Keeping the Boundary With a Difficult Coworker

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Reader’s Question

I work in a small office both figuratively and literally. One of my subordinates is personality disordered and I’d like to know the best way to deal with her. All of a sudden she stopped speaking to almost anyone. She comes into the office without greeting, and continues that way the entire day. When you are forced to ask her a question that is work-related, she’ll basically just grunt or give you a dirty look. Her behavior is hostile. She came from another department, where her coworkers reported her behavior to have been the same. I no longer attempt to talk to her or acknowledge her in any way that does not have to do with a work-related issue. I feel her behavior is manipulative and that she is trying to bully her coworkers in some way. While I am a very empathic person, my goal here is not to try to figure her out, but to protect myself by setting appropriate boundaries and limits. I know that I cannot change anyone and that my real power is within myself.

Psychologist’s Reply

First of all, I must congratulate you on knowing that you cannot change your coworker, and that you are only in control of your own behavior. Many people have difficulty with this concept, so you are ahead of the game here.

There could be many reasons for her behavior, but the main issue is that her refusal to interact pleasantly is disruptive to your workplace and could even be damaging to the work that you do. That is not an acceptable situation. People have the right to work in an environment that is as stress-free as possible (stress causes all sorts of problems), so if this woman is your subordinate and you have some control over her work situation, then it is up to you to deal compassionately with her. You may need to put her on something like a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan).

The key to giving constructive criticism successfully is to utilize what is called a sandwich approach: you start with something nice (bread) followed by the criticism (main filling) and end with something positive (bread). For example, you could start by talking about the good aspects of her work and then move into the fact that she must have pleasant and productive interactions with coworkers and end with how valued an employee she is.

As far as your boundaries are concerned, do not let her dictate your behavior. Treat her as you would any other coworker. If you are someone who greets people as they walk in the door, then do the same to her. If you compliment people on good work performance, make sure you say nice things to her as well. If it is your job to point out areas of growth, you must engage in this discussion with her as well. In other words, choose how you want to interact, and then do that. How she chooses to respond is up to her. This can work regardless of whether she is a coworker or a subordinate. I will admit that, in the absence of a proper response, such interactions can be challenging but, in the end, it is worth it to not allow someone else control over you.

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