Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

Drug Topics JournalDrug Topics April 2019
Volume 163
Issue 4

How you can manage these stereotypes found in the pharmacy workplace.


Nobody would characterize a pharmacy as a stress-free environment. With challenges ranging from avoiding prescription mistakes to dealing with unhappy patients, pharmacists face enough demands even when working with the best of teams. When difficult colleagues are part of the equation, stress levels may rise.

“Working in a pharmacy is usually busy and fast-paced,” says Laura Jones, MPharmS, clinical lead at Assured Pharmacy in Cheshire, UK. “You probably only have time to complete the tasks in front of you to make sure that patients get the treatment they need. When there are colleagues that make this more difficult you may notice that teamwork is also more difficult, and the effectiveness of the team suffers.”

In fact, dealing with challenging colleagues can be seen as a business imperative. At best, difficult colleagues make the work day less enjoyable. But the results may go much deeper.

“They can put the pharmacist under increased pressure, who in many cases will try and cover the areas that are underperforming,” Jones says. “How often have many of us stayed late or started early to try and keep up with work?”

Too often, she points out, a difficult colleague may not be asked to complete certain tasks as an easy way of avoiding conflict. This can increase workload on other team members and may be especially challenging when a change needs to be implemented.

“Difficult colleagues and coworkers cause a risk in safe and effective patient care and great customer service,” says Vinay Patel, PharmD, founder of Self Insured Pharmacy Networks, a benefit management firm in Raleigh, NC. “These colleagues, both pharmacists and techs, create barriers to open two-way communication which impedes maintaining efficient work flows.” He adds that the situation can be especially problematic in settings with two or more openly difficult colleagues, creating an unprofessional work environment.

Types of Difficult Colleagues

Even with the best staffing situation, some team members will be more challenging to work with than others. Here are some of the most common types of problem colleagues, along with tips for dealing with them.

The Slacker   The Turf Protector   The Pessimist   The Complainer   The Micromanager  

The Untouchable

Tips for Coping

Of course every individual is just that: an individual. Among other challenges, a difficult coworker may display any one of these traits or even a combination of them. But regardless of a colleague’s dominant workplace orientation, following these suggestions can help foster teamwork and limit confrontational situations.

Don’t delay in addressing problems. “My personal philosophy is always to intervene early,” Mars says. “When I first sense trouble brewing between me and my coworkers or even between coworkers themselves, I like to address it.” She says that posing simple questions early can quash problems on the spot and help avoid lingering difficulties that are more difficult to manage down the road.

“Many people don’t like to handle interpersonal problems and would rather dismiss them to avoid conflict,” Mars says. “You’ll never have a happy work environment unless you deal with people being people. By not engaging, a simple problem can become catastrophic.”

Focus on safety. Any worries about triggering a negative reaction from a coworker should never take a back seat to safety. Lee advises applying a practice borrowed from the manufacturing world, where when a safety issue is identified, anyone can stop the assembly line.

“Applying this concept to the pharmacy setting, think of near-miss safety risks and drug-drug interactions,” he says. “Anyone who catches one should be empowered to speak up, regardless of how a difficult colleague feels.”

Strive for service quality. Working relationships aren’t just about maintaining a pleasant environment. They are also vital to business success.

“If a coworker is inconsiderate or gives patients a hard time, you should step in, whether that involves immediate service recovery or bringing it up to management,” Lee says. “These days, customers have many choices and they don’t want to jump through hoops.” He points to the old adage: One happy customer tells 10 people, one unhappy customer tells 100.

Look inward. A reasonable amount of self-analysis is always advisable, according to Mars.

“It’s important to recognize that the problem might be us,” she says. “Sometimes it may seem that our coworkers are difficult, but the problem is really how we interact with them.” She notes, for example, that in times of personal stress, anyone can find themselves being short with colleagues. If relationships with others become strained, pausing to analyze one’s own behavior is never a bad idea.

“Some things we can modify, some things we can’t,” Mars says. “But it always helps when people see us trying to do our best.”

Consider more than the workplace. Everyone should leave their personal problems at home, but that doesn’t always reflect reality.

“So often a person can be difficult at work for reasons that have nothing to do with work,” Mars says. “Family issues, money stress, or love lives can put even the best employee in a bad mood.”

This may be especially likely if a coworker’s challenging behavior has not been a long-term pattern, if the colleague is suddenly acting difficult. In such instances, one approach is to point out the problem and ask if there is something going on (work-related or not) that could be affecting work performance.

