How to Deal with a Difficult Coworker

August 29, 2012 Permalink

Every day, search engines bring people to this post when they search things like “how to get along with a coworker”, or “how to deal with difficult coworkers”.

I’ve had my fair share of having to deal with difficult coworkers.

This makes me sound like I’m the problem, and to be honest I probably was part of the problem. But in reality I’m only be a little melodramatic; I have had two difficult coworkers and they both had underlying reasons for not liking me, and I had not-so-underlying reasons for not liking them.

I learned a lot from working so many jobs in such a short period of time. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been able to compile a bit of a series on work related things:

 

In the name of dealing with difficult coworkers, however, it’s important to play nice in the sandbox, even when you are engaging in office politics (which can be good!). If your manager sees you squabbling or even being underhanded with a coworker, even if it is in response to something that he did, this won’t look so good on you.

Having a poor relationship with a coworker can plague your working life. When I had a strained relationship with one, I never wanted to go to work. I dreaded being there, and every little mistake I made seemed so much bigger and worse than it really was, because I feared him finding out.

I’m sure if I did a little bit of relationship management, we would have been fine and there would have been nothing for me to worry about or lose sleep over.

Here’s what I’ve learned about dealing with difficult co-workers after having those first couple:

Figure Out What Their Position Is

If you’ve ever read a book or taken a class on conflict management, this might seem familiar; the idea behind it is to find out why they are being hostile toward you. Now, this is assuming that they are the hostile ones, not you. If it’s you, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

Now, I know the immediate reaction to this is “because they are an asshole!”, but, cut them some slack. Ask yourself why they are being an asshole to you, specifically. What is making them tick about you?

The guy at my first internship was immediately competitive. He would make mistakes (or make me make mistakes) and blame them on me, call me out on things in front of the whole department, and just generally treat me like crap.

I really couldn’t figure out why until somebody else pointed it out for me.

I had taken over his position while he was working on another one; I was the first person he ever had to train or supervise, and he was going back into his position once his project was over.

It was clear, when my friend pointed it out that he was

a) threatened by me

He didn’t want me to do better at his job than he did at his own job; he had to return to his job after his project, so he hindered my success as much as possible

b) on the hook for me

The mistakes that I made, if any, would be a direct reflection of his supervision and training skills; this was of utmost important since we were working in the training department.

His drill sergeant ways made a lot more sense after I really thought about his position.

Understand Their Position

Once you figure out where your co-worker is coming from, it’s sometimes easier to just think “well, he needs to get over it” or, like I did, revel in the sweet thought of their insecurities.

But that’s not the best way to handle it.

After you know what the person’s position is, try to imagine what it would be like to be there. Figure out how your actions make their position even stronger or more volatile.

Don’t write them off just because they aren’t behaving in the most professional of manners; figure out how you are contributing to their stance and try to stop doing what you are doing.

Trust me, despite wanting to deny it, I was part of the problem at my first internship. I thought it was funny that he felt threatened so I wouldn’t make it any easier on him.

Accept that you are a part of the problem and you are responsible for fixing your relationship.

Find a Common Ground

At one point near the end of my term, I heard the coworker talking about a conference that he was going to be attending and has every year since teenage hood. I went to the same conference when I was 15, so by reflex, I told him that and asked him what his experience was.

This opened the channels of communication between us and showed both of us that the other did have a human side. It also pulled us away from the competition that we were in, and pushed us into real life.

Ask For Advice (Or Give A Compliment)

I didn’t do this with my coworker, but have done it since with another coworker, and found that it was a great way to back the person off of their position and make their guard come down.

People really want respect and reassurance. Especially in a situation like mine, where the coworker is trying to supervise you or teach you something, or has something to feel threatened over, asking them for advice (even if you already have a good handle on the situation) can do the trick.

For instance, if you are working on an important email going to the executives of the company, turn to your colleague and say something like “You’re good at this sort of thing – how would you phrase this email?”.

Even better, ask them for advice over something that is more important and serious. Ask them how they do something – you may even pick up some knowledge that can come in handy.

 

How have you dealt with a difficult coworker in the past?

 

33 Comments
  • Dave Hilton
    August 29, 2012

    Daisy-

    Excellent suggestions to help someone start the process of managing a workplace conflict!

    • Nurse Frugal
      August 30, 2012

      I agree….it’s definitely not easy! I deal with difficult coworkers every day all day long! I’m sure there are plenty of times when I am difficult, I feel like the best way to deal with it is head on. If there is an issue it seems that politely addressing the issue with that person is the best way to go…..as long as the delivery is acceptable and kind.

  • Modest Money
    August 29, 2012

    I admit that I’ve been pretty horrible dealing with difficult coworkers. I know I could’ve handled things much better. In my case, my judgement was seriously clouded by some choices I had been making in regards to poor diet, lack of exercise and drug abuse. So I was probably overreacting to the issues that I perceived. Keep that in mind when dealing with difficult coworkers. Sometimes when they might seem to be giving you attitude it might be rooted in internal struggles that is causing them to see things in a distorted way. In those cases you might have to make the extra effort to get on their good side.

