Navigating professional relationships can occasionally be challenging, especially when confronted with a difficult coworker. This dynamic can affect not only your productivity but also your overall work experience.
This article offers a comprehensive approach to managing complex interpersonal scenarios in the workplace, presenting effective strategies and practical tips backed by expert insights.
We will explore techniques for improving communication, establishing boundaries, and seeking appropriate intervention when necessary.
With a focus on maintaining professionalism and fostering a conducive work environment, this guide is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to successfully manage and mitigate the impact of difficult coworkers.
Let’s delve into the details of dealing with difficult coworkers and arm you with the tools for a more harmonious professional experience.
Table of Contents
What is a difficult coworker?
A difficult coworker is an individual in a professional setting whose behavior or attitude unintentionally creates challenges or obstacles for others in the workplace.
This may include behaviors such as constant negativity, criticism, unwillingness to collaborate, poor communication, or lack of professionalism.
Difficult coworkers can impact team morale, productivity, and overall workplace harmony – that is why it is crucial to deal with them in a timely manner, especially if you are a team manager or a supervisor.
It’s important to stress the fact that difficult coworkers are not necessarily purposeful when it comes to the harm that they cause at work. These individuals often exhibit certain personality traits that make them difficult to work with. This is something that will be expanded upon later on in the article.
Examples of difficult coworkers
Let’s take a look at some common coworker archetypes and behaviors that can lead to difficulties in communication and collaboration in the workplace.
- The Know-it-all
- The Negative one
- The Overly Competitive one
- The Poor Communicator
- The Perfectionist
- The Inflexible
- The Indecisive
- The Impulsive
- The Oversharer
- The Over-Delegator
- The Micromanager
- The Narcissistic
- The Incompetent
- The Rude One
- The Overcritical
- The Constant Complainer
- The Attention Seeker
- The Unreliable
- The Uncooperative
- The “Lone Wolf” type
It’s important to mention that difficult coworkers often exhibit an overlap in these behaviors.
That is why it is crucial to observe your difficult colleagues carefully in order to figure them out and deal with them accordingly.
How to deal with difficult coworkers
Dealing with difficult coworkers can be challenging, but by applying these strategies, you can navigate these situations more effectively and maintain a positive and productive work environment.
1. Understand their perspective
Every person comes with unique life experiences, and these shape their perspectives and behaviors. Try to see the situation from your coworker’s point of view.
This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but understanding their motivations and perspectives can provide valuable insights into their behavior and might help you identify ways to improve the working relationship.
2. Be professional
No matter how difficult a coworker may be, always maintain a high level of professionalism. This includes respecting their position, maintaining courteous communication, and upholding your responsibilities within the team.
By doing so, you protect your reputation and keep the focus on work-related matters, rather than personal disputes.
3. Pick your battles
It’s essential to realize that not every disagreement is worth engaging in. Some conflicts can drain your energy and provide little return.
Be strategic about the issues you choose to address. If a conflict does not significantly impact your work or the team’s productivity, it might be better to let it go.
4. Seek advice
Don’t hesitate to seek advice from trusted colleagues, mentors, or supervisors. They may have faced similar situations in the past and could provide useful strategies for dealing with your difficult coworker.
Alternatively, their outside perspective might shed light on aspects of the situation you hadn’t considered.
5. Focus on the issue, not the person
When addressing a problem, keep the discussion focused on the specific issue at hand rather than on the person’s character.
Use “I” statements to express how you feel about the situation instead of “you” statements that might come across as accusatory. This approach can help prevent the other person from becoming defensive and keep the conversation constructive.
6. Communicate clearly and assertively
Clear, assertive communication is key when dealing with a difficult coworker. Clearly express your concerns, needs, or boundaries without aggression or passivity.
This type of communication helps prevent misunderstandings and ensures your voice is heard.
7. Be solution-focused
Instead of dwelling on the problem, focus on finding solutions. This shift in mindset can not only help resolve the current issue but also prevent future conflicts.
Engage your coworker in problem-solving discussions to promote collaboration and mutual understanding.
8. Work on your patience
Interacting with a difficult coworker can be frustrating, but developing patience can make the process more bearable.
Patience allows you to stay calm, listen effectively, and respond thoughtfully, which can contribute to better communication and resolution of conflicts.
9. Seek mediation
If your efforts aren’t leading to improvement, consider seeking mediation. A neutral third party, such as a supervisor or HR representative, can help facilitate a conversation, provide an unbiased perspective, and assist in finding a resolution.
10. Find common ground
Despite your differences, try to find areas where you and your coworker can agree. This common ground can serve as a foundation for building a more harmonious working relationship.
