How to Deal With Difficult Coworkers
Coworkers can make or break a job. No matter how much you love your role, if you have to do it surrounded by people you don’t like, it can be hard. And sometimes, all it takes is one difficult colleague in particular to make your work life hell.
If someone’s getting on your nerves at work, you’re not alone. It’s thought that more than half of working adults have troublesome relationships at work.
Whether it’s the chatterbox colleague who sits next to you, the teammate who never pulls their weight, or your boss who micromanages everything you do, here’s how to deal with difficult coworkers.
1. Take a Breath
When a coworker is annoying you or treating you badly, first take a breath. While you absolutely should stand up for yourself, you shouldn’t react without thinking.
An outburst of anger or a rude comment will only reflect badly on you and may impact your career and other relationships within your company.
So, before you do anything, take a breath, and make sure you’re not reacting in the moment.
Ask yourself if this coworker is being difficult because they are genuinely treating you badly and this needs to be discussed, or if you’re just feeling stressed and Tom from accounts stealing your pen again has finally gotten to you.
There’s no shame in it being the latter, but taking a breath or two will stop you from overreacting to situations like this.
2. Speak Up in the Moment
Don’t suffer in silence, especially if a difficult colleague continuously makes your work life hard.
Depending on what they’re doing, you can make your feelings heard without creating conflict or damaging the relationship. Sometimes, all it takes is one assertive comment for them to stop in their tracks.
Aim to do this in a professional, calm, and assertive way. For example, if you find a colleague continuously talks over you in meetings, try saying:
“I’m going to stop you there, Dan. I wasn’t finished explaining my point. As I was saying…”
3. Have an Honest Conversation with the Difficult Coworker
This tip is a tricky one, but sometimes you need to speak to the difficult colleague to get to the bottom of the problem.
Set up a meeting in a private area, ideally face to face. If you work remotely, jump on a call rather than discussing things over email or Slack.
Pick a time when neither of you will be in a rush or under pressure from a tight deadline.
If the situation is serious enough, consider asking your boss or someone from HR to sit in on the meeting.
Talk through the problem, how it’s making you feel, and what you’d like to see change going forward.
- “I want to discuss how you talk to me in front of client X. I feel like you undermine my points, interrupt me when I’m proposing ideas, and make jokes about my professionalism. This isn’t okay.”
4. Get to Know Them Better
Skip this step for anyone bullying or harassing you, but for colleagues who simply get on your nerves a little, it can help to get to know them better.
Don’t worry, though, you don’t have to go for after-work drinks or make weekend plans with them. A little small talk can go a long way.
Look for points in your work day where you could have short conversations with them that aren’t about work. Perhaps you can catch them in the kitchen making coffee or spend the first five minutes of a call talking about vacation plans.
Small talk can be uncomfortable, but getting to know colleagues on a more personal level can help you forgive their annoying habits.
Plus, you may even find out a reason for their troublesome behavior. Perhaps they’re going through a divorce, and that’s why they’ve been grumpier than usual. Or they’re caring for an older parent, and that’s why deadlines keep being missed.
5. Focus on Your Work and the Colleagues You Like
Unfortunately, difficult coworkers are a fact of life. As long as you’re not being bullied, sexually harassed, or threatened in any way, sometimes the best thing to do is not sweat the small stuff.
Honestly assess what this colleague is doing to annoy you. If it’s things like cooking smelly fish at lunch, constantly showing you pictures of their kids, or not saying thanks when you lend them a pen, let it slide.
Focus on your work and the colleagues you do like, and accept you can’t get on with everyone.
6. Steer Clear of Office Gossip
It can feel great to vent about a difficult coworker to colleagues you get on with, but be careful. This can easily escalate into a bigger problem. You don’t know who is friends with you, who can hear you, and gossipping — while it feels good in the moment — won’t help you get to the bottom of the problem.
If you need to vest, save gossip for friends outside of the office.
If your difficult colleague is the one who loves gossip, there are a few ways you can deal with it:
- Don’t react — they’ll likely get bored and move on to talking about something else, or gossiping with someone else.
- Change the subject to something neutral — try asking about their weekend plans or how preparation for next week’s legal meeting is going.
- Say something — if someone continuously tries to engage you in office gossip, say something. Sometimes a simple “I don’t feel comfortable talking about colleagues,” is all it takes to stop them from coming to you to gossip next time.
