. By directly pointing out his specific behavior without judgement and stating its effects on my job, I was able to advocate for the company policy without making it personal.

Handling undesirable behavior in the workplace isn’t easy, but it’s something we’re all going to experience. When you’re faced with this, consider these takeaways:

  • When a person appears to be repeatedly showing off, figure out whether you can help transition that energy into something more productive
  • Don’t make it accusatory
  • Talk about the behavior, not the person

By dealing with the behavior diplomatically, you not only turn around the relationship, but help bring out the best in your colleagues. And that is a worthwhile goal for all of us.


Jackie Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jackie is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training.


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