Work + Life Balance
35+ Ways to Deal With Difficult Coworkers
There are problem coworkers in every office. Here's how to deal with a problem coworker—whether she's negative, doesn't do her work, or is passive-aggressive.
When you don't love 'em but can't leave 'em, try these tricks to lessen the pain of annoying workplace personalities.
It’s inevitable—at almost any workplace you will run into “problem” coworkers.
Some of these types ofproblematic coworkers include the negative coworker, the overly competitive coworker, the gossip, the bully, and the person who pushes off work. But the fun thing about this topic is some coworkers are just difficult people in general. They might not fit a certain type—because they are a lovely mix of them all.
All kidding aside, research shows that enjoying who you work with is one of the best retention tools at work.
Hopefully, your office doesn’t have too many of these types of people. Ifdifficult employees seem tothrive in your workplace, you might have a toxic work environment.
Here’s what we'll be covering—feel free to jump ahead to a topic by clicking the link below!
- Why You Must Deal With Difficult Coworkers
- 5 Common Types of Difficult Coworkers
- How to Deal With Difficult Coworkers (35+ Ways!)
- When + How to Talk to Management
Why You Must Deal With Difficult Coworkers
Knowing how to deal with a difficult coworker is an important lifeand career skill. You might count some of your colleagues as friends, but you probably also have a few you would consider "difficult."
Learning how to manage conflicts can help you maintain a healthier andhappier work environment. As you learn to accept or confront their behaviors, you can begin to focus on yourself and those you enjoy more.
5 Common Types of Difficult Coworkers
The list of difficult coworker "types" could be never-ending since humans and our behaviors are always evolving. However, for the sake of keeping this article concise, we've narrowed it down to a list of five. And that doesn't includebad boss types which you can read about here. Let's jump to our list and how to (almost) deal with each one.
The Negative Coworker
This one always has something negative to say, no matter what. True, it can be helpful to have a critical thinker on the team who plays devil’s advocate, but far too often this person is quick to criticize without offering up solutions.
A negative coworker tends to focus on—you guessed it—the negative instead of working towards solutions.
If you hear someone constantly bringing everyone down by saying, “I know the prospective client isn’t going to sign with us,” or “We’re definitely going to lose that client,” you know you’re working with a negative coworker.
How to Deal
When this person raises problems (and you know they will), ask them for more details.
Why won’t the client sign? What’s going on there? Press them to fully describe the problem and ask them to provide a solution. They may raise some valid points, so never ignore what they have to say or write them off.
The Overly-Competitive Coworker
Do you remember the person in class who would repeatedly ask for your notes, yet not return the favor if you asked them for help? This is the grown-up version of that person.
Someone who is overly competitive may try to sabotage other people and throw them under the bus. They will climb over others if it helps them get to the top, and they may even try to take credit for your work.
Having a competitive coworker can be an advantage if they're competitive in the right way for their industry such as in law, PR, or sales. Healthy competition in the workplace can even encourage people to work harder. However, it’s a problem if the person is overly competitive with other people at work and doesn’t ever offer to help.
A company is a team, and everyone should work together to contribute to the success of the organization…but that doesn’t always happen.
How to Deal
Competitive coworkers may be insecure, leading them to feel threatened by your success.Try to show this person that you want to work with them, not against them.
Collaborate with them, but make sure to leave a paper, or carbon copy, trail indicating that you worked on projects. You don’t want them to take the credit for your ideas or killer presentation.
In the meantime, focus on yourself and doing the best job you can do in the workplace.
Don’t be derailed by their competitive nature, and don’t try to engage in it. If most of the people in your company are aggressive, consider whether this is the type of environment where you will work best. Some people thrive in competitive environments and others don’t.
When people spend time together at work, there is bound to be a grapevine with “the office gossip” at the forefront of it. They want to know everything that’s happening and may divulge information you share with them in confidence to others.
This person always wants to be "in the know" and likes to have a juicy story to share. They may ask you questions under the auspices of being considerate or thoughtful, but deep down they may want to use your answers to undermine you.
How to Deal
Don’t feed into this person’s questions. They may ask whoyou dislike at work in a roundabout way like, “So what do you really think of Susan’s presentation?”
