How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

The first step in dealing with a difficult colleague is to remind yourself that everybody has a life outside of work. Sometimes, for some people, their home life creates stress they can’t leave at the door—and with everything going on in the world, many are struggling. Approaching people with empathy, even though you find them challenging in the moment, is usually a good starting point.

This doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, create boundaries and set some reasonable ground rules. Especially if your colleague’s behavior affects your work performance. Because the reality is that, while sometimes people just need a little empathy, other times the issue might be a conflict of personalities—and owning your part in that is important.

In the worst-case scenario, you could be dealing with a toxic personality.

The easiest answer might seem to be to ignore the issue, but that won’t make it go away, and can even make the situation worse. The good news is that, even though it can be tough, addressing a difficult person’s behavior can make the workplace a better environment for everyone.

We explore some strategies you can consider using to improve your working relationships with team members, and to grow as a professional in the face of difficult personalities.

Why you should try to fix a difficult working environment

Most of us don’t get to choose who we work with. If we’re lucky, we like all of our colleagues. But when we don’t, we still have to get our jobs done. Finding ways to work with people we don’t get along with is a necessary skill to be successful in business.

Ignoring the issue, and neglecting to deal with a difficult person’s behavior, can cause a range of problems. For example:

  • Workplace conflict decreases team productivity. Difficult co-workers can impact the entire team's performance. Challenging work environments often lead to organizational cynicism and weaken the commitment that team members feel toward the organization. A workplace where people can’t effectively work together will struggle to improve or produce quality products.
  • Workplace conflict can create a stressful environment. Additionally, research indicates that certain social interactions at work can lead to the development of stress, depression, and psychiatric disorders. This can increase organizational turnover and perpetuate an environment where professionals don’t want to come in.
  • Workplace conflict can affect your personal life. Research looking at how work interactions impact behavior at home found that people who spend their workdays in a stressful environment tend to act with hostility at home. In other words, a negative work environment can impact your family life and interpersonal relationships.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to better cope with challenging people and build better relationships.

How to deal with difficult people at work

Research exploring conflict cycles shows the importance of addressing problems promptly and prioritizing them from the beginning rather than allowing them to escalate. Similarly, the process should be cooperative and a part of the overall workplace process for the greatest impact.

Below are a few strategies you can use to help overcome working with a difficult colleague and improve the relationship.

1. Take a step back and ask yourself what your role is

Before you ask what actions you need to take to deal with a difficult colleague, make sure you’ve considered your role in the situation. It may be that the person you’re dealing with is toxic, but other factors could be at play, and you’ll want to approach the situation holistically before it escalates.

For example, one person might unintentionally offend another, and that person responds unprofessionally. This can create a negative feedback loop in which two otherwise good people have bad chemistry that magnifies every negative interaction between them.

Ask yourself a few questions to try and objectively look at the situation.

  • Does this person have problematic relationships with other people?
  • Did this person’s behavior change at any point—indicating that perhaps something happened that led to the deterioration of the relationship?
  • Have you given the person a chance to explain their negative behavior?
  • Have you done anything that contributes to the poor chemistry between the two of you?

The situation may very well not be your fault in any way. But often, a simple conversation can dramatically improve a relationship. And as you look at the other steps in resolving the situation, you’ll want to be prepared, to have done your due diligence, and to have self-advocated as best as the situation allows.

Skipping this step can lead to you being unprepared when the problematic co-worker begins pointing fingers and blaming you for any problems that exist.

2. Practice empathy

Remember that we often don’t know what’s going on in the lives of other professionals. Your challenging co-worker could have stress in their personal life that impacts their behavior at work, and difficult situations at home can lead to poor behavior at work.

Empathy begins with active listening, which requires that the other person feel that they are in a safe space and won’t be judged if they have something sensitive on their mind.

Work to understand their frustration and point of view, even if you disagree with its cause. Validate the other person’s emotions without minimizing their situation. Imagine not how you would react to their situation, but how you would hope to be treated if you were in a situation that caused similar emotions

Once you understand another person’s struggles, it can be easier to give them the leeway, space, and even help that they may need.