It could be work-related, such as shared goals or projects, or even something outside of work, like a hobby or favorite TV show.
11. Lead by example
Demonstrate the behavior you’d like to see in your coworker. Your conduct can influence those around you.
By promoting a positive, respectful, and collaborative work environment, you can help set the tone for the entire team.
12. Gain the trust of the Micromanager by showing competence
We all know “The Micromanager,” don’t we? This is the person who’s always peeking over your shoulder, involved in every tiny detail of your work. It’s like they’ve got a sixth sense for swooping in just when you’re in the middle of something.
Micromanagers often mean well, but their excessive control can make you feel like they don’t trust your abilities.
But hey, don’t sweat it! You’ve got the skills and the smarts to handle this. First up, keep your micromanager in the loop. Regular updates can reassure them that you’re on top of things.
Show them through your consistent and high-quality work that you’ve got it all under control.
If their micromanaging continues, it might be time for a heart-to-heart chat about trust and autonomy. And remember, if all else fails, your supervisor or HR is there to help. You can also take a look at our complete guide on how to deal with a micromanager.
13. Don’t let the Narcissist manipulate you
Next up, we’ve got “The Narcissist.” This coworker struts around the office like they’re the center of the universe. They seem to think they’re always the smartest person in the room and often dismiss or undermine others’ contributions. It can feel like you’re dealing with a workplace diva!
But don’t worry, you’re a star in your own right! When dealing with a narcissist, it’s key to stay professional and not take their behavior personally. Stick to the facts when communicating with them, and don’t let their grandiose stories sway you.
Keep track of your work and accomplishments, so your contributions don’t go unnoticed. If their behavior starts to cross the line, don’t hesitate to talk to your supervisor or HR.
Make sure to check our complete guide on how to spot a narcissist in the workplace and how to deal with them.
14. Remind the Rude one what respect is
And then there’s “The Rude One.” This coworker seems to have missed the memo on common courtesy. They might make snide comments, ignore your input, or just generally act like they don’t have time for anyone else’s ideas. This behavior can be a real mood dampener.
But chin up! You’re bigger than their bad attitude. When dealing with the rude one, it’s important to stay calm and composed.
Politely but firmly let them know that respect is a two-way street. Focus on maintaining your own professionalism and positivity. If their rudeness continues, don’t be afraid to bring it up with your supervisor or HR.
You deserve a respectful work environment, and you’ve got the power to stand up for it. And here we have an entirely separate article on dealing with rude coworkers.
15. Help out the Incompetent one
Ah, “The Incompetent One.” You’ve probably seen this character around: they seem to struggle with their tasks, often missing deadlines or producing subpar work. Their lack of skills or understanding can cause a lot of headaches, especially when you’re relying on their part of the work for a project.
But hey, don’t let this get you down! Everybody has areas for improvement. The first step is to offer help without being condescending.
Maybe they need a little mentoring to get up to speed. Remember, it’s all about teamwork. If things don’t improve, consider having a chat with your supervisor about your concerns. It’s possible they’re not aware of the issue, and they can provide additional support or training.
And if you need more guidance, check out our article on dealing with incompetent coworkers.
16. Tell the Overly Competitive one to chill
Then there’s “The Overly Competitive One.” This coworker sees every task as a race to the finish line, always trying to outdo everyone else. While a little competition can be healthy, too much can create unnecessary tension and disrupt the team’s harmony.
But no worries, you’ve got this! Stay focused on your own progress and don’t get sucked into the competition. Continue collaborating with your team and sharing successes.
If their competitive behavior starts to overstep, it might be worth a friendly chat. Remind them that you’re all on the same team and working towards a common goal. If the issue persists, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your supervisor.
Make sure to check the signs that a coworker is competing with you and how to deal with them.
17. Counter the Negative one with solutions
And then we have “The Negative One.” This coworker always seems to see the glass half empty. They’re quick to point out problems, rarely offer solutions, and their negativity can bring down the whole team’s morale.
But remember, you’re a positivity powerhouse! While it’s important to acknowledge their concerns (sometimes they might point out valid issues!), don’t let their negativity sway your positivity.
Encourage them to find solutions instead of focusing solely on the problems. If their negativity becomes overwhelming, it may be time to speak to your supervisor. It’s important to maintain a positive, productive work environment for everyone. You’ve got this!
18. Find balance with the Lone Wolf
First up, let’s talk about “The Lone Wolf.” This coworker prefers to work alone and might resist collaborative efforts. They’re like the solitary hiker on the office trail, always seeming to prefer going it alone rather than being part of the team.