If this person tries to engage you in gossip about yourself, your manager, or other coworkers, politely leave the conversation. Tell them you’d rather not talk about it or pretend you don’t have any opinions on the subject.
Don’t get sucked into the gossip.There is a good chance that this person will share what you said with other people, and that can have major ramifications.
Have you ever been the recipient of a mean work email that either made you want to cry, quit, or a combination of both?
You may be dealing with an office bully. Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t end after middle school or high school—bullies can be found in the workplace too.
This type of person is downright nasty. They pick on people, blame others, or tattle when it isn’t necessary to do so. They may be unable to handle confrontational conversations without acting mean and saying something inappropriate.
How to Deal
Personally, I think that the best way to deal with a workplace bully is to try to ignore them altogether.
If possible, don’t engage with them. If you have to engage with them, hold onto the mean emails you get and note the times when their behavior was truly inappropriate. You may have to schedule a time to speak to HR about the situation.
However, keep in mind that if thebully finds out it was you who brought them up, there is a chance that they may retaliate. If your workplace has multiple bullies (or you have to work with them frequently), you may even want to start looking for another job.
Dealing with a bully can be psychologically damaging, and being miserable each day may negatively affect your work.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for getting your work done. It can be problematic for both you—as well as the project overall—if you can’t.
The Work Shirker
If you’ve ever worked on a group project at school, you know that there is usually someone who pushes off work and tries to get the rest of the team to carry their weight.
Unfortunately, this behavior still occurs in the workplace. Someone who pushes off work may ask you to help them or finish their projects, leave before something is finished, or try to get out of the assignment altogether.
Coworkers who truly need help should be helped—you’re working as part of a team, after all!—but if this person continually tries to get you to “help,” AKA “do all of their work,” it might be time to push back.
How to Deal
Speak to them one-on-one and explain the parts of the project you are working on.
Show that you need to finish your sections before you can help with another part. At the end of the day, you are responsible for getting your work done. It can be problematic for both you—as well as the project overall—if you can’t finish because you are busy assisting with someone else’s workload.
How to Deal With Difficult Coworkers (35+ Ways)
We've been fortunate enough over the years to talk to a variety of career coaches, conflict experts, and real people working with difficult people to get their best tips and tricks. In no particular order, here are several ways to deal with a difficult coworker.
1. Understand Their Personality
Start by understanding who you're dealing with. What makes the other person tick? Whatmotivates them? How do they respond to feedback in general?
2. Determine Their Preferred Communication Style
We all have a communication style (and leadership style) we prefer. If you keep trying to confront someone who hates in-person confrontation, you aren't going to get very far.Use this communication guide with your team and try to approach any conversations with your difficult coworker in their preferred style.
3. ControlYour Tone of Voice
Can we make a suggestion? Pay attention to your tone of voice during your interactions. Are you defensive? Does yourbody language show your true emotions? One way to "turn down the heat" of a situation is to make sure your tone is one of curiosity, not anger.
4. Consider Their Perspective—First
You already know your perspective and you're ready to defend it; however, a productive start to any discussion is trying to understand the perspective of the other person—first. You're going to have to step outside your own comfort zone, ask questions, and listen to the other person before you start to form your own opinion.
5. Timing Matters
Consider the timing and location before you engage in a dialogue with the difficult person. In the public hallway at work right after a heated meeting, for example, is probably not going to produce the best outcome.
Consider setting up a private time to meet. If you strategically pick and choose yourtough conversations, you will increase your chances of a better outcome when addressingcolleagues who don't deal with disagreements in the most rational ways.
6. Examine Your Own Behavior
Take a step back and consider the role you're playing in the relationship. Be honest with yourself and examine your own behaviors, tone, body language, etc.
7. Share Your Experience With a TrustedAlly or Mentor
It can be helpful to get some feedback on a situation from a trusted mentor or allybefore you engage in what might be a tough conversation. Not only can you get some clarity on what your next step should be, but they might be able to offer you critical feedback on your own actions or biases.
8. Schedule a Private Conversation
We mentioned timing earlier, but it's worth repeating. Most people do not appreciate (or respond in a productive way) to being publicly shamed, embarrassed, or confronted.You’re way better off waiting for an opportunity when this individual is not being “difficult” and communicating in a non-confrontational way. You want to understand their perspective whilesharing your own as an alternative so you two can reach a mutual conclusion.
