Soliciting help from them will demonstrate that it's acceptable to admit imperfections.
For Ugur Guler, working as a sales assistant in Istanbul’s textile industry proved to be a lesson in patience — and repeated frustrations. He had a manager who bullied him and whenever he asked his more experienced colleagues a question, they would say they couldn't help or didn’t know the answer. Guler isn’t sure what prompted this behaviour: maybe they were worried for their own jobs or nervous he might outshine them. But clearly there were a lot of insecure people working in his company. It got so bad that Guler wanted to leave.
“I do not know how to deal with colleagues who have [an] inferiority complex,” Guler said in an email. “I'm sure that … I will have to deal with [these] kind of people again.”
Other than going to extreme lengths like quitting your job, is there anything else you can do when colleagues’ insecurities start making your life miserable?
More common than you think
A good place to start is to try and understand whether your colleague lacks confidence, rather than being merely introverted or shy.
An introverted person might just plod through the working day unnoticed, while someone unsure of themselves will constantly ask for reassurance instead.
Sometimes, insecurity is directly linked to the field you work in and the personalities it attracts. Some sectors breed apprehensive workers more than others, especially those positions where there is more subjectivity about performance. For example, “if a computer programmer can write a program which demonstrably works well, he or she is less likely to be insecure than a writer or an artist whose work is valued according to individual or collective preferences,” said Manhattan-based Ben Dattner, an executive coach and founder of Dattner Consulting LLC, in an email.
Do unto others
The worst thing you can do is make insecure colleagues feel even more apprehensive, according to Dattner. “This will exacerbate their anxiety and counterproductive behaviour,” he said. “Instead, try to convey genuine positive regard, and start with giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
Praise them when you can. “People who lack confidence in themselves and their performance need support and acknowledgement,” said Stockholm-based author and executive career coach Charlotte Hagard in an email.
One of the best ways to encourage them is by offering help in your area of expertise and then asking for help from them in areas in which they excel, according to Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor and director of research and co-author of The Progress Principle. “Soliciting help from them will demonstrate that it's acceptable to admit imperfections and enhance their sense of competence,” she said in an email. “Giving them help when they need it, in a non-condescending way that's attentive to what they really need, will enhance their skills and help establish a collaborative atmosphere.”
Make sure to recognise them for any work well done. “The recognition can be either private or public, and it doesn't have to be elaborate,” said Amabile. “Even simply mentioning your appreciation for their contribution can go a long way.”
Learning on the job
As tempting as it might be to write someone like this off, it’s almost always worth trying to successfully engage with them to achieve your longer term objectives, according to Dattner. “Cultivating patience with colleagues is a useful skill, as it is inevitable that, at some point, even the most secure, confident and competent co-workers will disappoint you,” he said.
Show them respect
For Gabriel Garcia, founder and chief product officer at Barcelona-based MailTrack.io, daily end-of-day email reports by and for the whole team have proven helpful in making everyone feel more accountable and valuable. Early on, the company did it so colleagues from other departments knew what other departments were doing. Along the way, Garcia saw that the emails served another purpose. “Soon, I realised, too, that this routine helped people understand all the steps and hard work behind simple plans and features that could even look simple from the outside,” he said in an email. “When people understand you, they put themselves in your place — which even improves not only the quality of the feedback communication, but of feedback itself.”
If all else fails
You shouldn’t have to be on your own when it comes to dealing with issues like these. “The problem with insecure colleagues is really a management problem, not your problem,” said Hagard. “If your manager allows people to be disrespectful and rude to one other, it’s really something that needs to be addressed by your manager. Leaders always set the corporate culture.”
Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.