How to Deal with Difficult Co-workers

Gesturing businesswoman
If you're having trouble dealing with an irritating co-worker, it helps to be specific about what's bothering you. Often, a person is perceived as difficult not because of what they say, but the way they say it.

Difficult people abound in life. Whether it's grouchy cashiers, road-raging commuters or disapproving in-laws, we're constantly coming face-to-face with tedious people who can ruin an otherwise delightful day. But when you encounter such individuals in the workplace, it can really make life miserable. The good news is that there are some things you can do to effectively deal with challenging co-workers and maintain sanity within your place of business.

From time to time, we're all probably guilty of annoying workplace behaviors. Who among us has never left a dirty dish in the sink or carried on a loud conversation outside of someone's office? Maybe you accidentally burned a bag of popcorn in the break-room microwave and got the tasty snack banned from your office.


Sometimes, however, a co-worker's behavior can go beyond bothersome and venture into downright difficult. In that case, you'll need a sound survival strategy -- and quick. The work day is much too long to put up with a cantankerous colleague.

Before devising a plan for how to deal with a troublesome co-worker, it's helpful to put the situation in perspective. Does the person in question have a hygiene problem? If so, there are probably some simple solutions for putting space between you and the odoriferous offender.

On the other hand, if you have a co-worker who seriously undermines your ability to succeed at work, the problem becomes considerably more complex. Were the two of you once chummy but now have a different on-the-job relationship because of changes in professional roles and responsibilities?

Perhaps the transgression is more serious and requires assistance from your human resources department. Before diving head-first into confrontation, you'll want to examine your own behavior and track record to make sure you don't make the situation worse.

In the next section, we offer tips for confronting the co-worker and making your professional life as peaceful as possible.


Confronting Difficult Co-workers

If you're having trouble dealing with an irritating co-worker, it helps to be specific about what's bothering you. Often, a person is perceived as difficult not because of what they say, but the way they say it. There is a huge difference between, "I need you to do this … so try not to screw it up," and, "I need you to do this … and I know you'll do a great job." Still, there is no real substantive difference in what is being asked. It's simply a matter of management style, which in this case amounts to boorish versus highly effective. If you can keep that in mind, it makes the affront a lot less personal [source: Krell].

Another helpful step toward resolving conflict is to analyze your role in it. Are you particularly sensitive about an issue that the other person has honed in on? Or, could you have done something to provoke hostility or some other type of inappropriate behavior in him or her? Understanding these issues can help you honestly examine ways in which to fix the problem [source: Webne-Behrman].


Changing the way you approach a disagreeable co-worker is another smart strategy for resolving conflict. If you've been quite chummy in the past, do your best to keep things "strictly business" for a while. Your chilliness may be enough to send the relationship down a different path. On the other hand, humor can be an effective way to deflect another person's simmering hostility. A quick joke in response to an affront may disarm the offending co-worker and prevent his or her antagonistic behavior in the future.

Once you've analyzed your relationship with the irksome office mate, you may conclude that your best defense is to confront him or her. Don't feel bad about this -- confrontation can be scary, but it can also lead to better understanding if it's done tactfully. Be careful not to get too emotional, as this is a serious professional faux pas. Just state your case in the most rational way possible and allow the person to respond in kind. Remember that having a frank conversation with a difficult person is most often the best way to improve the relationship [source: AllBusiness].

On the other hand, event the most diplomatic tête-à-tête can leave a relationship strained. If so, it may be time to for some practical strategies for coping with your annoying associate, which we review in the next section.


Coping with Difficult Co-workers

Once you've done all you can to improve your relationship with a difficult co-worker, you may find that the only thing left is to find ways to live with your workplace rival. In that case, the first thing to do is define and maintain your boundaries, both mentally and physically.

Start by finding ways to put actual space between you and your nemesis. Would it help to switch to a different cubicle? Is it possible to transfer to a different department? No matter what strategy you pursue, you'll need allies. If you haven't already done so, it's time to discreetly discuss the problem with a member of the human resources team. Your organization may have systems in place for resolving conflict and organizing teams based on personality or other measures of compatibility.


In coping with a bothersome co-worker, consider the consequences of not addressing the conflict. Can you somehow survive and be happy in your job, or will your spirit deteriorate until you're ready to leap from the tallest building? Answering this question can help clarify your needs and bring you closer to eliminating the strife [source: Webne-Behrman].

No matter what your strategy for coping with a difficult colleague, you'll probably continue to have some interaction with him or her, assuming you remain with the organization. Just remember to keep calm and be respectful. Getting visibly upset will only weaken your professional standing and make you look like a loose cannon [source: Pelusi].

Lastly -- and perhaps most importantly -- keep in mind that most people don't set out to be rude or challenging. Chances are the person with whom you have a conflict is eager to resolve things with you as well. There is also a good chance that a simple discussion will clear the air. This is because difficulty in professional relationships most often stems from the manner in which opinions are delivered rather than the opinions themselves.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Eckel, Sara. "Office Etiquette Essentials." Jan. 8, 2010. (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • Krell, Eric. "Personality Counts." HR Magazine. Nov. 1, 2005, Vol. 50, No. 11 (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • Pelusi, Nando. "Dealing with Difficult People." Psychology Today. Sept. 1, 2006 (Sept. 30, 2010)
  • "Ten Tips for Dealing with Difficult Coworkers." (Sept. 29, 2010)
  • Webne-Behrman, Harry. "8 Steps for Conflict Resolution." Office of Human Resource Development, University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Sept. 29, 2010)