3. Create boundaries

Setting boundaries can be challenging, but it’s an important skill that can help you navigate an otherwise toxic situation. Consider these basic guidelines to help you set effective boundaries:

  • Take time to think carefully about what your boundaries will be in the workplace. Know where you want to draw your lines beforehand so that you can be prepared to act. Your wellbeing is the first priority. After that should come meeting the goals of the team, as well as your own professional development.
  • Remember that you can only control your behavior and no one else’s. Focus on what you will do and how you’ll respond rather than trying to police how others behave. Your response might include choosing not to respond to rude behavior, narrowing your focus on your boundaries and performance, or looping your manager in on disagreements.
  • Focus on the process, not the people. Look at the goals your team shares and celebrate the parts that each of you play in achieving those goals. The boundaries you create for yourself will include your responsibilities, and by shifting the focus to those you signal to everyone where your boundaries are. Perhaps you can even de-escalate a situation by giving credit where credit is due.
  • Try not to get emotional. Approaching the problems with a difficult personality calmly and rationally will lead to the best possible outcomes. Be firm in setting your boundaries. Be firm in keeping them. And be aware that truly toxic people will try to get a negative reaction out of you, that they can use to blame you for the situation.
  • Don’t let yourself get drawn into a power struggle. The only way to win a power struggle is to not get involved in a power struggle. Setting boundaries isn’t about you being right and the other person being wrong. Boundaries establish what you’re comfortable with, what you feel you can handle successfully, and what you believe is expected of you in your role.

4. Try to talk to the person

Reaching out to your co-worker is an important part of the resolution process, and should be done as soon as there’s a problem. Often, two people simply have different ways of looking at situations and approaching people, and the other person might not realize how large the issue has become between the two of you.

In a best-case scenario, you might resolve the problem with better communication and mutual understanding. With a more difficult personality, however, the conversation may need to take on a more strategic turn. You can use this as an opportunity to make your boundaries clear to everyone.

Failing to address the issue head-on can allow the problem to fester, which can turn into resentment and make the problem harder to solve later on.

If you feel comfortable, talk with the other person privately first, before you get management involved. Be respectful and schedule a time that works for both of you. Remember as you walk into the meeting that they might not realize the impact their words have had on you. Structure the conversation in a positive way, focusing on shared goals and outputs rather than looking to accuse them of wrongdoing.

5. Always act with respect

Treating a co-worker with disrespect not only makes the problem worse, but also  makes you part of the problem. If you react unprofessionally to a difficult personality, you are no longer the victim of their poor behavior, but are one-half of a toxic situation. Don’t let a toxic colleague get ammunition on you by rising to their bait.

If you feel yourself getting emotional and think you might be getting close to lashing out disrespectfully, step away. Take yourself out of the situation so that you have time to cool off and gain control of your emotions.

This is also an indication that the time has come to get your manager involved. Once you have fully cooled off, reach out to your manager and describe the situation in a calm and rational way.

6. Focus on your work

As you deal with difficult people at work, make sure you don’t allow it to detract from your ability to do your job well. Focus on doing your work the best you can, communicating with team members to coordinate, and prioritizing the task at hand rather than constantly analyzing the behavior of your co-worker.

As situations with a difficult co-worker come up, approach them from the standpoint of how it affects your ability to do your job. While this isn’t the primary concern—your health and wellbeing are—framing the discussion in this way can help supervisors find solutions that work for everyone.

This will also give your team and management a positive impression of you and your conflict-management skills.

7. Control your reactions

Carefully examine your own reactions. See if there might be something in the person’s personality, for example, that triggers you to respond more strongly to their comments and actions than you would with someone else.

Sometimes, we allow past experiences to spill over and affect how we interpret someone’s behavior, causing us to overreact to a difficult colleague.

If you’ve examined your reactions and know that you’re not out of line, try to remain calm. Not reacting to attempts to provoke you may result in the person changing their behavior.

What to do if nothing seems to work

If nothing seems to work when dealing with a difficult person at work, it might be time to escalate the issue and involve others. But first, you’ll want to prepare.

  1. Record the timeline of the problem. Begin by constructing a timeline of the problem. Note that your manager doesn’t want to just hear about interpersonal problems. They’re more concerned with issues that impact your productivity. Articulate clearly—and not emotionally—the problems that have risen and the steps you’ve taken to try and resolve the issue.
  2. Make a compelling case. When you present your conflict to those in your organization, you need to make a compelling case. This might mean including specific actions the toxic person did with the dates and times that they occurred. You might even present video evidence of the issue.
  3. Escalate the situation to management. Once you’ve collected all your information, ask your manager to schedule a time for the discussion. Present your information clearly, articulating how the challenges have impacted your role in the organization. If you have notes of specific examples of the person’s actions, bring them with you.
  4. Put some physical distance between you and the difficult person. Once you’ve stated your case, put some distance between you and your co-worker. Either party should have the option to adjust their work arrangement if they desire. Avoiding working together can help reduce stress until the issue is resolved.
  5. If the problem has bigger roots, try changing your job as a last resort. Finally, as a last resort, if all else fails and nothing has worked to resolve the problem, you may have to consider looking for a new job. This isn’t something you should take lightly, though, and you’ll want to carefully weigh the decision’s pros and cons. Is this one person worth leaving behind your current position and team?

