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Can Frustrating Coworkers Change?

Work problems are almost always people problems. The furniture, software, and even budgets can be worked around. People have minds of their own. All of us develop habits, coping mechanisms, and reactions based on our frame of reference and work history. Some of these behaviors are unproductive.

When the term emotional intelligence came into the business lexicon, I fell into the camp of those who greeted it with skepticism. It sounded like junk science and a significant waste of time. Although I definitely wouldn't plunk down a couple of million on a consultant, there are lessons to learn about how to deal with unproductive behaviors in the workplace.

Label Behaviors, Not People

The first key to transforming a workplace is to identify behaviors that hinder productivity and sabotage working relationships. Most of the list below is intuitive and you probably don't need to look far to find someone who exhibits these negative behaviors. However, it's important not to define people by the one or two unproductive behaviors that sabotage their performance. When we label others, it may restrict their ability to change or our own ability to perceive the changes. You may think of Helen as the office gossip, but it will be more productive to think of her as the person who often repeats negative stories about others.

When you identify and begin to work on negative behaviors, you extend grace to your coworkers. You give them room to grow and become better teammates and more effective workers.

Examples of Negative Behaviors

Here are a few of the many behaviors we identified in Taking God to Work (The Keys to Ultimate Success) and how to address them.

Faultfinding - Some people have been trained by past experiences to resist change to the point of picking apart any new idea. They can find the cloud in every silver lining. Obviously, it's important to brainstorm the good and bad of new ideas, but when one person is always bringing up the downside, it can prevent a team from accomplishing its goals. The answer is to train the person exhibiting this behavior by requiring them to come up with solutions to the problems they raise. The first question to that person who raises a roadblock is "how would you solve that problem?"

Volcano Erupting - When a coworker regularly uses anger in business meetings, it's time for his/her supervisor to get engaged. But what if the unprofessional behavior is coming from the supervisor? The Bible suggests in proverbs 15:1 that a "soft answer turns away wrath." The key is not to escalate tension with the person who throws temper tantrums. Business should seldom bring any of us to serious anger. When frustration boils to the surface, it's important to get to the root of the feelings. By bringing the volume down, the volcanic behavior can be curtailed in favor of a more productive solution.

Bulldozing Others - This behavior is the one that proved most inviting to me early in my career. If the boss said she/he wanted the ball over the goal line, I would run over anyone to get the project done on time. This did not make me popular with some of my coworkers. What I failed to understand is that everyone (at least theoretically) has important work to do. While helping me may be part of their job, they didn't work for me or sometimes even in the same organization. To slow down a bulldozer, the best strategy is to remind them of other tasks you have to complete. Give them a firm answer about when you can get to their problem and how long it will take you to get them an answer.

Why Help Coworkers Change?

Am I my brother's keeper? It's a question as old as Genesis. The answer is clearly yes. Each team is only as effective as it's weakest link. By helping your team work better together, you are helping yourself many times over. Each time you don't have to sit through a meeting with one person being very negative about new ideas, you will be glad you took time to help fix the problem. Whenever you see a formerly volatile coworker calmly talking through their issues that in the past would have led to drama, your blood pressure will reflect the newfound calm. Finally, the person who makes a habit of bulldozing others on his/her way to a short-term goal will think twice about using that technique on you - when they see how that approach proves unproductive.

You can make a difference.


If you enjoyed learning about these behaviors and strategies for addressing them, there is much more on this subject in our book Taking God to Work. Read it for yourself or grab some friends and go through it as a Bible study. There are convenient questions at the end of each chapter to spur discussion and reinforce learning.

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