How to Deal With Difficult People in the Workplace

Three Methods:Responding to a Difficult CoworkerHaving a Support System at WorkHandling Extreme Cases

Whatever career path you choose in life, you will likely encounter difficult people who make going to work all the more stressful. Learning to work alongside them, or finding ways to be civil while maintaining your distance, offers the best chance of dealing with difficult coworkers. Here are some suggestions to help you.

Method 1
Responding to a Difficult Coworker

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    Recognize the different types of complicated coworkers. There are a range of difficult people you can encounter in your workplace. Examples of difficult coworkers include one that is hostile, the constant complainer, the staller, the know-it all and the overly agreeable coworker.[1]
    • The hostile coworker may appear angry or often express a feeling of being wronged. The best way to deal with this type of coworker is to not meet anger with anger. He or she often just needs to be heard and appreciated to alleviate some of their discomfort.
    • A coworker who constantly complains can add undue stress to the entire work environment. When you meet these people, actively listening to their concerns and then offer to help them solve the problem.
    • The staller is that coworker who often puts off making a commitment or taking action for fear of being wrong or upsetting others. The best way to deal with the staller is to get to the root of the fear and figure out what information is needed to make the choice or to take action.
    • A know-it-all can come in two forms, someone who truly knows his stuff, but makes sure everyone else knows he’s the “expert.” Then, there is the one that just thinks she knows it all in order to assert an opinion about everything. For the true experts, taking the time to ask questions gives them a chance to flex their power and will usually help them to tone down their overall negative attitude towards others. Those coworkers who don’t know as much as they think they do will usually tone it down if they are quietly confronted one-on-one with the true level of their knowledge.
    • Overly agreeable coworkers can become an issue at work because they will often agree with whatever is said in the moment, but later on voice their true feelings or just not follow through with commitments. Making sure this coworker knows they are a valued part of the team, regardless of their opinions will help them gain confidence.
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    Use humor. Defusing any uncomfortable situation with humor can be a very good defense mechanism. Sometimes, the best way to deal with an uncomfortable situation is to use appropriate humor or even make a joke at your own expense to redirect the focus of the moment.[2]
    • When using humor you need to make sure it is appropriate humor, avoid anything that could be hurtful or taunting in nature.
    • Humor is a great way to separate the negative behavior from the person, even if you don’t agree with the behavior you still like and can laugh with the person.
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    Confront your coworker in private. While it is not reasonable to confront a coworker who may become violent, you may be able to directly address issues by confronting other types of difficult coworkers in private.
    • Pulling the know-it-all who really doesn’t know that much aside and having a friendly conversation can reshape the working relationship without embarrassing him in front of others. Effective confronting is done in a private and respectful way.[3]
    • For example, you might say “Excuse me, Robbie. I realize you might have a lot of knowledge about the subject we are discussing, but can we keep out fact-sharing on a need-to-know basis? Or, it may be good if you could send us a summary of all you know about the topic and let us review it on our own time”.
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    Choose your battles carefully. Watch out for difficult people on your job. Often, the best way of dealing with them is to avoid them altogether if possible. However, if for any reason, you find it is not possible to do so, you need to assess your situation and your options taking into account your priorities at the time.
    • For example, you have a colleague who is a control freak but the job is absolutely essential to you then, you may have to find other ways of dealing with him/her while you buy time looking for another job or to change in your circumstances.
    • Picking your battles will help you to avoid unneeded stress and to not take the problems of your coworkers on as your own.[4]

Method 2
Having a Support System at Work

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    Take care of yourself. Be conscious of the negative impact that a difficult coworker can have on you. Ultimately, it's your responsibility to look after yourself and not give in to his or her tactics.
    • Taking the step to separate the behavior from the person in the office can help you focus on the stress of the behavior and how to deal with it. You can’t take the behavior personally because it often isn’t about you, but rather something going on with your coworker.[5]
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    Maintain a supportive network. Spending time with positive people who reaffirm your personal values and support you can be helpful when you work with difficult people. Have someone with whom you can talk both in and out of work to help vent your frustrations. Give yourself time and a safe space to calm down from conflict.
    • Following a 24-hour rule when it comes to dealing with conflict can be helpful. This means not reacting in the moment but instead giving yourself time to step away and get support as needed.[6]
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    Develop a relationship with the human resources department. There are some circumstances where you need to involve human resources or your management staff. This would include threats of violence or anything that is creating a hostile work environment. [7]
    • Many human resources teams have special employees to deal directly with employee relations and can address your concerns in a professional and serious manner.

Method 3
Handling Extreme Cases

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    Know your rights against harassment. You have basic rights to be safe and free of harassment at work. If things get to the extreme there are legal routes to take to end a hostile work environment.[8]
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    Understand how your workplace handles tense employee relationships. As mentioned above, getting to know how the human resources team works can help in extreme cases.
    • Most work places will have written policies for human resources that include a formal grievance or complaint process.
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    Request a reassignment. This can be as simple as moving your desk away from the person you have a problem with or changing departments to avoid working with them. If the problem escalates you may want to consider getting a new job or taking the issue to your boss.
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    Go to a superior when things get out of hand. An important part of this step is to make sure you are following the natural chain of command and don’t overstep your immediate supervisor unless they are the person you have an issue with.
    • Harassment on the job can lower performance so most bosses are willing to proactively address problems.[9]
    • Approach your boss with clear details of the problem. For instance, you might start off by saying “I am having a problem with…” then explain what you have done to try to resolve the issue before having to come to your boss.


  • Keep a journal of all conversations and incidents. It is very helpful when the difficult person tries to make up lies or distort what actually took place. Include date, time, place, and names of witnesses. Don't leave your journal at work.


  • If you can't get along with them no matter what you try, try not to prolong your agony beyond that is absolutely necessary. As soon as opportunity arises leave the situation immediately.

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Categories: Interacting with Colleagues