The difficult co-worker, we have all encountered at least one person like this in our careers.

Similar to that one relative at family functions, who never seems to recognise the cues, that the function is over... difficult people have personality traits that make it challenging, sometimes impossible to communicate with them.

In the workplace, it can be difficult to avoid these people, as they may be in your meetings, be contributors to your projects, and maybe even critical decision makers at your company.

The task of engaging with difficult colleagues can feel monumental. However, there are behaviours you can adopt to help you interact and get the best from these challenging and sometimes outright problematic personalities…

Dealing with a difficult co-worker


Let the games begin

The reality is that you can never hide from such characters because they are everywhere. Of course, it might be possible to avoid the first couple of difficult people, but how about the 3rd, 9th, 12th person you encounter? Ignoring the problem isn't a permanent solution.

Walking away from the problem isn’t always possible or feasible each time someone has an opposing view or is being difficult.

Rather than turning to drastic measures or tolerating undesirable behaviours, you need to equip yourself with the skills to deal with these individuals.

Let’s look at five main ones now…

  1. Give your colleague the benefit of the doubt and discuss the issue respectfully.

    Most people are not difficult for the sake of being difficult. Unfortunately, some people are not as self-aware as they should be and do not realise the adverse impact they are having on others, e.g. the person’s aggressive tone could be due to personal stresses at home and there is no other outlet for the pressure they feel.

    This doesn’t mean that you should accept their behaviour but it can help you to be more compassionate when dealing with a difficult co-worker.

  2. Avoid acting defensively and try to identify the hidden need without judgement.

    Try to identify your co-worker’s trigger. The person you label as a ‘serial avoider’, may have less skill at using the company’s software than was indicated at the interview, and is not sure how to address the gap without being found out.

    Identify what is preventing the person from cooperating with you and how you can help.


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  3. Speak to a friend, preferably external to, and unconnected to your company.

    Your friend may have already dealt with a similar experience and can give useful advice about the best solution for that particular issue.

    It will give you an opportunity to vent your frustrations and getting a different perspective on the issue can help you be less emotionally charged when dealing with a difficult colleague.

  4. Identify reasons you can use to minimise the time you spend in this person's presence.

    When the difficult co-worker realises that you are not an active participant in their performance, they will search for a new audience.

    This may be easier said than done but if you maintain your position, it will display resilience of character which may change the other person's attitude towards you.

  5. Raise it with your manager.

    This recommendation should be used as a last resort.

    If you have tried everything and the issue still persists, then you may have no other choice but to raise it with your manager.

    Be prepared with all of the information and evidence to make your case that demonstrates the behaviour of this person, all you have done to address the situation and the impact it is having on your performance.

    Complaining to your manager without sufficient evidence will weaken your case and make it more challenging for your manager to take the necessary steps to address the situation.


Unique filters make the identical look different

The way you view the world creates a specific reality - YOUR reality. That view of the world is formed by filters unique to you.

Unspoken personal influences like culture, educational environment, hobbies and life experiences; have a much stronger impact on filters and perceptions, thus on your way of seeing the world.

Therefore, it is worth considering that your colleague’s behaviour may not be difficult but different.

It is frequently assumed and mostly expected, that in a business environment everyone is able to learn and experience the same… but nothing could be further from the truth or more counterproductive.

Use the course - Achieving Professional Excellence - to help you deal with difficult colleagues and improve your professional relationships.

... remember, stay curious and keep learning.

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The Institute for Achievement and Excellence ©