But don’t let this get you down! Everyone has their own work style. The key is finding a balance that respects their independence while ensuring team collaboration. Offer help, involve them in group activities, but also give them space to work independently when possible.
If their lone-wolf tendencies are hindering team projects, it might be worth a friendly chat or a discussion with your supervisor. Remember, a pack is only as strong as its wolves, whether they’re lone or not!
19. Challenge the Know-It-All
Next in line, we have “The Know-it-All.” This coworker seems to have an answer for everything, even when it’s not their area of expertise. They’re the walking, talking Google of your office, always ready with information or advice, whether you asked for it or not.
But hey, you’re pretty knowledgeable too! When dealing with a know-it-all, it’s important to assert your own expertise and contributions. Politely challenge them when they’re wrong and be confident in your knowledge.
Remember, everyone has unique skills and perspectives to bring to the table. If their know-it-all behavior becomes overwhelming, consider discussing it with your supervisor. You’re in this workplace to shine too, and don’t you forget it!
20. Remind the Perfectionist that nobody is perfect
Last but not least, we’ve got “The Perfectionist.” This coworker has extremely high standards and often spends a lot of time obsessing over the smallest details. They’re the Picasso of your office, always striving for that perfect masterpiece in every task.
But remember, perfection isn’t always attainable or necessary! When working with a perfectionist, it’s crucial to respect their drive for quality but also emphasize the importance of deadlines and efficiency.
Assist them in recognizing that sometimes, good enough is perfectly fine. If their perfectionism starts to hinder work progress, it might be time for a chat with your supervisor.
After all, the workplace is more like a sketchbook of progress rather than a gallery of masterpieces. Keep up the great work!
21. Stand up to the Overly-Critical one
Oh, the “Overly-Critical One.” This person has a sixth sense for finding fault in everything. They’re like the office’s own Simon Cowell, always ready with a critique and rarely a compliment. It can feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells around them, afraid to make a mistake.
But guess what? You’re doing a fantastic job! Criticism can be tough to swallow, but it’s important to separate constructive feedback from plain negativity.
When faced with their criticism, take a deep breath, filter out the useful bits, and let go of the rest. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your work and express your thoughts politely.
Remember, nobody’s perfect, and that includes the overly-critical one! If their behavior is starting to affect your work or well-being, consider discussing it with your supervisor.
How to communicate with difficult coworkers
Communicating with difficult coworkers can be hard and stressful. However, there are certain ways you can approach this in order to minimize all the negativity. Here are some useful tips
1. Don’t be tempted to ignore them entirely
According to popular advice, it is best to “just ignore” people who are being difficult and toxic at work. However, this will only bring you more headaches down the line. By ignoring a coworker, you are turning into somebody who is being irresponsible and unprofessional.
2. Stick to work-related communication only
Instead of ignoring the person, simply stick to the communication that is essential for your work. You can say things like “Let’s not get distracted” in case you notice the conversation is going off course.
3. Remind them about their responsibilities
In case the person is blocking work or downright ignoring you, make sure to remind them of their responsibilities. By refusing to communicate, they are not doing their job.
4. Don’t stoop to their level
Remember to control your emotions. Don’t give in to cheap provocations. No matter the person’s behavior, approach them with dignity and self-respect.
5. Stick to online communication
If possible, stick to email and direct messaging. This way, there is a clear log of your communication that can be used later on as evidence in case the situation escalates to a workplace conflict.
What to say to a difficult coworker
We all know that one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with difficult coworkers is figuring out what to say to them. Well, guess what? It’s time to replace those tongue-tied moments with confidence and competence.
Here are some handy conversational strategies that will help turn the tide towards better communication, collaboration, and harmony.
First off, it’s crucial to stay calm and composed. Remember, you’re not just speaking for yourself, but also setting the tone for the entire conversation. A calm demeanor can help de-escalate tensions and set the stage for constructive dialogue.
Now, let’s talk about the power of “I” statements. This little linguistic trick is your best friend when addressing difficult coworkers. Instead of saying, “You always interrupt me during meetings,” try, “I feel overlooked when I’m interrupted during meetings.” This way, you’re expressing your feelings without coming off as accusatory.
Next up, ask open-ended questions. This invites your coworker to share their perspective and promotes mutual understanding. For example, you could say, “Can you help me understand why you chose to approach the project this way?”
And don’t forget the importance of active listening. Show your coworker that you value their thoughts by giving them your full attention and providing thoughtful responses. A simple, “I understand where you’re coming from,” can go a long way in fostering better communication.
Finally, always aim for a solution-focused conversation. After all, we’re all here to get the job done, right? So, instead of dwelling on the problem, shift the focus towards finding a solution. You could say, “Let’s figure out how we can work better together on this.”
