Two months deep into my first real job, my typically flawless interpersonal Spidey senses still malfunctioned every time I tried to put my finger on the type of dude Doug was.
His contradicting actions and characteristics left me more and more puzzled each day. There was the time he asked me out to lunch but then remained excruciatingly difficult to converse with as he followed a “two-word maximum” response policy to even the most titillating subjects.
Weeks later, he got random anxiety when the cable guy visited our office for routine maintenance. After asking me a question or looking at something I was working on, he’d also often linger at my desk as though he expected me to say or do something more. Then, he'd silently return to his desk.
It wasn’t until I discovered he’d turned in one of my projects as his own, however, that I had an actual issue with him. I let the incident slide but ensured that, from then on, my work went directly to my boss, sidestepping Doug altogether.
He remained a mystery I hoped to solve. I felt as though it was only a matter of time until he’d let a critical nugget of informational gold slip, quickly unraveling the guarded folds of his inner self.
Doug’s “slip” came a little more quickly than I’d expected. One brisk Tuesday in August, after learning that the marketing and sales department had never conversed, I scheduled a meeting to discuss how we could foster a mutually beneficial relationship between our departments.
Mid-meeting, my eyes happened to catch a glimpse of an ongoing Skype conversation between Doug and his girlfriend, a conversation littered with sad, crying and angry Emojis. Oh, yeah, and my name. With the peripheral prowess of an owl, I finally got a sobering glance in to the mysterious world of Doug.
I remember only a few conversational highlights, all of which circled around my penchant for scheduling unnecessary meetings, tendency to “…talk just to talk“ and the general caliber of my suckage.
While, yeah, he’d said some pretty mean things, what pissed me off most was the fact that the whole time he was sh*t talking me, he simultaneously continued to pretend he wanted to be my friend. When he asked what was bothering me, I did something I’d never had the balls to do before: I confronted him.
After a plethora of hollow apologies and an awkward few weeks at the office, the situation taught me five invaluable lessons for dealing with an assh*le coworker.
Even more, I discovered that finding a delicate balance between assertive confidence and graceful humility is the key to earning the respect of even the douchiest coworker.
Address Your Problem(s) in a Timely Manner
As grown up as you feel when you land your first position with a salary, health coverage and 401(k) plan, developing actual maturity takes discipline, humility, confidence and patience.
Say goodbye to the days of silent, introspective brooding and passive-aggression -- at least those of you who want to grow the f*ck up. Not only are these archaic coping mechanisms extremely immature, they also take far too much time to effectively execute.
Members of the species Dick Sapien most often prey on weak, emotionally frail individuals. By addressing conflicts or issues with a coworker as they occur, you make it clear that you won’t tolerate being mistreated.
This step also helps you to avoid the catastrophic explosion that often results after a period of silently tolerating being treated like sh*t.
Speaking up when you feel disrespected is mature. Exploding in a tyrannical raid when you inevitably reach the end of your rope, however, is not.
Cool Off Before the Confrontation
I want to emphasize that you should never confront a coworker after he or she has upset you without first taking some time to cool down. Any level of confidence or maturity you exhibit by addressing an aggressor who mistreats you is discredited as soon as you can no longer command your own emotions.
Winston Churchill wisely observed, “We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.” Make sure you get your emotions in check before you have a talk with an office bully to avoid saying things you’ll regret later.
It’s important to keep in mind that the main goal here is to balance being assertive with unwavering grace and maturity -- traits that Jesus couldn’t even demonstrate 100 percent of the time when he was seething mad.
After seeing the things Doug was writing about me, my immediate instinct was to tell my boss about what I’d seen, like a 2-year-old would instinctively run and tell Mommy at the first sign of trouble.
Instead, I took 30 minutes to reflect on what had just happened, and by the time I confronted Doug, I was able to isolate the facts from my emotions. As I calmly told Doug what I’d seen (void of anger, tears and hurt), I was even able to take a little pleasure in watching him squirm with discomfort.
Document, Document, Document
In college, a mentor of mine often told a story about a time he’d been hired by a dental office to evaluate the performance of the entire staff. The first problem he noticed was the attitude and general lack of work ethic of the front secretary.
After addressing this problem, however, he discovered that several threats she’d made of filing a racial lawsuit had paralyzed the office’s CEO from firing her.
After only one week of observation, my mentor had several pages of documented evidence to back the decision to terminate her. Similarly, without evidence, it’s almost impossible for your boss or the HR department to take disciplinary action against an office bully.
To be on the safe side, document the conflicts you have with coworkers in case you are unable to resolve the issues alone.
While I never had another problem with Doug after confronting him, I still have the Skype conversation saved on my computer, just in case there’s ever another problem.
Let It Go
As soon as an aggressor has apologized or acknowledged his or her fault in a situation, it’s crucial you’re able to show a little humility and GET OVER IT.
Again, the point here is to leverage assertive, yet graceful maturity to garner the respect of an aggressive or mean coworker. Holding grudges and refusing to let conflict go long after the moment has passed is a sure way to do anything but earn back respect. After you confront an aggressor, there’s no need to incessantly harp on the past.
As far as dealing with Doug was concerned, I limited my confrontation to three sentences: “Dude, saw you talking sh*t about me. It didn’t make me feel good and wasn’t fun to read, but I’m glad to know how you really feel. Let’s get over it and find out how we can keep it professional.”
That was it; I didn’t tell anyone else in the office about it. I didn’t email my boss; I handled it on my own, then continued to be the cordial, respectful woman I’d always been to Doug.
Use the Opinion(s) of Bullies and Mean Coworkers to Improve Yourself
There’s a reason this is the fifth and final piece of advice I’m giving you. For many, it’s the most difficult step of the entire conflict/resolution process.
It’s never going to be fun to hear something said about you behind your back, or in my case, to read what someone’s saying about you right in front of your eyes. However, it’s a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into the hidden world of unbridled criticism and the candid, uncensored opinions others have about you.
This is the most difficult step because it redirects a small percentage of blame away from an aggressive coworker and toward the helpless, innocent victim: you. It takes an exceptional amount of humility to be able to consider that, perhaps, the things your coworker said about you may hold a sliver of truth.
I’m not saying anyone is ever justified to treat you poorly or bully you. Instead, I’m taking maturity and humility one step further by subjectively viewing the situation in a whole other dimension (cue "Twilight Zone" theme song).
I am an intense person who is hardworking to a fault, so it’s not too difficult to see why Doug might initially have felt a little intimidated by me.
I also realized that, perhaps, a number of the meetings I’d scheduled out of “necessity” were merely a waste of time for the majority of the people involved. This plane of thought allowed Doug and I to establish an open, honest dialogue about our opinions in a non-obtrusive manner.
As an inherent people pleaser who used to avoid confrontation at all costs, my 20-year-old self would've probably seen this incident as horrific. As I've grown older, however, I’ve discovered that these somewhat weird and awkward social survival lessons you face in life play a critical role in molding your future self.
As we 20-somethings climb the corporate ladders of our respective careers, the confrontations and social challenges we encounter will only become increasingly complex.
For those of us who want more out of life, the Dougs of the world (Dick Sapiens) provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to face our fears as we progress through life.
A good friend of mine, Ernest Hemingway, once wisely remarked, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Learning how to stand your ground and defend yourself with grace and humility in the face of adversity, anywhere you man happen to encounter it, is also learning how to conquer something far more powerful than anyone or anything else in the world: your own fear.