How Dealing With a Challenging Co-Worker Improves Leadership Skills


If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a week, you know there will be challenging co-workers.

You can simply survive your time with these co-workers. Or you can choose to use it as a learning experience. Working with a difficult person can ultimately improve your leadership skills. Here’s how.

Improve Your Communication Skills

True communication is not a one-way exchange. It takes at least two people to communicate. It’s easy to communicate with someone with a similar style and great communication skills. But realistically you’ll encounter far more people with poor communication skills in your lifetime.

Learning how to communicate with a range of people can improve your communication skills, making you a much better candidate for leadership positions.

For better communication with your co-workers:

  • Listen. Many of us think we’re listening, when we’re really preparing our response. You won’t be able to understand your co-worker’s point of view if you’re not listening. If you listen to that challenging co-worker, you may find they suddenly becomes less challenging. It’s an amazing thing to feel truly heard, and it’s where effective communication begins.
  • Be sensitive. While it’s easy and convenient to rattle off a message via email or instant messenger, some conversations are better in person. Consider the nature of the information you’re delivering. It’s difficult to convey your tone and intention in email. Thus, a well-meaning comment can come across as harsh criticism. If communication with a co-worker is already challenging, don’t compound the problem with poor choice of communication modes.
  • Be flexible. Understand that while you might prefer email, others may prefer a phone conversation. Being aware of the preferences of your co-workers shows thoughtfulness. Adapting to the preference of a challenging co-worker, when possible, may diffuse tense situations.

Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

It’s not always an option to leave your job because of a challenging co-worker. Besides, there will always be a challenging person or situation in any job. If it makes sense to stay put, you can exercise your problem-solving skills, another key for a future leadership role.

To troubleshoot the situation, try the following:

  • Assess. What is the problem? When you dig deeper, you may find there’s not really a problem at all. Know the difference between a problem and an inconvenience or irritation. For example, the co-worker who always takes the last cup of coffee but never makes any likely irritates you, but this behavior isn’t a full-fledged problem. However, the co-worker who steals your idea and presents it as their own does present a problem.
  • Own your role. It’s possible that a difficult co-worker is just that. But it’s also possible you may have played a role in the situation. Spending hours complaining about a negative co-worker isn’t helpful to anyone and can make the situation worse. Be professional, even if the other person isn’t.
  • Focus on solutions. While you can’t control what your co-worker does, you can control yourself. Accept that not everyone will get along all the time, and put your energy into finding solutions. If you keep your focus on doing your job and improving yourself, you’ll excel, while the difficult co-worker will stay stagnant.
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