You landed your dream job but it’s turned into a nightmare because of a difficult colleague in the office.
You’ve been a happy employee for years and a new hire is now causing you more stress than you deserve.
Maybe you’re re-thinking your whole career after taking time off because of a situation with a peer at work.
Working with difficult coworkers is certainly a challenge and it can even change the trajectory of your career. So what can you do about it?
It seems like adults should be able to get along at work and do their jobs. Yet, poor behavior in the workplace and conflict between co-workers happens in small and large companies and in every size business in between.
Below are six questions to ask yourself about the problem, followed by six tips for dealing with the challenging situation of working with a difficult colleague.
Protecting your emotional health in the workplace is important. But thinking long-term and considering the financial impact of how you handle difficult job-related situations with colleagues matters too.
Questions To Ask Yourself About Your Difficult Colleague
1. Are You Safe?
Before we even consider more typical conflicts arising between colleagues, if you are in a situation at work that is unsafe – you must address it immediately.
If you are being harassed – verbally or physically – based on your gender, age, race, religion, or for any other reason, alert human resources immediately and file a formal complaint.
If you don’t have a human resources department, you will need to decide if the situation warrants quitting immediately.
Should it be a serious enough situation, where you feel your safety is in jeopardy, contact proper authorities without delay.
2. What is the Problem?
If your personal safety isn’t an issue, take some time to figure out what the actual problem is with the difficult co-worker.
Removing the person from the problem sometimes helps in identifying the issue.
Tell yourself, “the problem is the problem, (the person) is not the problem.” This will keep you focusing on how to address the issue. You don’t have to fix the person, you have to deal with the problem.
Is the person competing with you? Or do they try to delegate their work to you?
Maybe they just don’t do what they say they are going to do or respond in a timely manner which affects your ability to do your job.
Do they complain all day long or are they gossiping and being inappropriate?
If they are a negative nelly and disagree with all of your ideas (or those of your boss), is your productivity impacted?
Do they always take the easy way out and then you get blamed for poor products or service?
Or are they simply annoying you so much that you just can’t focus?
Step back and figure out the real issue. If you have a co-worker you trust, ask for their take on the situation.
Until you have a better sense of what the actual issue is, it will be hard to figure out next-steps or solutions.
3. How Big is the Problem?
After you’ve figured out the issue, determine how big of a problem it really is in your life.
Are you able to get your work done efficiently and effectively?
When the problem affects your ability to be successful at work, it's a big enough issue to address. Your job performance and evaluations shouldn’t be put in jeopardy.
If the issue is you just don’t like working with the person but you can still do all or most of your job effectively, then you have to decide how to address the problem or if it's best to just let it go.
There's a big difference between someone deliberately sabotaging your career, someone who is selfish and inconsiderate, and someone who is just annoying or different.
The magnitude of the issue will help you determine what to do to try to solve it.
4. Do Other Co-Workers Have Difficulties With the Colleague?
Are you the only person who is struggling to work with this colleague? Or do others find the person difficult to work with too?
Unless you work in a very small business, there is a good chance you will know someone else who has problems working with this person – if they are the one who is difficult.
Depending on the situation, if no one else is complaining about this difficult coworker – you need to look at your role in the conflict and what you're bringing to the relationship with the colleague too.
5. What Positive Qualities Does the Person Have?
When you get frustrated with someone and start harboring resentment and anger, you may look past their positive characteristics and contributions at work.
If you can keep the “problem as the problem”, you might find the person isn’t as difficult as you are making them out to be.
The better the relationship you can have with the person, the higher the chances of finding a solution to your challenges.
6. Can You Continue Working With the Person?
If you’ve let this situation go on for too long or if it is a big or growing issue, you may not be able to continue working with the person.
- If you work at a large enough company, is there an option to move to a different division or team?
- Is a supervisor willing to move staff around or break projects into more individual roles?
- Could you work from home or in a coworking space instead of the office?
This will all depend on the career you are in and whether you have a supervisor willing to make changes.
Tips For Dealing With a Difficult Co-Worker
The tips below all assume you are not dealing with a significant issue affecting your immediate physical or emotional safety.
As stated above, if you are in one of those situations – report it to Human Resources and your supervisor immediately and contact the authorities when warranted.
1. Tolerate the Situation and Their Personality
No one is saying you need to be friends with a difficult colleague. But if the problem isn’t too big, you may have to just accept the person for who they are and stop focusing on it so much.