Remember, the key to dealing with difficult coworkers isn’t just about what you say but how you say it.
So, keep these strategies in your back pocket, and you’ll be navigating those tricky office dynamics like a pro in no time.
And if you have a hard time finding the right words, then here are more examples of what to say to difficult coworkers in different situations:
1. The coworker who doesn’t deliver their work on time
“Hey [Coworker’s Name], I noticed that we’ve had some challenges meeting deadlines recently. I understand that we all have a lot to handle, and sometimes it’s tough to meet every deadline. Is there something I could do to help you, or perhaps we could discuss how we can better manage our project timelines?”
2. The coworker who doesn’t seem to listen or respect your ideas
“[Coworker’s Name], I value your perspectives and I believe that we both want what’s best for our team. I’ve noticed that there are times when my ideas don’t seem to be considered. Could we have a conversation about how we might better communicate and ensure all ideas are respected and considered?”
3. The coworker who is always negative
“[Coworker’s Name], I appreciate your passion and commitment to our work. I’ve noticed that sometimes the focus seems to be more on the obstacles than the opportunities. I believe that maintaining a positive outlook can help us overcome challenges and foster a more productive environment. Could we try to look for the positives and solutions, rather than focusing solely on the problems?”
4. The coworker who is not responsive or communicative
“[Coworker’s Name], I’ve noticed that there have been times when I’ve had trouble getting a response from you. This can make it a bit difficult for me to proceed with my tasks. I understand we all get busy, but could we discuss a better way to ensure communication flows more smoothly?”
5. The coworker who tends to work solo, not sharing information or collaborating
“[Coworker’s Name], I value your independent spirit and your ability to get things done. However, our team could benefit from your insights, and we could potentially help lighten your load if=we collaborate more. Could we discuss ways to improve our teamwork and information sharing? I believe it could boost our overall productivity and outcomes.”
You can see how this style of communication is entirely professional and non-confrontational, yet direct and effective. So consider the particular situations you find yourself at work and do your best to craft your own response when dealing with a difficult coworker.
How to work with difficult coworkers
It is far from optimal to work with difficult people as collaboration and proper communication are essential for the success of any company. Still, there are steps that you can take in order to cope with difficult coworkers.
1. Practicе emotional distance
Don’t take anything they say or do personally. Create a mental screen between you and them. No matter how difficult and unpleasant their demeanor is, don’t let them get to you, and don’t stoop to their level.
2. Ensure your psychological safety
Remember that you can always leave. No job is worth tolerating the unreasonable behavior of insensitive people. We talk about this in-depth in our guide on how to leave a toxic workplace.
3. Raise your voice
You are not voiceless. As an employee of your company, you have rights, and it is in your company’s interest to keep you happy and productive. So raise your voice and call out coworkers who are being difficult and noncooperative.
4. Establish clear boundaries
Give the person who is being difficult detailed feedback and tell them about your personal boundaries in case they are being toxic in any way. This will show them that you are a person who will not tolerate disrespect and unprofessional behavior at work.
5. Limit your communication with them
You can limit the communication with your difficult coworker(s) to what is essential for your work. As far as everything else is concerned, you can avoid them. For example, you can block them on social media and not pick up the phone when they call outside of work hours.
6. Form strategic workplace friendships
It’s very likely that your colleagues have also noticed the behavior of your difficult coworker(s). You can team up and resist the problematic person to show them that they won’t get away with this kind of behavior at work.
7. Unwind properly after work
Working with people is already hard enough, even when you have one or more difficult coworkers. For example, this study concludes that employees who have difficult coworkers experience higher levels of perceived stress in their work which may affect their decision to leave their job.
So make sure that when you leave work, you are not falling into the trap of rumination. Take steps to relax after work and forget your worries. Check out our complete guide on how to unwind after work.
Difficult coworkers vs. Toxic coworkers
While the behaviors of difficult and toxic coworkers can sometimes overlap, there is a distinct difference between the two.
Difficult coworkers are individuals you might find challenging to work with due to differences in communication styles, work habits, personalities, or perspectives.
They may be stubborn, overly critical, or uncooperative, and may cause occasional disruptions in the workplace. However, interactions with them do not generally extend beyond professional disagreements or personality clashes.
Toxic coworkers, on the other hand, contribute to a harmful and destructive work environment through consistent negative behavior. Some of them are entirely purposeful and aware of the harm that they cause.
For example. they may engage in bullying, harassment, or spreading gossip, creating a hostile environment that goes beyond simple disagreements or clashes of personality. This behavior can lead to significant emotional distress, decreased job satisfaction, and even health problems for those around them.