Pick a place that's private and just the two of you unless it requires a manager or HR representative to be present.
9. Practice Empathy
Empathyis an essential workplace "soft skill" for a reason—it helps you create more successful outcomes for yourself. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and consider their side. For example, is this person only difficult for you? Are you also difficult to this person?
10. Come from a Place of Curiosity
In addition to the last tip about empathy, practice coming from a place of curiosity—not defensiveness.Listening is one of the most important skills at work, yet very few of us are actually good at it.
11. Name the Specific Issue—And Address It Quickly
One way to address conflict productively is by being as specific as possible about what the issue is. When you're too vague or try to include too many issues into one conversation, it all gets lost and confusing. You'll be more successful if you can point to a specific issue, provide an example (visuals help!), and address it within 24 hours of it happening. When you bring up something that is still bothering you six months later, there's a high chance that nothing will get resolved.
12. Know Your Own Trigger Points
A lot of dealing with difficult people also comes down to knowing yourself. What's your personality type and, especially, what are your triggers? Did this person respond to you in a way that triggers some strong emotions? What might seem at first to be their fault, really turns out to be a much bigger emotion that you are working to better manage.
It doesn't mean you can't bring up these trigger points to the other person and ask them to help you by editing their responses, it just means that in your conversation you're taking responsibility for your own emotions.
13. If Needed, Limit Your Interactions
If you have brought up your trigger points and made some specific asks of the person that are repeatedly ignored, then it might be best for you to find ways to limityour interactions. If you can't eliminate your interactions altogether, can you find alternatives that help you?
14. Treat the Difficult Person With Compassion
Believe it or not, you will go much further in your life—and in dealing with this difficult person—if you treat them with compassion, kindness, and respect. You can try practicing someself-compassion at the same time.
15. Set Boundaries + Enforce Them
Many of us confuseboundaries with something mean or something only a mean boss would do. Boundaries are good for you and the people you work with. They let everyone know what they can expect from you and what you expect in return. When you set clear boundaries and enforce them consistently, it can help mitigate difficult work situations in general.
16. BeAccountable for Dealing With the Difficult Coworker
If you plan on addressing an issue with a coworker, then make sure you follow through on it. Stay accountable for dealing with conflict and finding productive ways to engage in conflict resolutions. Ignoring or pretending you are fine when things most definitely are not okay only leads to bigger emotions piling up and resentment brewing.
17. Evaluate + Control Your Actions
Do an honest self-evaluation and consider what role your actions play in this coworker relationship. Could yourcommunication skills be better? Are there circumstances that they don't have control over and you're blaming them? Does your lack of time management make you miss their deadlines which are leading them to lots of last-minute work?
You can't control the environment or the other person's actions, but you can control your own actions.
18. Voice Your Thoughts in a Productive Way
Part of learning how to be better at conflict resolution is also learning how to voice your own thoughts.When sharing howthe difficult colleaguemakes you feel, use "I" language so they better understand your perspective. Using "you" language may make it difficult for them to accept responsibility for their actions. Here's an example of "I" versus "you" language:
"I feel upset when you talk over me."vs."You always interrupt me."
19. If Needed, Track Specific Interactions
What happens if you're dealing with a difficult bossor a person who has influence over your career? Our best advice is to keep a paper trail and track specific interactions.
You'll go further in your conversations if you can point to specific times when the boss interrupted the flow of work or played favorites among team members. This is also a good idea for any person you're consistently butting heads with.
20. Treat Your Conversation Like a Collaboration
Whileyour coworker's behavior may feel anything but collaborative, you twocan likely come to a mutually beneficial outcome. Start by getting a better understanding of where they are coming from with the specific issue you two are in disagreement on. Next, learn what they would like to have you do. For example:
21. Create a Mutual Plan For Moving Forward
Unless you want toremain in constant conflict with this difficult coworker causing all sorts of difficult situations for you, might we recommend an actual plan for moving forward?! All jokes aside, after you twohave discussed your issues, keep the conversation open by inquiring how you can solve it together.
Sometimes there might not be a path forward, but most of the time there is. Consider what both of you can commit to doing to improve the situation. If there isn't a path forward—at least not a clear one—then what boundaries can you both commit to? How can you ensure you skipoffice politics and have respectful interactions that reduce any friction moving forward?
