Business school may develop an employee's management and communication skills, but even with an MBA hanging on the wall, most people are unprepared to deal with challenging co-workers.
It's a topic, says bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch, that "they don't cover in business school."
Welch tells CNBC Make It that employees will frequently encounter problem co-workers — and they're each a little bit different.
"Whether you've got a gossiper, a complainer, a doomsday-er or a bully — highly dysfunctional people exist, and sometimes they can really distract you," she says.
If you've got a co-worker that's negatively impacting your work, Welch suggests exploring the following four strategies:
Ignoring a difficult co-worker can be hard, but according to Welch it may be the best option in order to avoid conflict.
"My daughter sat next to a woman at work who constantly sang Taylor Swift songs aloud with her headphones on all day," explained Welch.
Rather than confronting the co-worker about her loud music, Welch says her daughter got her own headphones and tuned the distracting noise out.
Now, they're able to co-exist without tension.
"This tactic works when the person is only minorly difficult and shows they want to be liked," says Welch.
If you think confronting a colleague about their behavior is the best approach, then lead the conversation by phrasing your critique with a question. For example, Welch suggests saying something like, "Sometimes I wonder if I complain too much at work. Do you ever feel that way? I feel like we can really tone that down."
By inserting yourself into the problem you make it easier for your colleague to engage in the discussion.
"No one listens when they're on the defensive," adds Welch.
Your boss most likely has a very full plate, so reporting a co-worker's behavior to them is a tactic you'll want to use sparingly. Consider first if it's an issue you can resolve yourself.
However, Welch says you should report the issue to your boss immediately if you feel unsafe.
"You can — and you should — go to your boss if a colleague is making you feel nervous, threatened, manipulated or undermined," she says. "And definitely go to your boss if you feel a colleague is a danger to him or herself."
Welch says the only time you should consider reporting a difficult co-worker to HR is if your boss is part of the problem — or is the problem.
"The facts are, bosses are human and sometimes they display or enable bad behaviors," says Welch. "Or — and I hope this is never the case for you — they just don't have the guts to deal with a difficult employee."
In any of these cases, Welch says HR may be your only hope. However, she warns that this tactic should only be used as a very last resort. Reporting the issue may backfire, especially if you and your HR rep don't have a confidentiality agreement.
Fortunately, Welch says, most of your professional experiences probably won't be complicated by challenging or unstable co-workers. But knowing how to deal with this issue when it arises is crucial to your career.
"School doesn't prepare you for that," says Welch, "but you can — and you should — prepare yourself."
Suzy Welch is the co-founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute and a noted business journalist, TV commentator and public speaker.
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