Examples of toxic coworkers include:
- Power abusers
- Passive-aggressive ones
Toxic behavior can erode team morale, productivity, and overall workplace culture. Addressing toxic coworkers often requires intervention from human resources or management, and in severe cases, may lead to disciplinary action or termination.
My experience dealing with difficult coworkers
In my decade-long journey as a project manager at an international tech company, I’ve come to understand one thing – dealing with difficult coworkers is an integral part of the job.
The path hasn’t always been smooth; it’s been a constant learning curve, filled with challenges and obstacles.
But with time, I realized that the complexity of working and collaborating with other professionals was a hurdle that needed to be overcome to ensure the productivity of my team.
At first, early in my career, managing professional relationships was challenging. The diverse personalities, various backgrounds, and the sheer volume of interactions made it a daunting task. I encountered individuals who were particularly challenging to work with.
There were personality clashes at work, disagreements, and conflicts that seemed to disrupt the harmony of our team.
However, I quickly understood that every challenge was an opportunity to improve. To navigate these workplace conflicts, I started focusing on improving workplace communication.
I dove into books, attended seminars, and even consulted with mentors. My goal was to become more adept at understanding and managing the myriad personalities I encountered daily.
One of the first things I realized was the importance of understanding the perspectives of difficult coworkers. Everybody views the world through their unique lens, and acknowledging this has allowed me to approach conflicts more empathetically.
A crucial part of this journey was learning to pick my battles in workplace conflicts. Not every disagreement was worth a fight, and often, it was more beneficial to the team’s productivity to let smaller issues go.
I also developed a solution-focused approach to difficult coworkers. Instead of getting stuck on the problem, I began to guide the conversation toward potential solutions. This approach not only helped in conflict resolution in the workplace but also made my team more resilient and proactive.
Assertive communication at work became my go-to strategy. I learned to express my thoughts and concerns clearly and respectfully, ensuring my voice was heard without escalating conflicts.
When conflicts did escalate beyond a point, I wasn’t afraid of seeking mediation. Sometimes, having a third party to provide an unbiased perspective made all the difference in finding a resolution.
Over time, I saw a shift in the way my team handled conflicts. We were communicating better, understanding each other more, and most importantly, we were more productive than ever.
In this journey of mastering the art of dealing with difficult colleagues, I have also learned the importance of leading by example. My conduct sets the tone for the entire team.
By promoting a positive, respectful, and collaborative work environment, I’ve noticed a significant decrease in conflicts and an increase in harmony and productivity.
In the end, all sorts of coping strategies for workplace conflicts have been my lifeline in this challenging but rewarding journey. It’s a continuous learning process, but seeing my team thrive and succeed makes it all worth it.
Frequently asked questions about dealing with difficult coworkers
How can I set boundaries with a difficult coworker?
Setting boundaries is a crucial step in managing relationships with difficult coworkers. Start by clearly identifying what your boundaries are. These could be related to your work responsibilities, your personal space, or your time. Once you’ve identified them, communicate these boundaries assertively but respectfully. Be clear about what you are comfortable with and what you’re not. If your coworker oversteps these boundaries, remind them politely but firmly. Remember, maintaining these boundaries is key to preserving your mental health and productivity at work.
How can I professionally communicate with a difficult coworker?
Professional communication involves being clear, concise, respectful, and assertive. It’s important to focus on the issue at hand and not let personal feelings influence the conversation. Using “I” statements can help to express your feelings and concerns without sounding accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “You always dump your work on me,” you could say, “I feel overwhelmed when I have to take on extra tasks at short notice. Could we discuss how to distribute the workload more evenly?” Remember, maintaining professionalism in communication can prevent conflicts from escalating and can contribute to a healthier work environment.
What should I do if a difficult coworker is affecting my job performance?
If a difficult coworker is negatively impacting your job performance, it’s crucial to address the situation promptly. Start by having a conversation with the individual, expressing your concerns and how their behavior is affecting your work. If the behavior persists, document instances where your work has been affected and bring these to the attention of your supervisor or human resources. It’s essential to approach this professionally, focusing on your performance and productivity rather than personal grievances.
When should I involve HR or management in issues with a difficult coworker?
If your attempts to resolve the issues directly with your coworker have not been successful, or if the behavior is seriously disrupting your work or creating a hostile work environment, it may be time to involve HR or management. Situations where a coworker is engaging in harassment, discrimination, or any form of bullying should also be reported immediately. Remember, HR and management are there to ensure a safe and productive work environment, so don’t hesitate to reach out when you need their support.