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How to deal with a difficult co-worker

How to deal with a difficult co-worker

How to deal with a difficult co-worker

I’m working with someone who is negative/cynical/rude/lazy……what should I do?’ This is the most common question I’m asked at workshops. Of course, there is no quick fix (nor smart soundbite response) because every circumstance is different.

However, there are handrails we can use to navigate the challenge.

How to deal with a difficult co-worker. Handrails

If you are experiencing a difficult co-worker odds are, it’s not just you who finds this person challenging. We can have a tendency to take things personally, so it is can useful to remind ourselves that ‘it’s not just me!’

It’s probably the case too that you’ve tried your best with the individual. But as Maya Angelou said, ‘when you know better, you do better,’ so there may be other options of response available to you (so keep reading!) We have to be wary of that old definition of madness which is doing the same thing over and over and hoping the other person will change.

We all see the world differently. Some people view the world through a radically different lens based on natural tendencies and preferences they have, or as a result of their past experiences. For example, people are not born cynical, it’s a learned response to frustrated idealism.

Fear is the main driver of negative behaviour. Ultimately, it’s the fear of not being good enough. Those individuals who behave aggressively, are simply attempting to mask their own insecurities. It’s attack as a form of defence (the current occupant of The White House is a textbook example.)

Of course, the aspect of the other person that annoys us, the rubs us up the wrong way can also be a mirror reflection of an unowned aspect of our personality. When we say ‘they press my buttons’ we have to remember they’re our buttons. Sometimes we are obsessed with the splinter in their eye when we cannot see the plank in our own!

The first golden rule of relationships is we cannot change other people, we can only adjust how we relate to them.

In every relationship, we are only responsible for 50% of the relating, but we are 100% accountable for our 50%, and that includes our response to them. People will do what people will do and we choose how we respond to them.

So often in work (and indeed in life), we will operate a mindset that goes something like – I want you to change your attitude and behaviour so I can feel better. Similarly, our anger or frustration is a futile attempt to make them feel guilty so they will apologise and change. When we read it or say it out loud, we realise that we are seeking the impossible.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, we are drinking the poison (anger, frustration) in an attempt to kill them. Leopards do not change their spots unless the leopard decides to change their spots. That doesn’t mean we resign ourselves to the situation. It means we face reality and then seek to resource ourselves.

How to deal with a difficult. What can you learn? co-worker. What can you learn?

An opportunity to learn something

From a people management, communication skills, personal development and self-awareness perspective, challenging people are our greatest teachers. A useful question to ponder is – what might be the gift of wisdom for me that is wrapped up in this tricky situation?

Often it’s a reminder of what’s important, a prompt to reset boundaries, to notice where you’ve compromised too much, or where you’ve given your power away. Of course, it is only in realising you’ve given your power away that you can learn to take it back. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said ‘no one can make me feel bad without my permission.’ So, maybe you start by rescinding permission.

How to deal with a difficult co-worker. Broaden your perspective

Broaden perspective

When we have witnessed challenging behaviour for a while we will label that person as ‘difficult,’ ‘a moaner,’ ‘a cynic.’ That habit of labelling becomes a block to progress because people will always correspond to the expectation we have of them.

If we are serious about moving a relationship forward (as opposed to just proving ourselves to be right) we start by identifying one, and if we can find one maybe two or three positive qualities or attributes about that person.

This shifts our perspective, it helps to remove our self-imposed blinkers. Rather than the worst of them stimulating the worst in you, by focusing on positive aspects, the best in you is hoping to stimulate the best in them. It may not work, but it is often an approach we haven’t tried when we think we’ve tried everything.

Dealing with a difficult co-worker. empathy

Use your empathy skills

If you are alert to the difficult situation in the first place, you have good levels of empathy and rapport.

This healthy dose of emotional intelligence means you can easily put yourself in their shoes. For a moment, allow yourself to see the world through their eyes. What is their behaviour or attitude trying to achieve for them?

Remembering from their perspective, their behaviour is a request to feel more of a positive emotion. What’s their experience of interacting with you? What are they seeking from you? This approach takes courage, but it is usually where the insights are found.


Dealing with a difficult co-worker. Take control

The second golden rule of relationships is that we train or teach other people how to treat us. Most of the time when dealing with a difficult person our focus is on what we don’t want. Therefore it is useful to ask ourselves – ‘what do I want? (that is within my control, my 50%!)’

An equally powerful question is ‘who do I want to be in this situation?’ In other words, what aspects of my personality do I want to bring to the fore, or to lean into in a more purposeful way? (Confidence, calmness, courage.)

Co-workers who display challenging behaviour are generally fairly predictable. If you can predict how they will act, or the attitude they will display, then you can pre-plan your response. Think of it like a tennis match and you know where they will bounce the ball. At minimum you will feel more in control.


I was last asked the question about a difficult co-worker at the close of a talk I gave on the subject of authentic leadership. The short answer to the person who raised their hand was that we want to respond to the other people in a way that feels most authentic to us.

Therefore the question, what approach on my part would make me feel most proud about myself? will steer us to our own inner wisdom. This question will always form part of my response when I’m asked about dealing with a difficult co-worker.

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Best wishes