Dealing with difficult co-workers: Do’s and don’ts

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All of us have had to deal with co-workers who are difficult to work with.

Maybe you’ve had colleagues who complained all the time or didn’t deliver what they promised. You may have worked with someone who doesn’t want to help others but have a lot to say about what is supposed to be done. Then there are those who need to be right all the time, or object to everything – and more.

If any of these describe someone you are working with right now, I feel for you. As a newcomer, you might be wondering whether there is a respectful way to deal with such co-workers. Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t take it personally

    There are many reasons why people might behave this way. They may be tired. They could also be going through tough times. There could be a million reasons but the point is, it’s not about you. Don’t let their bad behaviour influence you or your work too much.

    When their behaviour does affect your work, it is crucial not to make assumptions or judgements about their character or motivation. Instead, stay professional. Focus on the job or work that needs to be accomplished.

    For example: Don’t say: “You’ve missed the deadline again. We need you to stop being lazy. You probably think you’re above the rules and can submit your tasks later than the rest of us.”

    Instead, say: “When we miss deadlines, this affects the production timeline. This has a big impact on our team’s productivity. I’d like to know what is making it difficult for you to finish your work on time.”

  2. Communicate clearly

    It’s possible that your co-worker doesn’t know that they are difficult or they’re affecting your work negatively. Be direct and specific when you need to tell them. Use a calm, professional tone and avoid judgements. For example, if you’re dealing with a co-worker who doesn’t like to collaborate with others (but expects others to help them out), you can say:

    “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I’ve noticed that you don’t respond when others ask for your help. This makes it difficult for the team to meet deadlines. It also makes it harder for us to be enthusiastic when you ask for support. Is there something we can do so you’ll be able to collaborate with us?”

    Another good way to communicate with difficult people is to ask questions. As career guru Brian Tracy says “the one who asks the questions has control”. If ever you are in a conversation that has the possibility of escalating into an argument, instead of aiming to “win”, ask questions calmly. Try to understand why the other person is behaving this way. This can lead to a resolution or at least a middle ground.

  3. Ask for support

    If talking to them does not help, talk to other co-workers about their experience dealing with the difficult person. You might learn some strategies that have worked for them in the past. If the difficult person’s performance is already interfering with your work, talk to their supervisor or manager. You can also ask for help from HR.

  4. Don’t give up on them

    Having to work with negative, confrontational, or irresponsible people takes so much energy. If it’s possible not to be in their presence, do this for your peace of mind. But don’t be too quick to dismiss them as a lost cause. People change. With a little patience and empathy, you can make the best of a difficult situation and maybe even gain a friend.

Article updated February 21, 2023.
Sources: How to deal with difficult people, Brian Tracy; 9 useful strategies for dealing with difficult people at work, Celestine Chua, Insider; Accessed November 4, 2021.

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