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How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

A boss yelling angrily to other colleagues in a team meeting.


How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

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The most fulfilling jobs and careers can become miserable if you’re working with the wrong people. As much as the subject of your daily tasks matters, difficult people can drain the motivation and productivity from your work life.

No workplace is entirely immune from it. Chances are there is someone in your office or workspace that you have trouble working with. Rather than letting it drain your performance, there are simple steps you can take to mitigate any issues from manifesting.

That starts with understanding how to spot the warning signs of difficult co-workers.

How to Spot a Difficult Co-Worker or Supervisor

The early signs for spotting a difficult colleague can be subtle. It may be a lack of discipline, inability to accept feedback or even dismissive body language at work. Over time, these behaviors can go beyond the mere occasional annoyance, leading to potentially significant problems.

Much of those behaviors arise from personality. Here are 5 difficult personalities that lead to workplace problems:

  1. Narcissists tend to crave attention and praise due to their inflated sense of self-importance. They react badly to criticism and collaborative efforts that don’t benefit them.
  2. Passive-aggressive types use subtle actions of displeasure over outright disapproval. They show up late to meetings, miss assignment deadlines, or fail to keep their promises just to make a point.
  3. Gossipers go beyond the typical water cooler talk. They enjoy bad news, even if it’s just a rumor, and can’t wait to tell everyone about it. 
  4. Anger addicts frequently accuse others of mistakes or intentional missteps. They don’t have a “filter”, so to speak, and instead get upset over everyone else’s missteps.
  5. Guilt trippers are not afraid to talk about how they’ve been slighted. They chat with supervisors or peers, continually expressing how they deserve better treatment.

How to Handle Difficult People at Work

Identifying difficult personalities and co-workers is only the beginning. Once you know who the offenders are, you can do something about it.

Let’s begin with 6 strategies for working with difficult co-workers that foster a better work environment. These strategies help you deal with difficult people at work, for the sake of your own sanity and those around you.

1. Spend Time to Examine the Situation

Whenever a situation comes up, ask yourself if you really know the context of what’s happening. Do you have background info on why your co-worker may act the way that they do? Working with a peer who is going through a difficult situation is a lot different from someone who is constantly causing tension.

Try to look inward as well. Your colleagues’ behavior may cause you to make subconscious connections to your own past, causing you to over-react. You could even be contributing to the particular situation. Is there anything you can do differently, first? An honest look at your own actions can go a long way.

Employee at work reacting negatively in the workplace.

2. Overcome Your Fear of Conflict

It’s challenging to deal with difficult people at work if you can’t approach them about it. You might not feel comfortable doing it, but engaging in an honest and open conversation with your co-worker is usually necessary to resolve conflict. 

That doesn’t have to mean active or aggressive confrontations. In fact, you’re probably better off without those. Instead, this is about overcoming your fear of conflict to start a conversation where you can share how you feel and what problems you’d like to resolve.

3. Practice Difficult Conversations

It’s normal to feel nervous or unsure about having conversations with those you feel are difficult. But you’ll feel a lot better after doing some prep work. Try practicing how the conversation would go beforehand. This will help boost your confidence.

You should be able to share your feelings instead of projecting them onto others. That means acknowledging your own shortcomings and actively listening. Don’t assume ill intent. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your rights and feelings either. A deep breath and mindfulness can go a long way towards accomplishing your goals.

4. Avoid Getting Personal

Some of the most difficult people to work with will take even the most earnest attempt at resolution and make it personal. Don’t get dragged into it. Personal insults only escalate when you engage with them. Instead, take the high road and keep the focus on the subject at hand. Put personalities, personal situations, or personal shortcomings off to the side. Opt for objectivity.

5. Engage in Team-Building Activities

This takes work. But if you get it right, the work will be worthwhile. Are you ready to make a difference in leading a happier and more successful career in your workplace?

Many common workplace conflicts originate from a lack of personal connections. It’s easier to break a promise, miss an important deadline, or blame a peer if you don’t know them personally.

That’s why team-building activities can go a long way towards resolving both general and individual co-worker problems. This doesn’t necessarily mean fancy, organized team-building retreats. It can be as simple as a Friday afternoon happy hour. The emphasis should be on getting to know your team outside a task-based environment, increasing the chances of a good and productive working relationship.

Employees showing strong teamwork in the workplace.

6. Ask For Help if You Need it

Let’s face it: while the above strategies may work a majority of the time, there are situations in which simple steps won’t be enough. The difficult co-worker might be so entrenched, or so comfortable in their challenging personality, that a conversation or potluck won’t make things better.

That’s why it’s important to remember that you’re never truly on your own. Other co-workers, staff from Human Resources, and your supervisor can be resources to lean on for advice, guidance, and support. It’s important to reach out for support when you feel you need it.

How Do You Manage a Difficult Co-Worker Who’s Also Your Supervisor

But what if the difficult co-worker you have to manage is your supervisor? 

When it comes to your boss, things can get tricky. It may be harder to ask for positive change with a single conversation or team-building activity. Understand the context, still ask for an open conversation, and seek help from Human Resources to help diffuse any harsh situations.

The situation may also be more complex than that. Try using these strategies for dealing with an incompetent boss:

  1. Identify the incompetence on a subject rather than on a personal level.
  2. Ask for help, particularly from co-workers. If others feel the same way, talking about it can help.
  3. Confront your boss professionally, giving them a chance to respond and address the situation.
  4. Be the better person by not letting your boss’ incompetence influence your own behavior.
  5. Focus on the positives, particularly on the aspects of your job that make you happy.
  6. Look for employment elsewhere as a last resort when none of the above helps.

Ultimately, your tactics change depending on why your boss is causing you problems. Surviving a narcissistic boss, for instance, requires avoiding conflict or criticism, setting boundaries, stroking their ego, or finding ways outside of work to de-stress. In either case, identify the underlying nature of the problem.

What You Can Learn From Difficult Conversations

No matter the situation or co-worker, one thing is sure: dealing with someone difficult at work requires having some difficult conversations. A few takeaways can help you prepare and manage them effectively. Ask yourself:

  • Are you overreacting to the situation? 
  • Are you looking at the facts, or is your personal dislike of your co-worker clouding your judgment?
  • Will you be able to change your co-worker? Keep in mind that although people can change, most don’t.
  • Is your personal situation influencing the way you’re viewing your co-worker?
  • Who are your allies, the people on your side who can help you work through the situation?
  • Do you have a “Plan B” if the difficult conversation doesn’t work out?

Co-worker problems in the workplace can have immense negative side effects. If you don’t manage them, they don’t plummet your job satisfaction and productivity but affect your mental health too. Managing them is crucial for a healthier workplace.

This is more than just dealing with problematic people. This means understanding the situation, having tough conversations, and knowing when to back out before it’s too late. With these strategies, build a productive work environment, not just for yourself but for everyone around you.

This takes work. But if you get it right, the work will be worthwhile. Are you ready to make a difference in leading a happier and more successful career in your workplace?

Team Lensa
Team Lensa
Team Lensa is a group of HR specialists, career counselors, and tech enthusiasts dedicated to helping job seekers navigate the employment landscape through actionable tips and insights.

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