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Department: Leadership Q&A

Confronting a coworker's difficult behavior

Doucette, Jeffrey N. DNP, RN, LNHA, CENP, NEA-BC, FACHE

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Nursing Management (Springhouse): May 2017 - Volume 48 - Issue 5 - p 56
doi: 10.1097/01.NUMA.0000515802.87344.3e
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Q The coworker I rely on for backup and coverage is very difficult to work with, doesn't communicate well, and rarely takes care of issues. How do I address this without burning any bridges?

This situation can be a huge challenge because there's a lot at stake. The first and most important aspect of addressing your coworker's behavior is a commitment to being authentic and direct in how you approach him or her. You should always take your mail to the right address, so you must make time for a private conversation where you can discuss the relationship. I like the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) feedback model developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, which provides a framework that can be used in any feedback situation.1 It's particularly helpful when the feedback is challenging.

Using the SBI model allows you to give specific feedback by focusing on the behavior, not the individual. Before you hold the meeting, have a practice session with a trusted mentor, colleague, or human resources representative. In addition to preparing what you're going to say, anticipate what your coworker may say and how you'll respond. Remember that feedback should always be given in private after you've asked for permission.

Lead your conversation with something very specific. You want to describe the situation and include when and where it occurred. For example, “Bob, last Thursday when we were having lunch, you agreed to cover my unit and take care of the payroll processing.” You may be even more specific if there are times, other people involved, and so on. The important information here is that you're grounding your coworker in the when and where.

Next, describe the observable behavior in a way that doesn't assume you know what your coworker was thinking. Continuing our example, “After you agreed to cover and complete the payroll, I observed that you walked up to Paula and stated, ‘I can't believe I have to do her work for her again’ and then you rolled your eyes.” This describes a very specific observation that you made, not something someone else told you about Bob, which is a common mistake in providing feedback.

Finally, discuss the impact by describing what you thought or felt in reaction to the behavior. This is always best done using “I” statements. For example, “I felt disrespected and as if I was a burden to you. I'm concerned that your comments to Paula may affect my level of trust among the team.”

Following the conversation, ask your coworker to think about the feedback. After he or she has had some time to absorb the information, request a follow-up meeting to discuss how you both can improve your communication in the future.

This structured approach to feedback is just like any new skill—it must be practiced. I recommend partnering with a trusted colleague and committing to offering each other routine feedback throughout the workday using the SBI method. That way, you'll be ready and comfortable when giving feedback in even the most difficult situations.


1. Center for Creative Leadership. Feedback that works: coach with conversations.
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