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How to Confront Your Fears with Difficult Colleagues

Some midlevel and senior executives are perfectly comfortable holding their staff members accountable for their responsibilities, but they get flummoxed when a peer is unenthusiastic, uncooperative, or downright obstructionist.

These execs may not perceive it as their job to correct or manage a colleague. They wonder, in disbelief, “Isn’t everyone supposed to know how to behave both responsibly and collegially?”

But that stance is unrealistic. The higher in the organization you go, the more likely it is that you’ll need to manage both across and up — even if you only have potential influence and no authority.

But when a colleague is behaving badly, and the C-level either isn’t catching on or isn’t taking action, what can frustrated peers do on their own to ensure that the work gets handled and the organization continues to make progress?

Facing the Fear

Most managers don’t see themselves in the role of whistle blowers and don’t want to be characterized as any kind of tattletale. These are inherently awkward roles. So the first step in figuring out how to take action is often identifying and acknowledging the fears and anxieties that naturally come up.

It’s easier to deal with the fears and move forward once you’ve really examined the emotional responses that might be holding you back. These concerns tend to fall into three main categories; see which of these matches your feelings.

    Anxiety that I don’t have the standing for a confrontation:

    • I’m not perfect either, so what right do I have to challenge him?
    • Is this colleague really a problem? She seems so nice, and her staff seems to like her. Heck, my staff seems to like her too.
    • What if my plan doesn’t work out any better? Maybe things aren’t really so bad the way they are?
    • What if my colleagues don’t back me up, even though they say they agree with me?

    Concern that taking any action will backfire:

    • It’s tacky for me to give a peer this kind of feedback.
    • This can’t possibly go well — she’ll go after me later in private and/or public.
    • Our other colleagues will support him and turn on me.
    • Is the issue really that we just don’t like each other? And if that’s what it really is, does that make it better or worse?
    • I don’t want to be a “bad guy” or be seen as ineffective or a problem myself.
    • If I act like a whistleblower by going to my boss, it will seem pushy and obnoxious.
    • What if I’m perceived as uppity and out of place by the senior execs — taking things into my own hands?

    Worry about the future (not even particularly for my own sake):

    • If I don’t deal with this, will it get worse?
    • If I don’t do anything, will my staff think I’m a wimp, and that I’m not taking care of them?
    • What if management is asleep at the switch? And is anyone calculating how much damage this is causing?
    • What if we can still meet our plans — for the business, customers, and staff — even with this person causing problems? In that case, does the problem even matter?

These are all legitimate concerns. In many organizations, the messenger, sadly, does get shot — or sidetracked, at the very least.

Doing What Needs to Be Done

Once you’ve identified your own unease about addressing your difficult colleague directly or going to your management with your concerns about organizational dysfunction, you can make a plan for conducting the tough conversations themselves.

Onward and upward,


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