  • Christian L.
    August 29, 2012

    Daisy,
    I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that throws tons of out-of-office events. Those are great opportunities to connect with coworkers. There’s less awkwardness than in an office environment and no obligation to talk only about work, which I feel when I’m in the office.

    If you can put up with somebody outside the workplace, there’s a chance you’ll get along when you’re on the clock.

    -Christian L. @ Smart Military Money

  • AverageJoe
    August 29, 2012

    I had a great coach once who told me that every situation is like a cube: once you look at it from the other sides you’ll have a much better idea of how to address the situation.

  • Canadianbudgetbinder
    August 29, 2012

    I don’t try to figure out co-workers nor do I want to “hang out” with them. When I go to work, I work and I come home. If I am having troubles with a co-worker I deal with it head on by listening and communicating that I don’t agree with the way they are treating me. I would also stop to think if maybe my actions are threatening them. Am I doing something wrong? Am I treating them badly, not smiling, keeping pace with my duties etc. Sometimes we need to look at ourselves to evaluate if we are the problem. Don’t assume anything.

    I also would want to know what their reasoning is for what they are doing or how they are handling a situation. I offer my advice and see if we can work together as a team to solve the problem. Simply by telling someone their idea is crap will not solve the problem. If you work together to implement 2 ideas that you both agree on then it may help the situation.

    I don’t think anyone should be bullied in the workplace (if that were that case) because someone feels they are the “big tough person”. The person who has many years seniority bla bla bla. Get a grip, I say! If you can’t solve the problem by talking to your co-worker simply talk to your supervisor or HR who are trained to deal with these situations. Don’t be afraid if you are new to a company if this happens either. You can’t get terminated for reporting this to HR. Most often it’s not the work environment it’s simply they are having problems outside of work and are taking them to work.

    If you happen to be in their spot when they are having a moment, you will be the target. Perhaps you remind them of someone they dispise then you will be the target. When it comes to discrimination and bullying in the workplace this is nothing to tread lightly about and MUST be dealt with. If one is too nervous or scared to take it further,well then you have to deal with it but I caution this always turns uglier, ie: fighting, termination, police, one of the employees resigning, stress leave etc. You can always ask HR to advise you on how you can deal with the situation if you are not comfortable with your tactics. It’s also important for senior level employees to recognize problems on their team so they can nip it in the bud. They need to keep their eyes and ears open so they know what is happening at all times.

    Maybe all of this is simply why people chose to work for themselves. It takes special people to understand how to deal with difficult people not only at work but outside of work as well. All you need to do is listen, communicate and work together. If you fail to think like a team while you are at work you will never work as a team. IMO.
    Mr.CBB

    • Eddie
      August 29, 2012

      I agree with MR CBB and would like to add some of my own points.
      1. I don’t hang out with any co-workers after work – except one. We’ve become good friends over the last 6yrs.
      2. Your boss could never be your friend, wise words an old man told me once when I started out.
      3. Deal with problems head on.
      4. I don’t think I could ever work in a cubical, thank god for the cushy corner office, where I can shut the doors, and put on some tunes…quietly…. :)
      5. Every story has two sides.

      Either way, great post Daisy, and some great reminders for everyone out there.

  • Lance@MoneyLife&More
    August 29, 2012

    I honestly just had a huge personality clash with one ex coworker. No one got along with them though and the whole office hated working with them so even though I tried my best I felt better because I knew it wasn’t just me. I don’t get along well with micro micro managers… yes, that is two levels of micromanaging!

  • TB at BlueCollarWorkman
    August 29, 2012

    There was this guy back where I used to work who was always a jerk to me. He always gave me a hard time, always gave me the cra*piest jobs, always yelled at me in front of others, and put me down behind my back. I figured out what the problem was pretty quickly — at that job, my uncle was the owner of the company and helped me get that job, and so this guy was angry at the ‘leg up’ that I had over others in getting the job. He though it was unfair and so he wanted to really put me to the test. I did all the work he asked and stuff, but I can’t say I ever resolved anything with him. I’d say mean things back to him, I’d talk sh*t behind his back too, I’d just serve it all back to him becuase I thought it was so furstrating. Which didn’t really make me any better than him. I’m at a different job now, and that was 10 years ago, and now-a-days in the same situation, I think I would handle it MUCH differently! LIve and learn!

  • Veronica @ Pelican on Money
    August 29, 2012

    Ya’ll are very cool people. I just hold a grudge for the remainder of my time there and quit in a royal fashion.