Types of difficult behavior

Difficult co-workers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This can make it difficult to know how to approach a specific individual. However, we explore some of the most common types of difficult people you might encounter.

The passive-aggressive worker

A passive-aggressive person struggles to express what they mean or want. Instead, they mask their aggression. This lack of clear communication can cause disruption in your work life, such as a fellow professional saying one thing to one member of their team and something else to another.

If you find yourself dealing with a passive-aggressive colleague, consider following these tips.

  • Consider the likely motivators of the behavior, such as avoiding conflict or feelings of defensiveness.
  • Speak to them directly about the problem, using notes or records as needed to support your view. If they don’t respond initially, you may need to ask for a mediator.
  • Build a rapport with the co-worker. Help them learn how to communicate directly with you and use a calm demeanor so that they feel comfortable telling you all types of information, including bad news.

The gossipy worker

A gossipy worker loves to tell stories about others in the workplace. This can hurt reputations and working relationships, particularly when sensitive information is revealed.

However, gossip is very common. In fact, studies indicate Americans spend about 40 minutes per week gossiping.

If you’re dealing with this type of co-worker, make sure to set up strong boundaries around gossip.

  • Change the subject when the professional starts to gossip.
  • Tell them directly that you don’t want to engage in gossip if they won’t let you change the subject.
  • Limit what you reveal about your personal life to help minimize what they say about you.

The “always busy” worker

The “always busy” colleague never seems to have time to help you out. This can affect getting jobs done and impede collaboration. To better manage this situation:

  • Ask the co-worker about their schedule. You might be inquiring around the same time of the week and running into the same obstacle. They might be better able to help at a different point in the week.
  • Try to coordinate early on in projects to improve your own flexibility. You might get a better response if you let your co-worker know ahead of time what you will need, allowing you both to find a time in the future to work together.
  • Help your colleague with time management. If the team member always seems to be overwhelmed by their responsibilities, offer to show them some time management tricks and tips that have helped you get a handle on the workload.

The lone worker

The lone worker doesn’t seem to be a team player and doesn’t work well with the rest of the group. This can lead to poor morale and make it difficult for the team to function as a cohesive unit. The team member can also become unintentionally ostracized, which can exacerbate the problem. To help:

  • Speak to them directly rather than guessing at their motivations for their behavior.
  • Ensure that roles and responsibilities are known by everyone on the team.
  • Build a rapport with the co-worker and work to bring them more into the fold of the team.

The slacker worker

A team member who slacks off doesn’t appear to take their roles and responsibilities seriously. They may not complete their assigned tasks or seem to do as little as possible. This can make it hard to hit deadlines, can affect relationships with others on the team, and can hinder success.

To deal with a slacker worker:

  • Speak directly with the co-worker to demonstrate empathy and see if there is something going on you were unaware of or if they may need support. For example, you might not have realized that the worker was confused about their role or felt heavily criticized last time they tried to contribute.
  • Carefully evaluate your own behavior to see if you’ve done anything that may have inadvertently encouraged the behavior.
  • Clearly articulate expectations and provide the team member with some scaffolding to try again.
  • Don’t cover for them, but cultivate a relationship to help them take responsibility and feel more integrated with the group. Help build their self-esteem and self-confidence as a capable professional.

The narcissistic worker

A narcissistic co-worker thinks very highly of themselves and won’t hesitate to manipulate others, use people, or show a complete disregard for the needs of others. They don’t have much empathy.

If you see signs that a colleague is a narcissist, try doing a few things.

  • Avoid getting too close to someone this manipulative, even if it seems like it would be good to have them on your side.
  • Set clear boundaries and enforce them, such as not expecting you to respond to work calls or emails after a certain time.
  • Take time for self-care, even if it’s just stepping outside for a few minutes when you see the narcissist trying to manipulate the situation.
  • Maintain careful records of your contributions to projects so that no one can take credit for your work.

Don’t let a difficult co-worker affect your work

Dealing with a difficult co-worker can have a significant impact on your work environment—from making it hard to focus on the task at hand to having work stress bleed over into personal time. Consider the strategies outlined above and how you can use these tips to address the problem and move forward professionally. It’s important to take the time to explore what may work best for you, as each situation may have different nuances.

Do you have a good grasp of conflict resolution in the workplace and know you can help other businesses with human resources (HR) consulting? Consider offering your services through Project Catalog™. You can help set up teams for success by dealing with difficult people at work.


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How to Deal With Difficult People at Work
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