22. Stay Neutral + Don't Bring in Other Employees
Do your best not to air your grievances to your peers or try to make them dislike the other person. We know it's tempting to repeat your conversation line-by-line to yourwork bestie or send messages online on a daily basis about how that person annoys you, but it really hurts team morale and is a quick way to create a toxic work environment. It's not professional, and it's not productive.
23. Follow-Up After Your Initial Discussion
In order to keep the resolution, plan to follow up with the difficult coworker after your initial conversation. Do you two need to make any changes to your original plan for moving forward? It's a good idea to meet in person (or virtually on-screen) and send an email recap as well.
24. Focus on Your Work
Don't let this one issue or one person keep you from focusing on your work.If the quality of your work starts to suffer because of this person, it's time time to get management involved.
25.ClarifyTeam Roles + Responsibilities
When people know what is expected of them and the structure of the team, they often work better. Make sure there is clarity about each person's role on the team and what they are in charge of. Oftentimes, conflict on a team comes down to miscommunications—and misunderstandings about team roles.
26. Create a Team Feedback Structure
Creating a way for team members and bosses to give frequent feedback in safe, productive ways is one of the best tools for having less conflict in a team in general. Not to mention, employees often cite "feedback" as something they want more of in the workplace.
27. Review Work Communication Platforms
Does your team know when they should send an email vs. host a meeting? Do they know what's expected of them for communication responses and what platform? Especially if your team uses a variety of tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc., this structure helps mitigate communication gaps.
28. Don't Be a "Right" Fighter
Don't be the person at work who refuses to admit their mistakes or argues their point just because they have to be right. That behavior is what is making you the difficult person in these scenarios.
29. Be Assertive but Not Rude
Advocatefor what you want and what you need—without being rude about it. People will respect this approach and they will be less likely to push your boundaries.
30. Separate Your Personal Feelings from the Situation
Don't take it personally. This is some of the hardest advice to accept but also one of the best ways preventworkplace conflicts from ruling your day. Become a person who is not offended by everything and doesn't read into all emotions.
31. Focus on Positive Relationships
When you're dealing with a difficult person at work, it can be hard to focus on anything else. Here's an idea: Focus on the positive relationships you do have at work and build on those. Focus on creating a support network for yourself.
32. Manage Your Expectations
One of the best ways to be disappointed is with unrealistic expectations. We are a bunch of humans working together, and it's unrealistic to think you will never butt heads with someone.
33. Have an Exit Plan Ready
When you're trying to limit your interactions with someone, develop a few plans for exiting conversations.
Having an excuse to avoid a tough coworker can be beneficial. Whether youmake upa phone call or keep headphones on to signal you can't talk, spend as little time as possible with thechallenging coworker. When individuals feel they are not being heard, they give up.
34. Talk to Your Boss
Sometimes you've left no alternative but totalk to your boss and share the details. Maybe the person is breaking company policies or impacting your work in a negative way. Yoursupervisor or human resources department is who you'll turn to.
Start by documenting their actions and behaviors so you have proof of what they have been doing. The goal here is that your boss or HR should find ways to resolve this conflict and make you feel safe and respected at work.
35. Articulate How Their Behavior Impacts Your Work
Going off of the last tip, make sure you're specifically sharing how their behavior is having a negative impact on your work. Show proof and examples.
36. Learn How to Take Critical Feedback
This is a great life lesson in general, but learn how to take critical feedback in a way that allows you to grow and learn.
37. Learn How to Give Effective Feedback
Equally important is learning how togive effective feedbackto both your teammates and your manager.
38. Be Optimistic
Having the right attitude at the start will helpget your relationship with your coworker to a good place. If you assume nothing will work from the start, you're setting up to fail.
When + How to Talk to Management
If you feel like you've tried everything and have exhausted your efforts, it's time to escalate things to your boss. Before you randomly pop into their office, come prepared with the following:
- Have Actual Examples: Take notes or bring physical examples of where the coworker is being difficult and how it's impacting the team and work overall.
- Come With a Plan: What's your plan for addressing these issues? Your boss will provide their input, but it's helpful if you come to the conversation with some ideas for solutions.
