Empathy: Three Steps to Managing Difficult Workplace Relationships

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We spend a lot of our lives at work. So it makes sense to acknowledge that a difficult workplace can make life miserable. Often, there is a disruptive person at work that throws the whole place off kilter. Coworkers feel miserable, angry, and frustrated. They feel their creativity, productivity, and commitment drain away. They want something to change but don’t know what steps to take and often just hope the difficult worker changes.  Which unfortunately never happens.

The Counterintuitive Solution

But there is, in fact, a way forward. It can seem counterintuitive and downright frustrating, but it’s simple, and it works. The key is committing to it and entrusting the idea that each individual has a responsibility to help make the workplace better.

The approach can be summed up in just one word. Empathy. Empathy is the key to managing difficult workplace relationships. And in this context it means really trying to understand and appreciate the very person that you likely have the least desire to think or care about. But when we look at what might be driving disruptive individuals to act the way they do, we can begin to understand them, empathize with them, and even begin to work better together with these three steps.

Step 1: What is the Pattern of Behavior?

Step one is trying to nail down the individual’s pattern of behavior. What exactly is disruptive about how they act? Maybe they are always overestimating their abilities and blaming others for any shortcomings. Perhaps the person explodes whenever their authority is threatened. Some difficult workers frustrate us by cutting corners and always falling short on tasks—and then lying about it!  et others are a pain with their need for perfection, orderliness, and control.

Whatever it may be, the task is to figure out just what the pattern of behavior is. What is the action the bothers you and in what settings does it occur? Only by having a clear sense of the problem can you find a solution.

Step 2: Empathy and Understanding

The key here is thinking about why the person might be acting so disruptively. Much like a child throwing a tantrum, the goal is not necessarily to be bad but the difficult person often doesn’t know another way to handle his own stressful situation. In understanding their behavior, we can have empathy for their situation, and figure out ways to engage them rather than merely complaining about how frustrating they are.

Begin by asking what you know about this person. What is her life like? What is the office like for her? What is she worried about that she covers up be being difficult? Because that’s what is usually going on: the bad actor has some internal struggle that is causing the inappropriate behavior.

Even acknowledging that general conclusion can be incredibly comforting. The person that is making your life a living hell is actually insecure and taking it out on you. The arrogant, condescending person is often covering up their own feelings of inadequacy. Once you understand this, you can acknowledge that little compliments might avoid a blowout. The inflexible micromanager is only controlling you because she is out of control and overwhelmed. Recognizing this can provide for the technique of avoiding challenges over details and expressing appreciation for their dedication (while emphasizing yours!).

While each difficult person might be different, there tend to be general types. And once you figure out what they’re struggling with to cover up, you can approach them with more empathy and specific techniques that minimize their anxiety. At the end of the day, even if you’re the one doing the legwork, this will make your job and your workday more pleasant.

Step 3: What am I contributing?

The last step is to figure out just why the person’s pattern of behavior bothers you so much. As much as the disruptive coworker is labelled as a “jerk” or “schmuck” it is just as important to figure out why we are bothered by the behavior. Why do you hate being blamed? Does the individual remind you of someone else in your life? Is there a reason that certain demands rub you the wrong way?

By assessing your own contribution to the problem, you are more likely to be able to take a step back and diffuse some negative feelings for the disruptive person that you are carrying with you throughout the day.

While certain people at work can be extremely frustrating, we can take solace in knowing that there is a way forward.  Instead of just hoping that the difficult person changes, each of us has the ability – and responsibility – to improve the office.  Committing to the steps of identifying patterns of behavior, harnessing empathy, and looking at our own contributions can all help to improve our time at work.


Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster are the authors of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work. For more information, please visit, www.schmuckinmyoffice.com.

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