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Dealing with Difficult People

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On an average day, how many coworkers do you encounter? Are you on a team or working on projects with other colleagues? Are you a leader responsible for managing others? Many of us are in frequent contact daily with a number of colleagues, some of which are easier to work with than others. Leading or working with a colleague who is negative, stubborn, procrastinates, or is otherwise difficult undermines productivity and happiness in the workplace.

In conducting research for their book Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job, psychologists Alan A. Cavaiola, PhD, and Neil J. Lavender, PhD, found that roughly 80% reported moderate to severe stress as a result of working with a difficult coworker, boss, or subordinate. Can you relate to their experience? It’s vital to our success, both individually and as teams, that we learn to deal with difficult people.


Some individuals may be intentionally acting in a way that makes it difficult for colleagues to work with them. They may feel like they have been wronged or treated unfairly by someone in the organization and acting out of retaliation. Andrew knew he deserved that promotion. He had been working towards it for three years. Instead his leader promoted Devon and ever since Andrew has become impossible to work with.

While other coworkers may be unintentionally difficult and unaware of how they are coming across. Lately it seems like Riley is always getting things to me at the last possible second. Sometimes I even have to approach Riley multiple times after the deadline to get the necessary information to continue with this project.

Many professionals try to keep external factors, such as problems with a spouse, away from the work environment, but their performance and behavior are still affected. Chances are, there is more to a difficult coworker than you can see on the surface. Aside from someone’s desire to sabotage you or the organization, most of us have positive intentions and want the teams we are on to be successful.

When you’re dealing with a difficult coworker, try to understand what things look like from their perspective. How can you empathize with their situation? Ask questions to help understand their point of view and determine why they’re acting in a difficult manner. If the individual is holding up a project or only wants to do things their way, try to explain the purpose of the project and the outcomes you are trying to achieve. Maintain your own self-control and don’t let the difficult person get you off track. Your difficult coworker may even be grateful you took the time to listen to their perspective and helped turn their behavior around.

As leaders, there are times during one to one meetings with team members where we find ourselves letting an employee take us down a negative path. A monthly meeting is intended for people to discuss what’s working well, our progress in relation to goals, and to seek support from leaders regarding obstacles or resources needed. Difficult employees can repeatedly take leaders away from this conversation and into rants about other employees, departments, or issues while avoiding discussing productive solutions. If attempts to guide the focus back to the original intent of the conversation are ignored, consider using the following steps.


Lead by Example

Passively deal with a difficult employee by choosing to lead by example. You can’t expect others to act in ways you aren’t willing to yourself, and a positive role model just may be the push the difficult employee needs to change their behavior. Start role modeling by:

  • Using clear, consistent communication at all times.
  • Follow-up while working on projects.
  • Follow-through to meet your deadlines and commitments.

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