- Bring in Anecdotes from the Team: Is this a group problem? Without turning the conversation into a blame game or rallying the team to dislike someone, can you bring examples from other team members that add to a productive conversation?
- Switch Teams/Projects: If things are really bad, is there an option for you to limit your interactions or even switch teams altogether?
- Look for a New Job/Quit: If this is a serious issue that you have brought up to your boss many times but they refuse to support you or address it, it might be time to look for a new job. We always recommend leaving on a positive note.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, these tips will help you deal with difficult people at work. But keep in mind that if you find yourself needing to use the “how to (almost) deal” strategies more often than not, it is probably wise to start looking for a new role.
Life’s too short to work at a job that is full of (almost) situations.
- Avoid them if you can. Some people are best in small doses. ...
- Don't let them push your buttons. Figure out why your difficult coworker bothers you so much. ...
- Stay positive. Don't let a difficult coworker burn you out. ...
- Don't take it personally.
“I would deal with a difficult co-worker by first making sure I wasn't contributing to the situation in a negative way. I would then sit down with them in private to find an amicable way forward. I would find out what was important to them.How do you deal with the five most negative types of coworkers? ›
- Make the employee feel heard.
- Identify the positives within their negative comments.
- Refer them to helpful resources.
- Reach out to human resources or your manager if needed.
- Excuse yourself from the conversation politely.
- Distance yourself from negative situations.
- Learn About Them. ...
- Understand What is Going on With Them. ...
- Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms. ...
- Avoid Engaging with Them Unnecessarily. ...
- Try Talking It Out. ...
- Talk to Your Superiors About It.
- Determine your boss' motivations.
- Take responsibility when necessary.
- Choose your words carefully.
- Avoid discussing your boss with coworkers.
- Anticipate expectations.
- Practice your leadership skills.
- Try to understand your boss' communication style.
- Be Realistic - change takes time; appreciate the small steps of improvement.
- Stay friendly - work up to the more difficult topics; don't make negative comments. ...
- Be optimistic - remember the good things about this person; try not to generalize criticisms (do not use "always" or "never").
- Be objective and give context. The first thing you do not want to do in an interview setting after being asked this question is engage in a blame game. ...
- Detail how you resolved the situation. ...
- Explain what you learnt from the experience.
- Don't get sucked into the drama. Another person's toxicity is not about you – it's about them. ...
- Lean into the crazy. ...
- Establish clear boundaries. ...
- If all else fails, escalate the issue – but go in with a case.
- Wear your headphones, even when you're not listening to music. ...
- Become persistently political. ...
- Say you're in a bad mood and don't want to talk about it. ...
- Act like you're asleep.
Here are options for informing your manager about what's going on at work:
- Write a formal complaint letter.
- Make a report to human resources.
- Request an in-person meeting.
What is a Toxic Coworker? A toxic coworker creates havoc for everyone around them at work. The person might be adding more work onto others, displaying rude behavior, or simply not doing their share of the workload. Fortunately, toxic coworkers are not all bad; sometimes, they're just having an off day.What are the 5 ways to deal with difficult people? ›
- Help them get perspective or move on. This month, I worked on a team where one person was overly wrapped up in her own drama. ...
- Help them express themselves. ...
- Be direct. ...
- Let Crabby Cathy be just that. ...
- Show your empathy.
- Define the problem.
- Gather information.
- Generate possible solutions.
- Evaluate ideas and then choose one.
- Avoid playing into their reality. ...
- Don't get drawn in. ...
- Pay attention to how they make you feel. ...
- Talk to them about their behavior. ...
- Put yourself first. ...
- Offer compassion, but don't try to fix them. ...
- Say no (and walk away) ...
- Remember, you aren't at fault.
- Disengage. Don't act upset; that's exactly what a drama seeker wants. ...
- Try to determine what's behind the drama. ...
- Get the facts. ...
- Ask them to find a solution. ...
- Set boundaries. ...
- Walk away. ...
- Seek out congenial coworkers. ...
- Don't become a drama seeker.
- Stop over-reacting and ask yourself. ...
- Don't react, if you know that works. ...
- Let the difficult person know how you feel. ...
- Follow up. ...
- Talk with your manager/boss. ...
- Don't take it personally. ...
