Handling an Adversarial Peer

You have a troublesome peer and their behaviour is causing you a headache. This colleague of yours is talented. They have some effective skills when they put their mind to it. They possess some drive and, when they are engaged, some determination too. They could use their natural strengths and their resolve to become an able and valued team member, someone who consistently works well with others, shoulders responsibility and gets things done. And sometimes they do behave like that. But, the problem is that, in the main, they don't.

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Your peer is high maintenance. They waste time in meetings taking the discussion along paths that are simply not productive. They say one thing, but then do another. They seem to operate out of an agenda all of their own. Sometimes they voluntarily offer to input to projects. But, when it comes down to it, they often don’t follow through and, on the odd occasion when they do, their input is about their own political agenda not the best interests of your organisation. And when they are called on their failure to deliver they become nonchalant and flip, appearing unconcerned that they have let you and others down.

Worse still, from time to time, this colleague bad mouths you and other colleagues around the office. They may even initiate against you from time to time, seemingly attacking your point of view in meetings simply because it’s your point of view. On these occasions, you don’t really think that they have taken a considered view of things and decided on impartial evidence to put forward a view which happens to be different from yours. Instead, you think that on instinct they want to disagree with you.

You have previously confronted your colleague on their unhelpful behaviour and each time you did so you hit a brick wall. Instead of taking your objection seriously, your colleague employed a well-oiled toolkit of obfuscating, dodging and fogging tactics to avoid responsibility for their conduct. In fact, sometimes they even managed to turn the tables on you, turning a conversation you had initiated with them about the disadvantages of their approach into them confronting you on your misguided misunderstanding of them. So, what can you do?

Actually, quite a lot.

Firstly, you need to understand that your colleague is displaying a degree of adversarial behaviour at work which places them in opposition to you and their other co-workers. This colleague purposefully handles their dealings with you in a manner which results in low levels of trust and support existing between you. In other words, they deliberately manage their workplace relationships – with you and other people - as a series of transactional exchanges.

Secondly, this colleague does not take seriously their responsibility to build and maintain effective relationships at work with you or their other co-workers. Their errant conduct is not a matter of an oversight, confusion over role goals or a lack of political judgement on their part. Neither is it about them disliking you or their other colleagues or their role. Nor is it about you having failed to find an effective way to manage them. It is a deliberate strategy on their part, albeit a largely unconsciously derived one, to select and use behaviour which precludes trust being formed or supportive exchanges developing between them and their co-workers.

So, what behaviour can you employ to help you make working with your adversarial peer less of an uphill struggle?

Basically, you need to think differently whenever you work with them. You need to learn how to:

  • Take control at the start of any joint work you are doing with them.
  • Think proactively about the tasks to be accomplished on the joint project.
  • Anticipate the key factors that will determine a favourable outcome to the work and retain control over them.
  • Handle the boundaries of your interactions with your adversarial colleague carefully at all times deciding what information you give your colleague access to, which tasks you ask them to handle, which meetings you include them in, what scope you give them to act independently of you on the project, which decisions you involve them in, which problem-solving processes you ask them to input to and what responsibilities you assign to them.

Remember that the extra work involved in handling things with way, and it will take effort and application on your part to do things this way, will pay dividends in the long run as you obviate opportunities for your troublesome peer to sully your reputation or undermine the quality of the joint work you do on the project.

Your adversarial peer has chosen to use an oppositional approach and they can just as easily choose to use a more productive one. And you, as you keep their input to your joint project within prescribed parameters, might just be the person to give them pause for thought.

Learning how to work productively with adversarial peer is a key goal for people vulnerable to their taxing, stressing behaviour. Learn how by:

Aryanne Oade

chartered psychologist, executive coach, author and publisher, Oade Associates Ltd

Hello and welcome to my blog. I specialize in handling challenging workplace dynamics, successfully working from the premise that the additional resources you seek are already within you. My aim is to be a catalyst so you can turn areas where you feel under-resourced or vulnerable into skills and strengths, become resilient in the face of adversity, and develop a life and work experience you are passionate about. Working from the evidence-base of psychology, and over twenty-five years’ experience, clients tell me they experience my coaching and books as insightful, practical, non-judgmental and empathic. My work on recovery from bullying and bully-proofing has been featured in leading publications such as The Independent, Irish Independent (Sunday), Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Learn more at www.oadeassociates.com