Being a part of a team is not easy.
It takes a lot of hard work and good communication to establish a group that works well together. It was Hall of Fame Basketball Coach Phil Jackson who was quoted as saying, “The strength of a team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” Anyone who’s been a part of a team for any length of time should know this, especially in the workplace. Coworkers who lack a decent work ethic or who thrive on gossip can negatively impact the group dynamic and overall strength, which is why it’s important that these types of behaviors get addressed quickly.
But how do you handle a team member who at times acts like a jerk or a bully? How should you deal with that person?
Unfortunately, this is something I experienced very early on in my career after just joining a security team and for the sake of not revealing the person’s name I’m about to discuss, we’ll call him John. To put it lightly, John was hands down the most difficult person I’ve ever had to work with…anywhere. Having been on the team a little longer than the rest of the members, if you weren’t as knowledgeable on a certain topic as he was, you probably were ridiculed at some point about it. Don’t even think about asking him a question or requesting assistance on anything because you will probably be called something unpleasant for wasting his time. Hopefully he never finds out you made a mistake performing some day-to-day task, as you could be publicly shamed in front of your peers. All these things actually happened to me.
To top it off, I found out that John even tried to get me fired at one point. It’s not like I was a poor worker or anything, he just had it out for me because I was the new guy and I didn’t have much experience at the time. I was observed as the weak link on the team and his solution to strengthening the team was to simply remove that link completely, as opposed to building it up or attempting to develop it further like he should have.
It did not take long for me to reach a crossroad with John. Negative treatment like this naturally hits a breaking point where something needs to be done. I had just finished my bachelors degree and joined an amazing new team in an exciting field that I worked so hard to get into. But early on at the company, I felt I was too new to speak up immediately and risk “rocking the boat” by reporting John’s behavior to management. I was afraid of the effect that could have on my new career and relationships with others in the workplace. I’m sure many people have been faced with the same obstacle.
As much as I disliked this person, I told myself I was first going to make an attempt to resolve the matter on my own like a grown adult, without managerial involvement. So, the next time John made a disparaging remark, I asked to speak with him one-on-one. I made it clear I was not happy with how he was treating me and others on the team, and that his behavior needed to improve. His response was classic abusive mentality with him telling me that I was being “thin skinned”, making it sound like his behavior was acceptable. Thankfully, he acknowledged the situation on some level and commented that he would work on being “nicer”.
While John’s behavior did improve somewhat for a period, it quickly regressed. Before I knew it I was right back where I was, but still determined to resolve the issue on my own before taking more drastic measures. To me, getting others involved at this stage was the easy button and I wasn’t ready to push it yet. It was around this time that I remembered something my grandma taught me, which was simply “Kill people with kindness”. So this time, that’s what I set out to try. Anytime I was around John, the plan was to basically…be nice to him, and see what happened. It was extremely difficult! Looking back, he probably did not deserve it either. Why would anyone be nice to someone who was so terrible to work with and who tried to get you fired? You’d have to be insane to be kind to someone like that, right? Or maybe a saint?
But one day, not long after I put grandma’s philosophy into action, I finally found a chink in John’s armor. He came into work one morning, and I could tell something was off. He seemed somewhat “down” emotionally. I asked how he was doing and he appeared to open up verbally a little bit, which was definitely out of the norm. He mentioned he had been having issues with his girlfriend at the time and that he was planning on staying at a hotel. Having felt bad for him, I offered John a place to stay at my house, so he didn’t have to spend the money on a room. He immediately declined as I figured he would, but later in the day I extended the offer again and that time he accepted. I was surprised to say the least, but could sense he was in a dark place and just really needed someone to talk to.
From that day forward, we didn’t have any more problems and our team dynamic significantly improved. In fact, we actually became good friends after that. When he finally left the company we worked for, he even tried to get me to come work with him at his new employer, as he came to realize I was actually a much stronger teammate than previously thought. Crazy story right?
While my approach here for taming the evil coworker was successful in this case, it might not be the best path in every situation. A lot can depend on context and it would be ideal to think you can have a friendly sitdown conversation with every single person. By all means, if the negative behavior experienced in the workplace is significant enough and is dramatically impacting someone’s well-being, speak to your supervisor or manager. But if you do find yourself in a similar situation, I recommend at least trying to be nice to that person and attempt to talk out your issues first. Don’t let them control your emotions and see where it leads. I truly believe you’ll be a stronger person for it and the team has the potential of becoming stronger as well. You might even get a new friend out of it.