- Find a new job.
- Discuss with the team member in private and make your feelings known. ...
- Consider the cause of the behavior. ...
- Check with trusted colleagues and see if they notice the same thing. ...
- Detach from the situation and objectively observe. ...
- Limit your interactions as much as possible.
- Maintain integrity. Never return the favor, as it will only make you look bad.
- Politely confront the situation. ...
- Maintain your distance. ...
- Always be alert/aware. ...
- Create and maintain a strong business network. ...
- Never underestimate others. ...
- Don't let it get you down.
- Don't Take it Personally. First and foremost, keep calm and carry on, as they say. ...
- Call Him on It. ...
- Neutralize Your Body Language. ...
- Ask for Clarification.
- Accept the situation.
- Document their behavior.
- Speak with human resources.
- Be mindful of yourself.
- Be the better person.
- Use your communication skills.
- Create healthy boundaries.
- Bond with your other coworkers.
- Be gracious when you succeed. ...
- Try to offer assistance to your coworkers when they need it. ...
- Use kindness to your advantage. ...
- Take space from your coworkers when you need it. ...
- Seek advice from your supervisor or a trusted colleague.
- They make comments about how your work is more exciting than theirs. ...
- They're always “too busy” to help you. ...
- They mock you when you get recognition from your boss or the leadership team. ...
- They don't invite you when they go out for a happy hour or schedule a virtual lunch.
- Postpone your answer. Don't give them an answer on the spot. ...
- Question their motivations. Manipulators often hide their real motivations because they don't like to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. ...
- Show disinterest. ...
- Impose boundaries. ...
- Keep your self-respect. ...
- Apply fogging.
Most people act two-faced when they don't want others to see who they really are. When we join new communities, we keep our thoughts to ourselves while we try to figure out the social dynamics. No one wants to show how weird they are from the start. This a natural self-defense reaction we all have.What is a two-faced person called? ›
two-faced. adjective. deceitful; insincere; hypocritical.What does feeling two-faced mean? ›
DEFINITIONS1. dishonest about your feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and tending to tell people whatever you think will please them. Synonyms and related words. Words used to describe people or behaviour that is not sincere. insincere.How do you tell if a coworker is threatened by you? ›
- 1) Cross Arms When You Talk To Them. ...
- 2) Spread Rumors About You. ...
- 3) Change In Facial Expression When You Are Around. ...
- 4) Avoid You. ...
- 5) Ignore Your Presence When You're Around. ...
- 6) Don't Do Eye Contact. ...
- 7) Get Credits For Your Accomplishments Or Ideas. ...
- 8) Don't Share Knowledge.
- They force you to do additional work. ...
- They create drama about you. ...
- The tell lies about you to your boss. ...
- They don't invite you to important meetings. ...
- They take credit for your bright ideas. ...
- They're manipulative.
If their behavior doesn't change and your work is suffering, it's best to address them directly. You may begin by saying, “I respect you and want to discuss something that's been bothering me.” By having a one-on-one conversation, you're giving this difficult co-worker room to express themselves.How would you react to an aggressive coworker? ›
- Take a Deep Breath. Try not to lose your cool or control of the situation. ...
- Listen Well. ...
- Strive to be Assertive. ...
- Put Yourself in Their Shoes. ...
- Laughter is Often the Best Medicine.
- Have a thoughtful discussion in private. ...
- Be prepared for pushback. ...
- Document everything. ...
- Offer constructive feedback in public. ...
- Comment on the behavior, not the character. ...
- Continue to grow as a manager.
To maintain control when dealing with an intimidating colleague, some tips include rehearsing responses ahead of time and trying to appear calm. To break the cycle of anger and retaliation, it can be helpful to remain professional and cordial. One can be assertive without sounding mad.How do you handle a mean co worker? ›
The best way to handle a tough coworker is to talk to them privately about their behavior. Try to be empathetic and compassionate, and just ask them why they're being aggressive toward you.How do you deal with the silent treatment at work? ›
- Name the situation. Acknowledge that someone is using the silent treatment. ...
- Use 'I' statements. ...
- Acknowledge the other person's feelings. ...
- Apologize for words or actions. ...
- Cool off and arrange a time to resolve the issue. ...
- Avoid unhelpful responses.