Working with Difficult Coworkers

 Updated: February 1, 2019

image of medical professionals engaged in a meeting with papers and stethescope in foreground

Coworkers who continually express negative comments or bad attitudes tend to bring down the morale of the entire team. How you deal with the situation can really make a difference.

Timeout!

Colorado therapist Kevin McQueen, MHA, RRT, RRT-ACCS, CPPS, CM, describes a difficult coworker as anyone who presents with disruptive behaviors — and that can range from blatant, in-your-face actions to subversive behaviors like ignoring or back-stabbing.

Regardless of how they disrupt, these workers break down the trust that must exist between team members to effectively care for patients.

“Staff may become disengaged and no longer support each other,” McQueen said. “Employees may decide to leave the department or organization altogether due to decreased morale.”

As a department manager, he lets his staff know it’s safe for them to report such workers to him and he follows up with those workers to find out what the problem is. If the behavior is ongoing or particularly egregious, he follows his organization’s progressive disciplinary policy with corrective actions.

But sometimes the problem can be handled internally, as was the case in another organization he worked in.

“I had a major problem with gossiping in one of my previous departments,” McQueen said. “I discussed the concerns with the team members at a staff meeting and gave them a challenge. I asked the entire team to go one day without saying a single negative thing about another employee.”

Coworkers who were overheard saying something negative were given a timeout signal to remind them about the challenge.

“We then increased the challenge to a week without a negative comment, followed by a month. It was very effective, and over time the gossiping decreased significantly,” said McQueen.

Fueled by change

What triggers negative behavior in the people you work with? According to Kim Bennion, MsHS, RRT, CHC, sometimes it is change within the system.

“They would rather lead their own informal, negative group by ‘rallying the troops’ rather than seek to understand the key objectives of new and existing initiatives,” said the administrator at a hospital system in Utah.

Indeed, their ultimate goal often seems to be stopping those initiatives in their tracks.

She works with them by holding one-on-one meetings, where she attempts to answer their questions about the concerns and gain their buy-in for whatever initiative is fueling their angst.

“Before leaving the meeting, and to help them feel engaged and part of the process, I ask what part they find most interesting and would like to assume as a lead role,” Bennion said. “Then we leave with mutually accepted expectations for support and constructive feedback through appropriate channels.”

This usually works to stem the unwanted behavior, but if it doesn’t do the trick and the worker continues to recruit other naysayers to his or her group, she’ll redouble her efforts by calling an additional meeting to hold them accountable.

“Being up front and clear with expectations and documenting those helps the individual realize that informal negativity is destructive to the team and/or initiative and will not be tolerated,” Bennion said.

One bad apple

Duke Johns runs a home care company in Louisiana that employs RTs and is a big supporter of the AARC. He says often the most difficult person to work with is the one who is extremely good at his or her job, but extremely bad at getting along with others and following departmental values.

“Unfortunately, we still often hire on aptitude but then have to fire bad attitude,” he said. “One bad apple can ruin the whole barrel.”

Bill Baker, RRT, who also works in home care, believes sometimes you need to see if there is an underlying problem that’s causing their negative behavior. Perhaps a medical screening is needed to provide insight to see if something else is influencing their attitude.

His company once had an employee who was adversely affected by a blood sugar issue, and once that was corrected, the behavior issue disappeared too.

You’re a mentor?

Most of the time, though, difficult coworkers are difficult because that’s just the way they’ve always been.

Sometimes those negative coworkers really think they have what it takes to mentor a new therapist as well, and the results are anything but mentoring.

That’s what happened to Cathy Blevins, MS, RRT, RPFT, AE-C, early in her career.

“I remember starting out as a therapist, and a coworker decided to take me under their wing,” she recalls. “He was the most negative person and he could never find the good in anything. It got so bad that we couldn’t even be in the same room.”

She ended up pointing out the problem to him, but he wasn’t motivated to change.

“Now as a director, I believe the most important approach is for the staff to feel empowered to let you know the situation,” continues Blevins, who works in Virginia. “It is the director’s job to ensure that the attitudes are dealt with in a timely fashion.”

Have you dealt with a difficult colleague in your career? Share your experiences on AARConnect. Starting the conversation could help everyone find the right way to help a coworker who’s heading down the wrong path get back on track!