9 Tips for Fixing a Tricky “People Problem” at Work

Most of us are extremely proud of our problem solving prowess.  As our experience has grown, so has our ability to solve increasingly complex business issues.  We can see around the next corner.  It’s a very satisfying skill to have.

Yet, all too often we seem to retreat when we face the issue of a problem with a co-worker.  Our problem solving can go out the door when faced with the possibility of a confrontation or unpleasant discussion.  It’s understandable; I’ve seen high level executives in big Fortune 500 companies have the same avoidance behavior.  That doesn’t make it right nor does it make for an effectively run business.  You will sooner or later be faced with a tricky “people problem”, creating some difficult decisions for you to make.

As a peer to a troublesome co-worker, you are faced with tough choices.  You can:

  1. Leave your job to find another one where this person isn’t working.
  2.  Make up for the impact to you – in other words do two jobs.
  3. Do nothing and risk the potential of getting fired because the impact is too great.
  4.  Figure out how to solve the problem.

The best choice is solving the problem.  Let me also point out that any person who can effectively solve a “person problem” is leadership material.  People who can do the tough things get noticed.

Many of the same solid problem-solving steps you use with business issues can be used for addressing a problem with a peer.  The only addition to your steps is that eventually you will have to engage this person in some way in order for your solutions to work.  It’s the personal engagement that most people want to sidestep.  Yet, you really shouldn’t if you want to avoid being fired.

Let’s look at what makes these issues harder to tackle and what you can do:

  1. Face off.  Eventually you will have to engage with this person about the problem.  Most of us are ill equipped to communicate in person on tough issues.  We were always taught to be “nice”.  You can be pleasant and still meet with this person; in fact you will be more effective if you are.
  2. What will you say?  Be methodical just like when solving other problems.  Really drill down on what behaviors you observe that create problems and be clear on what the problems or impact truly are.  When you can focus on what you can observe, communicating improves.
  3. Don’t wait until you’re ticked off.  All too often we wait so long for a problem to fester that we go from irritated to mad.  Being angry or emotional when you speak with someone will not work well for either of you.  You will most likely be incoherent and the other person will not listen because of how emotional you are with them.  Trying to solve a people problem after you’ve done this will require advanced interactive skills that you may not have.
  4. Script out what you want to say.  If you write down the key points of what you want to convey and to accomplish with your interaction, it will be more comfortable and effective for you.  Keep in mind that practice does make perfect, especially for things that you don’t do very often, like deal with people issues.
  5. Be clear on the outcome.  What do you really want to see change?  Is it possible or is it a pipedream?  If you can’t specifically identify what needs to be different, it will be impossible for another person to change.   Don’t seek out “nothing statements” like: change your attitude or don’t be a jerk.  Those things say nothing and are not actionable.  If you want the person to offer suggestions and alternatives rather than complaining about a problem, say that.
  6. Assume the best.  Most people really want to be successful and get along no matter how you might see them.  Most people also lack great insight when it comes to their own behavior.
  7. Attack the problem, not the person.  Keep as many personal things out of the conversation as possible.  Focus on the behavior that needs to change and what outcomes you are looking for.
  8. Ask for a commitment.  You can’t lecture someone into improving.  You need their buy in and commitment to new actions.  You should consider a follow up point so you have an opportunity to give feedback and reinforce good behaviors.  It will also make your discussions part of an ongoing dialogue.
  9. Look for a win for them.  Chances are high that no one has ever spent any time trying to help this person improve.  Think of what you’re doing as something that is likely to extend far beyond your immediate concerns.

People problems may be tricky to fix, but it can be done.  It doesn’t have to be the worst-case scenario either, if you approach it in a well-thought-out way.  Once you’re seen as a person who can create a win for everyone – you’ll definitely be promotion material!




Dorothy Tannahill-Moran is a certified life and career coach. She works with aspiring professionals who are looking for career growth, advancement and entry into the “C” suite. As well, she works with people to overcome the sometimes daunting task of changing careers. With over 21 years in management, Dorothy has coached, trained and guided other professionals who have gone on to impressive and fulfilling careers. Her personal philosophy about careers is: “It’s not JUST a job; it’s half your life – so love your career”. You can check out her resources, blog and services at Next Chapter New Life and MBA Highway.

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