7. Speak to a Close Friend
Sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective. Speak to a close friend who doesn’t work at the same company as you about the situation.
Ask what they would do if they were you and whether the problem needs drastic action, like speaking to HR, or something smaller, like making a firm comment to the difficult colleague.
In some cases, it can help to speak to a colleague you trust as they’ll have more context about the problem and the person. Just be sure you’re asking for advice, not gossiping.
8. Talk to Your Boss
Don’t be afraid to talk to your boss about the situation. If a coworker is trying to make you look bad, keeps stealing the credit for your ideas, or undermines you in front of clients, your boss may be in a better place to deal with it than you.
Firstly, you can reassure your boss you’re trying to do your best work and you don’t want poor workplace relationships to get in the way of that. Remember to talk more about the problem than the person — you don’t want it to look like you’re attacking them.
Secondly, your boss may be able to change the way work is distributed or which teammates work together to solve the problem altogether, or they may have a discussion with the person in question.
9. Deal with Micromanagers
Sometimes a difficult coworker is a micromanager. It could be your boss, a senior member of the team, or a colleague who thinks they know best.
Strive to build trust with the person, so they learn to let you get on with your work without micromanaging you.
You can also work to keep them in the loop and over-communicate your progress on certain tasks or communications with certain clients. It can be annoying, but it may stop them from calling to check in or getting more involved in your work.
10. Don’t Take Things Personally
Again, this doesn’t apply to all problems. But if you find a colleague continuously makes changes to your designs after you submit them or makes small nitpicking comments about your presentations, for example, try to not take it personally.
Perhaps they want the work to be the best it can be, and they’re just not going about giving feedback in the right way.
If they constantly make changes to your work or give you poorly worded feedback, speak up and make your feelings heard. Sometimes it comes down to a clash in personality styles. Some prefer direct blunt feedback, while others prefer a softer approach.
Beating them to it and asking for one or two key things to improve can also stop them from giving you a laundry list of problems to fix.
11. Don’t Make Things Personal
When confronting a colleague about their behavior, aim to talk about the problem, not the person. Explain how the problem is making you feel and how it’s affecting your work, rather than blaming them and their personality.
- “I can’t finish my sales reports when you hand in your numbers late, and this is starting to damage the client relationship. Can we discuss setting up strict deadlines for sending through sales numbers?” instead of “you always hand in your numbers late, why are you so disorganized?”
- “I know things are stressful right now, but I struggle to focus on work when we always talk about the negatives.” instead of “can you stop moaning, already?”
- “One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I respond best to constructive criticism. I’ve been asking colleagues to try this method of communication, would you be open to it as well?” instead of “you always pick on me and tear apart my work.”
12. Work With Them Less (if Possible)
It’s not always possible, but if there’s a particular colleague you don’t get on with, think of ways you can work with them less. Can you hand over a client account to a colleague or send briefs through a different web developer on the team?
If you can’t work with them less, limit how much time you spend with them outside of essential interactions. Don’t make it too obvious, of course, but make an effort to not get stuck next to them at lunch or at the monthly office social.
13. Keep a Record of Your Interactions
If a colleague sends a threatening email, keep it. If they sexually harass you at the staff party, make notes of what happened, so you don’t forget. When you report big problems like these to HR and your boss, you’ll want all the details and evidence you can provide.
While it can feel uncomfortable to keep a record of unpleasant moments like these — we know you’d rather forget about them — these records can prove invaluable in making sure the person is dealt with correctly.
14. Consider Quitting Your Job
This should, of course, be a last resort. But if you’ve thought about quitting your job because of a difficult coworker, you’re not the only one. A 2021 study found that, as well as being a major cause of stress and depression, difficult coworkers cause people to think about leaving their jobs.
You shouldn’t have to leave a job you love just because of a difficult coworker. But sometimes the problem can’t be fixed, especially if you’ve tried asking for help from other colleagues, your boss, and HR.
If the company isn’t supporting you, or if there are difficulties that can’t be fixed — perhaps your personality or working style is completely at odds with your team — then quitting can be the best bet.
You deserve a happy work life, and dealing with difficult coworkers is an essential part of that. Want more tips for building a work life you love? We’ve covered how to improve social skills, tips for introverts in the workplace, and hugging etiquette at work.