How to deal with difficult coworkers

No matter where you go in the world, you’ll occasionally bump up into someone you struggle to get along with. Normal differences aside, some people just seem to dislike being friendly or having a good time. If you’re unlucky enough to work with one of those people, the preservation of your sanity will depend on learning to adjust.

There is no monolith for difficult people. Their personalities can range from being controlling, attention-starved, condescending, pretentious, impatient, or a concoction of any of the other countless annoying traits. Other people might not be so toxic, but can still make your day-to-day frustrating.

Sorry to break the news, but difficult coworkers don’t often change. Since their behavior is outside your control, the best career advice is to learn to control your own behavior to keep an even keel—at least, as much as possible.

Whether you’re starting at a new job or navigating conflict resolution with someone who seems intent on misunderstanding you, the basics of dealing with these people will help you in all areas of life. Let’s talk about them.

Types of difficult coworkers

Spending eight hours a day at work is tough enough as it is. Throw a frustrating coworker into the mix and you could find yourself becoming less productive, less organized, and less cordial in your own relationships. Sure, it’s a work-life problem, but it can easily bleed into other areas of your life.

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It takes work to build positive relationships at work, and approaches will vary based on the organizational dynamics of your workplace.

The team member

The difficult colleague you’ll encounter the most is your immediate team member—someone who has similar duties at work and reports to the same boss.

Because there are simply more subordinates than leaders, you’ll probably encounter difficult team members more than once in your life. The good news is that unless your work depends on theirs, you’ll have a little more freedom in how you want to deal with them on a daily basis.

There’s no rule that says you have to be cozy with all your coworkers, and while building rapport is helpful in work relationships, it’s perfectly fine to keep things professional as you focus on your own work. Unless that person’s actions pose acute harm to your self-esteem, feel free to keep contact to a minimum.

The direct manager

While it’s easy enough to avoid contention with your own team members, the same cannot be said for a difficult boss.

When folks who are terrible with people are tasked with overseeing and finding work for underlings, work can become a depressing place. Overmanaging, nitpicking, and condescension are the most common issues here, and we can’t rule out cluelessness either.

In these cases, it’s important to be on your toes and think before you act. However you may feel about their personality or poor leadership, they need to see you at your best as often as possible. Practice patience. Plan to go above and beyond your actual work so you can stay in their good graces. You know, donuts and coffee, gifts here and there, and only share your most agreeable opinions.

It’s not fun, but it’s better than an antagonistic relationship with your boss.

The executive

Some companies are plagued by poor leadership at the highest levels. VPs, Presidents, and Board members can all influence the company in ways that hurt everyone else’s productivity.

The dilemma here is whether to keep your head down and avoid undue attention or carefully suggest ideas for improvement. Tread lightly. Difficult executives can rain down terror if not dealt with properly, and that can cause trouble for you and your coworkers.

Like managers, difficult executives need to see your best side as often as possible. These people are not interested in your critical opinions (nor would they understand them).

The client

Every business needs a customer, and sometimes customers wreak havoc on the lives of their handlers.

Frankly, this is just part of the job. If you’re in a client-facing role and have a client from hell, commiserate with your coworkers. If you need to bring an issue to your manager, frame it as a friendly suggestion rather than an urgent need.

The good thing about difficult clients is that while they require patience, you can forget about them afterward. Dealing with difficult clients is mostly reminding yourself that their actions reflect their own beliefs, not your shortcomings. With that in mind, if customers are actively hostile, then actions may need to be taken.

The direct report

If you are yourself a manager, you will have to deal with difficult subordinates here and there. Despite acing your interview questions and maintaining an immaculate LinkedIn profile, some people go on to cause problems later on.

Patience and respect are key here. While the human resources department can stiff-arm a difficult direct report into better behavior, involving senior management looks bad. The better approach is to devote time for frank discussions about what’s wrong, then outline a plan to improve behavior.

