October 13, 2021

Career AdviceLeadership

Bottom-Up Leadership – Thriving at Work Despite Difficult Co-Workers

By: Lane Koch

I recently posed a question to my Instagram followers, “What is one of the biggest challenges you face at work?” The most consistent response was “how do you navigate working with difficult or unmotivated co-workers.” 

I am part of a very professional, capable, and hard-working team. But through my years of working in government and on campaigns, I have experienced this challenge and learned how to overcome it. 

Having colleagues that aren’t pulling their weight, have bad attitudes, or perhaps aren’t even qualified for their job can really add an extra layer of challenge (and stress!) to your professional life. They say people don’t leave companies because of the work, but because of the people. If someone is interviewing five people of equal skill sets and experience, they’ll hire the person who they can see themselves having the best time with. People want to work around people they like. Challenging work with positive, hard-working coworkers feels much more doable. Challenging work with lazy, negative co-workers feels like it’s time to job hunt.

Have you ever noticed that the people that bother you most are either lateral to you in position or above you? If you are managing difficult people, you have the authority to coach them up, talk to them about changes that are needed in their production or mindsets at work. Your mindset towards them is one of leadership. How you respond to the situation of a difficult coworker is entirely under your control.  You either fix the issue or you are a part of replacing the person. Either way, while it could be challenging, it’s much more manageable to deal with than you may imagine. 

But when someone isn’t in your chain of command to coach, that’s where real frustration sets in. It can be consistently disturbing to your work life to have someone making the same amount of money, or with the same title, doing less. It’s even more frustrating to be more qualified or hardworking than someone senior to you, who is making more money. 

There may be appropriate situations in which you can have a one-on-one conversation with someone about how they are leaving you with more work or how their attitude is bringing down the entire group. If you can, I encourage you to make the uncomfortable choice to communicate openly with your coworkers. Don’t let it fester. This is also a strong form of leading. It’s the relationships you value that you work on. You might not respect your co-worker, but you value your relationship with your place of employment. Having these conversations will set you up well when you inevitably manage the person you are currently lateral to. 

Unfortunately, those conversations don’t always make problems magically disappear. So, here’s some mental gymnastics that really helped me navigate working with those people who have “good enough for government work” as their life motto. 

Apply the same mindset towards your peers and leaders that frustrate you as you have towards those you manage. Even though you won’t be able to mentor them in the exact same official ways you do with those who fall beneath you in the organizational structure, lead by example. This is called bottom-up leadership. Think of yourself as a leader, even if you don’t have the title. You might be lateral right now, but if the nature of the work environment is truly how you feel it is, then sooner than later, you will be the leader. The worst thing you can do is let these people bring you to their level. Instead, rise above. Be positive. Work hard. Be solution oriented. Refuse to gossip, procrastinate, or cut corners. Take on the management mindset, even if you are an employee. Leadership is much more about how you operate than your title. If someone has the title but no one follows them, they aren’t a leader. When you start working as if you have the title you are striving for, soon you will.