Find a trusted co-worker to talk to in private when you are too frustrated to handle it on your own. But sometimes learning to “let it go” and tolerate the person is the best solution.
Keeping a positive outlook and minimizing workplace drama can also boost happiness and productivity.
Consider reading more about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator on personality differences to see if it helps explain your challenges with the person.
Try not to take it personally and if possible, seek a connection or common ground with them in some other area of life. Your work problems might seem more tolerable if the person shares a hobby or interest.
Also, keep in mind the difficult colleague might be dealing with something at home they are not sharing at work.
Since one in five adults lives with mental illness, the person could also be struggling with a condition impacting their interpersonal communication or focus.
2. Manage Your Expectations
If you are a driven and organized person, you may have expectations others are like that as well. And as nice as you think that might be, you’ll likely be disappointed in others.
Maybe you’re an overachiever too and doing work at home or staying late at work is what you expect others should do.
You may need to manage your expectations better and realize other people have different goals or prefer a different work-life balance.
Just because someone leaves work and doesn’t take any home doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their job.
They may not be doing it the way you would or the way you want it done but that's for a supervisor to decide, not you.
Keep in mind you can only control you and your reaction to the situation. You can influence others but they are responsible for themselves.
3. Be Accepting of Different Approaches and Opinions
If you are an optimist who likes to brainstorm and seek a variety of solutions to problems, working with a pessimist co-worker who analyzes every last detail of an idea might be incredibly frustrating. And you may even see this person as difficult.
You might think it's better to be on a team where everyone has a similar style or personality. It might be easier to work that way but it probably won’t be better.
The power of synergy comes from taking different ideas and ways of looking at problems and generating an even better solution.
Teams with just dreamers can end up on unproductive tangents and teams who over-analyze may never find a solution.
Strong leaders understand the power of accepting different approaches and opinions. And they teach and coach employees how to accept conflict as an opportunity for growth.
4. Be Assertive, Not Rude
There are times when people just need to be called out on their behavior too. When that's the case, be assertive, not rude.
Focusing on the problem and not the person matters here too.
“You're making me crazy” isn’t helpful. “I can’t get my part of the project done when I don’t get a response to my emails” highlights the problem, rather than attacking the person.
Try to make sure you’ve had time to cool off if you’re angry before talking to your colleague. Be confident, clear, and professional with your expectations and don’t make threats or accusations.
Then be ready to move forward and keep a positive outlook that changes will be made.
If you are concerned your co-worker won’t follow through or will make accusations, meet with them in front of a supervisor or mediator.
Ask for what you want to happen and prepare yourself to listen to their side of the story.
The goal is to preserve and improve your working relationship.
5. Be Reflective
It’s important to consider your role in the challenging work situation too.
There are definitely times where one person’s actions are the cause of workplace problems.
But if peers who work closely with this person aren’t having the same difficulties, your personality and work ethic might be contributing to the problem.
Being introspective and reflecting on one’s role in a conflict only helps us grow at work and at home. It’s just not realistic to believe you'll be able to minimize conflict in the workplace or in life.
Conflict is inevitable, but it can be planned for and managed.
Understanding that you may avoid conflict and not handle conflicts well or that you tend to engage aggressively in a conflict can help you learn ways to handle your reactions more productively.
6. Deciding It’s Time To Make a Change
There may come a time when even though your health and safety aren’t in imminent danger, it is unhealthy for you to continue working with a difficult colleague.
If nothing has changed after you’ve –
- determined the problem
- worked to find solutions
- asked for what you needed
- tried tolerating, ignoring, and accepting your co-worker
– it might be time for you to make a change.
Just ensure you look at the financial implications, in addition to the emotional ones. Work stress and burnout are real but giving up a good job and benefits matters too.
It’s easier to make a change if you’ve found a new job meeting your career and financial needs. And remember you may be leaving a job you used to enjoy with some wonderful co-workers for a new job with yet another difficult colleague.
It’s the chance you take when you change jobs.
In the end, it could all be worth the move though! But carefully consider leaving your job, before it’s too late.
Handling a Difficult Colleague at Work
No one wants to go to work each day and stress about interactions with a co-worker. It isn’t productive and the stress can be damaging to your health.
- Additional reading: Free and Frugal Self-Care Ideas
How you ultimately handle interactions with peers at work will depend on a number of factors.
These include your personality, how often and how closely you must work with the difficult person, the types of behavior they display, and your career options.
Only you can decide when “enough is enough”.
Asking the questions and using the tips above, will help you make a smarter decision about how to handle a difficult colleague.