Difficult direct reports won’t always come around—some people just won’t comply—but giving them the benefit of the doubt is a good first step. If problems persist though, escalation may be necessary.

Protect your well-being

Difficult coworkers can be a nightmare. If you find yourself crying in the parking lot before work or having trouble sleeping, it’s time for something to change.

First off, make sure to keep your cool. It’s gratifying to imagine putting someone in their place with a well-timed witty remark—it may even be appropriate—but usually, it causes more harm than good. I know, disappointing.

Immediate solutions to difficult situations include the usual self-help staples, such as:

  • Writing in a journal

  • Taking a walk

  • Eating a snack

  • Calling a friend or family member to vent

  • Listening to a favorite song or album

  • Take some time off

No, these aren’t long-term solutions, but they can prevent you from acting inappropriately before having a chance to find a way through the problem. Keep your head up. Distract yourself from difficult people by digging into work and giving 100 percent. In the meantime, avoid any erratic behavior.

Keep things professional

Difficult coworkers can get in the way of your own workflow. While it needs to be addressed, it must be done with tact and professionalism.

When having a conversation with a difficult coworker, it’s important to deal in facts and concrete strategies. Clarity ensures that your coworker can’t accuse you of misrepresenting the situation and dismiss your criticisms altogether, so get your facts straight beforehand.

How you speak will also affect the outcome of your conversation, so plan out your statements in advance. Defer to the success of the company as often as possible to keep things from getting personal, and avoid open-ended questions as they open the door for word salad.

Here are a few suggestions to try:

  • “I’m a little worried that when clients see you berate me like that, they gain a negative impression of us as a company. Do you think we could have those conversations in private next time?”

  • “This isn’t a great time for me to talk about this topic at length. Could we schedule some time to meet one on one?”

  • “I’m sensing that you’re unsatisfied with my work. Could we meet to establish a few standards you’ll be happy with and that I can achieve?”

  • “I didn’t realize that ____ was part of my job, and I apologize if that misunderstanding created more work for you. Could we talk about my job description so I know what kind of work you expect from me?”

  • “I didn’t mean to upset you back there. What would you have done differently if you were in my position?”

Collect screenshots and cite quotations along with relevant dates and times, too. Hopefully, you won’t need them, but it’s better to be prepared than blindsided during a heated conversation.

Avoid gossiping

One surefire way to make friends and enemies at work is to commiserate about a coworker. While it’s undeniably cathartic, making a habit of it can hurt your professional reputation.

Crowds where gossip happens can be unpredictable. If the wrong person overhears or misunderstands what you said during office gossip, your unkind words could get back to the wrong person and further damage your relationship, possibly to where it’s beyond repair.

Gossip is an equal opportunity offender. Just because you’re part of the scoop this time doesn’t mean you won’t be the juicy subject next time around. People who gossip often aren’t really known for their loyalty, and that means your dirty laundry could be next.

If you must spill the beans to someone, take care to do it in the company of people you know and trust. Also, have the conversation elsewhere than your workplace.

HR can’t always help you

It’s tempting to bring your coworker concerns to HR, but unless the problem is serious—such as harassment, discrimination, illegal activity, etc.— sometimes it’s better not to involve them. Here’s a video with more ideas on that subject.

While some HR departments are invested in the well-being of employees, other HR departments today focus on protecting the company’s interests primarily. They have no obligation to look out for your well-being, and many young workers learn the hard way that going to HR tends to cause more problems than it solves.

To an HR department, employees who complain a lot are just as dangerous as employees who cause harm to others in the workplace. Once an employee is recognized as sufficiently nosy, their chances of being written up and terminated may increase, regardless of whether they did anything wrong.

Apologies if this is news to you, but complaining to HR about a difficult coworker has the potential to put your own job in jeopardy.

Be a friend

In closing, be someone others feel comfortable around. Keeping work separate from your personal life will help you stay mentally sharp and emotionally safe. Best of luck out there.