How To Deal With Difficult People at Work: A Guide

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 18 October 2022

Published 29 September 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Working environments can include all sorts of different personalities and behaviours, and this includes people who are difficult to work with. The fact that they're difficult may be due to their personal characteristics or a clash between your personality and theirs. In any case, it's good to know how to deal with these individuals, as it can improve your productivity and job satisfaction. In this article, we explain why some individuals are hard to work with and how to deal with difficult people at work.

Related: Important Workplace Social Skills

Why are some people difficult at work?

In the workplace, everyone is different to some extent. Mostly, the differences are quite minor or can be overcome with a professional attitude, thereby allowing work to continue as intended. However, there are almost always going to be certain individuals with whom you find it difficult to work with. This might be the case for just yourself, a few other colleagues, or everyone at the company. Below is a brief list of reasons why some individuals might be harder to deal with than others:

  • Different opinions: Everyone has their own opinions, both regarding the work they're doing and personal matters. If someone else's opinions about how work ought to be completed differ greatly from yours, you may find that person becomes difficult to work with.

  • Personal boundaries: Some people like to make friends at work, whereas others prefer to keep their professional and personal lives separate. If you're in the latter category, you might find it difficult to work with people who try to develop a more personal relationship with you.

  • Work ethic: Some people aren't as motivated to work as others. This tends to result in others having to compensate for them, which can make them difficult to work with.

  • Different outlooks: Optimists and pessimists see challenges and setbacks differently. The fact that they see things differently can affect their motivation and reactions, thereby causing a lack of understanding between them.

  • Independence: In most workplaces, collaborative work is necessary to some extent. However, there may be certain individuals who insist on doing all of their work alone, which can make them difficult to work with.

Related: How To Build a Successful Team: a Step-By-Step Guide

How to deal with difficult people at work

Learning how to deal with difficult people at work can be a challenge, but it allows you to acquire important soft skills like communication, conflict resolution and even leadership. Below are nine steps you can take to help you deal with difficult coworkers:

1. Examine your own actions

Before you conclude that another individual is difficult to work with, it's important to consider your own actions. Ask yourself if you've been inflexible, uncommunicative or even difficult. If you feel that you may have been partly to blame for any difficulty, try to determine how you could've handled the situation better. The situation may only have required you to be more open, communicative or flexible.

You also ought to consider how understanding you were of the colleague in question. If you believe that you tried your best to make things go smoothly, then it's more likely that they are indeed difficult to work with.

Related: Areas for Improvement To Help With Employee Performance

2. Consider your reactions

When confronted by a difficult colleague, you may find that you react in certain ways. You may experience feelings of frustration, resentment or even demotivation. Try to answer questions about what part of the other person's behaviour made you feel that way:

  • Were they refusing to listen?

  • Did they behave in a stubborn manner?

  • Were they disrespectful?

  • Did their actions prevent you from completing your own work?

If you can accurately identify the cause of your negative reaction, it's much easier to deal with the problem.

3. Be calm and professional

It's natural to experience feelings of frustration when confronted with a difficult colleague. However, the best way to deal with this is to remain calm and maintain a professional demeanour. By remaining calm and professional, you're in a better position to think of ways to prevent it from happening again. It may be helpful to walk away from the situation, if possible, so you can reflect on your thoughts and emotions and review the circumstances objectively.

Related: What Are Conflict Resolution Skills? Definition and Examples

4. Share your concerns with a colleague

Before you decide to take further action, it's a good idea to talk about how you feel with a friendly colleague. You can ask them if they've experienced similar interactions with the individual in question. They may have suggestions on how to deal with them. You can also choose to speak to a friend with whom you don't work. Explaining what happened and expressing how you feel about it can greatly reduce your feelings of frustration. This allows you to analyse the situation more calmly and develop solutions.

5. Try to avoid the individual

If you can complete your work-related tasks without interacting with the difficult individual, then you ought to simply avoid them. If there's little reason to interact with them in a professional capacity, then it's usually best to keep your distance to avoid any conflict. It may be that you find certain behaviours difficult, in which case you can try to avoid them at certain times. For instance, if a coworker exhibits particular habits at certain times of the day, find ways of avoiding them during these times.

6. Speak with them in private

If the difficult coworker is somebody whom you must deal with regularly, you might consider approaching them directly to talk about the problem. This depends on how comfortable you are speaking with them and how receptive you believe they're going to be. As long as you're polite and respectful, there's little reason for the conversation to cause trouble. Calmly tell them what you have problems with and suggest solutions. Doing this in private can prevent any unnecessary embarrassment to them.

When you suggest a solution to the problem, try to ensure that you're participating in some way, as opposed to simply demanding that they amend their behaviour. For instance, if you find a particular coworker loud and difficult to speak with, offer to help them by quietly alerting them to the fact when it happens. This could result in better working relationships.

7. Find a compromise

Often, you may find that you've also been somewhat difficult in response to another person's behaviour. Although it's always best to maintain your professionalism, this still happens occasionally. If this is the case, listen to your coworker about their complaints. If they appear to be willing to amend their behaviour, you ought to do the same if you've reacted badly. Admitting that you could've handled the situation better may make them more receptive to your suggestions.

8. Be understanding

You may discover that there are certain reasons why your colleague is being difficult. These may be personal reasons or something outside of their control. Listen carefully to what they have to say and try to see the situation from their perspective. It may be that they're doing the best they can in a difficult situation. If you can, offer to help them in any way possible. This could eventually benefit both of you and improve the atmosphere and productivity in the workplace.

Related: How To Improve Your Active Listening Skills

9. Speak to your supervisor

If you still encounter difficulty working with someone even after trying to ignore or avoid them, speaking with them directly and finding a compromise, it might be time to talk to your supervisor or employer about the situation. If the coworker's behaviour has affected your ability to carry out your duties or was dangerous or disruptive, you might consider going to your supervisor sooner than you otherwise would. Before going to your supervisor, develop a list of valid concerns that you have and see if they're shared by others in the workplace. This ensures that any complaints you make are relevant.

Your supervisor or employer may be able to find an appropriate solution to the problem. They may intervene directly to stop the difficult behaviour, find a way of separating your duties from theirs, simply speak with your coworker or offer to arbitrate any dispute that has arisen. It's important that you have this conversation with your supervisor in private, as doing so prevents embarrassment to your coworker and allows your supervisor to think of an appropriate response in their own time. While you're waiting for them to take action, try to remain calm and professional.

Related:

  • Guide to People Management: Steps and Skills for Success


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