“Good coworkers will handle these interactions respectfully and admit there is a problem,” Mars says. “They may even open up and ask for advice or ways to improve the situation.”

Pick your battles. “Some people will continue to be difficult regardless of your efforts,” Lee says. “Learn to distinguish when to take a stand and when it may not be worth it.”

Before confronting a coworker, pause to ask yourself if the issue at hand is important enough to warrant a frank discussion. Is it a real problem, or just a different approach than what you would prefer?

“Although you may not like the way someone does something or would rather it’s done your way, this does not always mean it needs changing,” Jones says. “If the job is getting done and in a reasonable timeframe, then don’t fight it.” In fact if you’re too quick to criticize, you yourself could be seen as a difficult colleague.

“You don’t have to be friends with everyone you work with,” Jones adds. “But you do have to work with them, so don’t make everything an issue.”

Know your colleagues. Perhaps the most important strategy of all is taking the time to know your colleagues well enough to understand their outlooks toward daily work routines.

“Take the time to build deep relationships with team members to better understand them and their perspective,” Patel says.

This doesn’t mean trying to become everyone’s best friend, or being overly accommodating to each person’s pet preferences. But even the most difficult colleagues may seem less challenging if you can gain a glimpse of their point of view.

“Remember that different personality types play a part in how we react to situations,” Jones says. “Understanding each member of the team better can help resolve conflicts by adapting your style.”

The Slacker 

Some people consistently do more than what is required. The slacker is just the opposite.

“This person tries to find ways to pass off work to others, never volunteers to help and is the first to abandon the team in a crisis,” says Shital Mars, CEO of Progressive Care, a health services organization in North Miami Beach, FL. A colleague who fits this profile doesn’t really care about the quality of work performed and thus can make frequent mistakes, leading to significant pressure to catch errors and make adjustments throughout the work flow process.

The Turf Protector

Colleagues with this orientation like things the way they are, and will strive to keep them that way.

“Some people are very focused on self-preservation,” says Christopher K. Lee, a healthcare business consultant based in San Diego. “They are resistant to change and often react as though others are encroaching upon their turf.”

Such workers tend to be protective of what they see as their territory, he says. They work to maintain control and even if uncooperative actions are not overt, may rebuff offers of assistance from others or drag their feet in implementing changes in operating procedures.

The Pessimist

Pessimists may do a decent job, but too frequently complain or take a negative position on virtually any issue.

“Pessimists don’t think highly of their job, their coworkers, or the company they work for,” Mars says. “They often complain and drag down the morale of those surrounding them.” This can lead to interpersonal conflicts, anxiety, high turnover, or quality problems in the work of those around them. “The hardest part of dealing with pessimists is that they project their negativity onto others, making it difficult to pinpoint the real source of a given problem,” Mars says.

The Complainer

Everyone complains, but some people make it their specialty.

‘These workers like to see the negative in everything,” Jones says. “They often spread bad news that they’ve heard, or think they’ve heard, and enjoy seeing their colleagues share in the worry.”

A typical stance taken by a complainer is to point out that a coworker has made a mistake or failed to follow a standard process. But the focus is on complaining rather than pitching in to correct the problem.

“They are quick to point it out and discuss the repercussions, but not very quick with possible solutions,” Jones says. “This negative attitude can spread through the team and create an unhappy atmosphere for everyone.”

The Micromanager

Although this label is often used when referring to a supervisor it can refer to any colleague, according to Jones.

“Micromanagers love the detail and the grandeur of having to deal with complex situations,” she says. “This is so even when they are simple cases for everyone else.”

She says the added drama can be particularly frustrating when pharmacies are busy and a colleague slows things down by taking unnecessary steps. It can also present problems when processes that are in place are not followed because the colleague wants to do things his or her own way.

The Untouchable

Some coworkers feel they enjoy a special status and as a result, can get away with actions that might not be tolerated in others.

“They may be the hardest to deal with because they are either great at their job, or they have a personal relationship with someone in management and, because of that, they feel a sense of entitlement,” Mars says. They may put others down, expect special treatment, or become unreliable.

“They know they’re nearly impossible to let go of, which means they can get away with a lot of things without major repercussions like coming in late, taking long lunches, demeaning the work of others, gossiping, taking more time off than they are due, or demanding pay over and above what would be commensurate for the position.”

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