How to Work with a Grumpy Co-Worker

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Dealing with someone who is grumpy all of the time in a workplace context is challenging. It’s likely that they have developed a range of coping mechanisms to try and hide their attitude but have also worked out whom they can target more effectively than others in terms of letting their real side show. In other words, if you are in a position of working closely with this person, it may well be that you’re getting more of the heavy treatment than your other co-workers, so keep this in mind when trying to cope with it.

Remember that you can’t change a person, so you will need to try and change the situation.

You could try ignoring their behavior but it is not likely that doing so will help you out in the long run because you will still have to deal with it every day and it will still leave you feeling drained and unhappy. On the other hand, not rising to their ruses can be a successful means of reacting to a grumpy co-worker if they realize that you won’t play ball with their bad moods.

Be careful that you’re not dealing with someone who feels more successful when they target a person who is receptive to their moods and responds in a way to try and ease their grumpiness, hence creating a relationship of reliance and dependency that is unhealthy for you although profitable for them. In the work context, you might be in this situaion if you find yourself ending up trying to be overly quiet, not talking to them unless they make it clear they want to be spoken to, tip-toeing around them and meekly asking for help or for work to be done, worrying about the next nasty outburst from them. In this case, you have to stand firm and assert yourself at all times, to demonstrate that nasty behavior does not intimidate you, nor will you tolerate it.

Be very careful in asking what is wrong; it could open a floodgate of anger or provide an opportunity to complain about a range of things, some of them being you or your workplace behavior. Approach finding out about their behavior with care but don’t be afraid to try. Ask them if they have any concerns about particular things in question, rather than life in general. For example, if they seem really grumpy when asked to do a certain piece of work, use this as a time to ask them what concerns them about the work in particular and if there is something about the work that they consider should be done a different way, or something similar. When you focus on something concrete rather than making an abstract complaint about their grumpiness in general, you have a direct and obvious issue to deal with together in a constructive way, rather than picking on their personality.

Try not to sweat it. As stated earlier, we can’t change people but we can change our own approach. If the grumpiness is grating on you so intensely every single day, perhaps think about options to change the situation, such as moving to another desk, working with a different colleague, or a range of colleagues, limiting the time that you need to spend with this person. Another possibly effective way of coping if you can’t do any of these things is to make it clear to this person that you also have times when you are not available for them and that if they interrupt you, they can expect to be asked to wait until later. Play their game a little in this respect, to give yourself both space and respect.

Use music. If they are the type of person who is always sighing, cursing under their breath, having small outbursts of anger, etc., try listening to music if it is possible when the outbursts are at their worst and most intrusive. This will help you to get on with your work without getting worked up over their behavior.

Talk to them about anger management. Be honest and let your co-worker know that you’re having a hard time dealing with their frequent outbursts of grumpiness, sighing, anger, muttering, complaining, etc., – be honest about your own feelings rather than labeling their behavior and building up a completely negative picture; simply say how you feel uncomfortable and pressured, etc. when they outwardly behave in certain ways. Then, ask them if they might consider taking up a course offered by the workplace in coping with anger, or something similar, to see if they can learn something broader about coping with things that upset them so easily. Of course, you will need to approach this with care but there comes a point at which you should not have to work with someone who behaves in this state constantly as it ends up demoralizing you and your co-workers who work in the vicinity of such behavior. Sure, everyone gets angry once in a while, but constant outbursts are unbearable for those who must weather it. If you don’t feel you can do this, seek your boss’ help to intervene, explaining thoroughly and compassionately what the problem is from your perspective.

Always remember that the grumpy co-worker has a perspective too. You don’t know how they see your behavior in the workplace. This might be a good time to ask them what they feel about working with you and to make any complaints about your activity in the workplace. You might find there are some things that you’re doing that are aggravating the situation; there might even be a win-win situation here if both of you make positive changes to help improve your time at the workplace!

Stay yourself. Nobody is happy, positive and cheerful all of the time. There will be times when you’re equally grumpy and bring your troubles to the workplace and likely you’ll expect colleague support during such moments. The problem is when the grumpiness is constant and one counteraction as discussed earlier is not to change your outlook but to remain even-keeled and solid yourself. While this might feel hard at times, it is far harder to carry the negative emotional baggage around with you. If you can’t cope with it, it may well be a sign that your own issues are weighing you down too much and you need to seek some counseling for dealing with your inability to cope with negativity. And don’t forget to use humor. Humor deflects grumpiness well by putting everything into perspective; when it seems the grumpy person is taking everything all too seriously, use kind-hearted and upbeat humor to bring back some reality into the situation, as well as showing that their behavior is like water off a duck’s back to you.

Finally, practice acceptance. You can’t change other people and you can’t change your workplace, but you can accept what is. This doesn’t mean putting up with it; it means accepting the lot you’re thrown and either finding ways around it or ways to directly deal with it.

Postscript: Someone who is foul-mouthed, harassing, aggressive and causes you to feel endangered at work is not to be tolerated. In this situation, seek immediate help from supervisory levels and provide factual information to them to explain actual incidents, such as swearing out loud, threatening behavior, etc. If there are witnesses, get them to either back you up or to make statements supporting your evidence. This type of behavior is more than grumpiness; it is provoking, dangerous, and unhealthy and is not something to be tolerated at all.


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