Career & Business

Dealing With Abusive Colleagues At Work


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Many people work with abusive and intimidating colleagues. The situation is especially difficult when these colleagues are in positions of seniority. Speaking up carries the risk that you will damage your career. Keeping quiet carries the risk that you will damage your health!

Most of us start out by putting up with abusive behaviour. Confronting it is too difficult and the stakes are too high. As time goes on we become stressed; we are permanently exhausted; we dread going to work. Eventually we ask for a transfer or leave the company. Less often we explode with pent up frustration and anger.

While confronting abusive people is always difficult, it is possible to set up a conversation where you can safely speak about how you feel and then ask that you talk through the problem. Consider a situation where one of the executives in your organisation is constantly finding fault with your work and criticizing you in front of others. You do not understand where this is coming from and you find it hard not to be defensive. You decide to talk to him. You know it will be a difficult conversation because he is touchy and likely to blow up at the least provocation. Keep in mind that you are having the conversation to clear the air and put your relationship onto a better footing. You might even find the person is surprised by your reaction and had no idea he was coming over as intimidating. Also remember that in some way you might be part of the problem!

First decide exactly what you are going to confront. You have to choose between talking about the pattern of the behaviour, or describing just one example. In this case, it would be safer to choose one instance and hope that he will pick up on your feelings about his behaviour as a whole. A safe question that would get you started could be: Can I talk to you about something that is concerning me. This opening draws his attention to the conversation and sets a serious tone, without going into the content of the issue.

Then be very clear and specific about the behaviour that is upsetting you. If you choose one example of behaviour, speak up soon after it occurs, when you both have a clear memory of what was said.

Keep it short. A long list of what he said or did will start to sound like an accusation and risk your getting an explosive reaction. You might say: This morning when you gave me feedback on my project report you did so at my desk in front of the team. When you raised your voice, I noticed others looking over at us.

When you have described the behaviour that you find upsetting, describe how you feel about it. Choose your words carefully and use them tentatively. You could say: Maybe you do not intend this but sometimes I feel like you think I am incompetent.

Then invite the person to talk to you. You could use a very open question such as: How do you see it? Or you could be even less confrontational and say: Is there something I do that is creating the situation between us?

Listen very carefully to their reply. You may find it difficult to acknowledge that their view of the situation differs widely from yours and you may feel defensive if you are told that your own behaviour is at fault. There are always two sides to a story. You will only get to the bottom of a problem when you have heard both of them. Then you can decide what can be done to resolve the situation.


About the Author:

Maureen Collins specialises in communication in the workplace. In Straight Talk, she trains people how to handle difficult conversations, on difficult topics, with difficult people. Get free Straight Talk Tips.

photo: daniel laflor/gettyimages


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    March 27, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    i know someone who left her work because of an abusive supervisor.maybe this would have helped.

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