  • MoneySmartGuides
    August 29, 2012

    I had the worst ex co-worker ever. Myself and another co-worker took verbal abuse from her almost daily. We would tell the manager, they would have a sit down, and then we would get the silent treatment for a week. Then it was back to the same thing. Rinse, repeat. At first it really bothered me, but as time went on, I felt bad for her because it was directed at us because of who we are, it was just the was she was.

  • Gekko
    August 29, 2012

    If you really want to get along with the colleague then of course you can “find a common ground” or “ask for advice” like you say, but unfortunately in most corporations the rule is “kill or be killed”. I learn it from over 8 years working in corporations. Of course if you want peace at your work place you have to get along with everybody because you never know who’s a snitch and start feeding your boss with crap.

  • Ornella @ Moneylicious
    August 29, 2012

    Hey Daisy! Love the tip about asking for advice. The basic psychological need people need filled is to feel needed/wanted. Asking for advice is great way to build a relationship or at least to have a positive working environment. And of course, paying a compliment here and there wouldn’t work. I’ve actually sent “Thank You” gifts to co-workers before. It’s a pleasant surprise.

  • Lauren @ LBee and the Money Tree
    August 29, 2012

    I just recently had a showdown with a co-worker at my new job. I’m her new supervisor and she has several issues with me. She did come and talk to m e about them, which I respected, but she’s still so hostile. I wanted to write about it on my blog but I’m not anonymous so I didn’t want to rock the boat.

  • Mo' Money Mo' Houses
    August 29, 2012

    I know oh too well what you are talking about. It sucks having drama at work for sure, but no matter where I work there always seems to be some kind of drama (not always involving myself) which could just be due to people having to work 8 hours a day with each other. Great post!

  • Jacob @ iheartbudgets
    August 29, 2012

    I am a natural people pleaser, so if someone doesn’t like me, I try and fix it ASAP. This is detrimental to me at some points, but has also taught me how to relate to people and help calm the storm. your points are spot on, especially finding a common ground. I have found it best to get people talking about themselves, especially if they are competitive. And something even tougher, try to find something you enjoy about them. It’s funny, I think sometimes the closest relationships can be formed after resolving a conflict.

  • SB @ One Cent at a Time
    August 29, 2012

    I would give one or two chances only. If the level difficulty doesn’t reduce I’d let it go. That’s the end of friendly behavior from my side too. Not a brilliant idea but my soul gets satisfied with the approach.

  • The Asian Pear
    August 30, 2012

    Good suggestions. I’ve thankfully only worked with one person I horribly hated (and mostly everyone did actually). I treated her with kindness which decreased her craziness (but not much.)

  • Michelle
    August 30, 2012

    Punch ‘em in the throat? Just kidding! I try to kill them with kindness personally, i.e. pick them to partner up every time, tell them how awesome they are at things they’re not that awesome at, tell them how much you respect them. It drives people mad when they hate you and you’re super nice to them. Also that way, there’s nothing they can actually complain about in regards to your behavior, and personally– it gives me pleasure knowing they’re likely going completely crazy in their heads and crying themselves to sleep every night. :)

    • American Debt Project
      August 31, 2012

      I do this too. I have a few possibly unhinged coworkers, but since I rarely have to work with them, I am always polite and kind to them. It throws me off (and makes me want to punch them in the throat) when they pull some silly passive aggressive thing that makes me look bad, but I just work harder and never, ever, ever complain to my other coworkers about it. My office is just too small for that! My long term solution is to buy a business!

  • femmefrugality
    August 30, 2012

    I have a difficult classmate right now. She seems to be a *itch just because she enjoys it. She loves gossip and laughing at others cruelly. I’ve only said stuff to her a couple of times, but when I have it’s scared the living daylights out of her and gotten her to stop for a few days. I don’t know what to do.

  • Money Bulldog
    August 30, 2012

    Great post!

    I really like your last point about giving them respect. Some people might be really good at what they do but no one likes it when a newbie walks in off the street and tries to be top of the pack, even though their credentials or abilities might justify it. Gaining the respect of workmates takes time and a bit of humility.

  • Kris @ BalancingMoneyand Life
    August 31, 2012

    Great tips! Figuring out their point of view and finding ways to communicate clearly are crucial to trying to find ways to get along. I was really surprised when a coworker whom I did not get along with (she and I were like 2 cats in a bag together – ugly!) really, sincerely wished me well when I told her I was leaving. We both had figured out a way to respect the other, and said some nice things.

  • Elizabeth @ Broke Professionals
    September 2, 2012

    I had a coworker like this; she always muttered negative comments under her breath whenever I talked during a staff meeting. I felt really attacked and didn’t know why; then we both became pregnant at the same time. Talk about common ground! After that, we both made it a point to have each other’s back.

  • Sheila
    September 3, 2012

    Great Read!! All to often I see or hear about people hating thier jobs just due to co workers..

  • My Money Design
    September 3, 2012

    You’re got a lot of good points in here. Sometimes all you can really do is find out what makes them tick and try to understand why it is they’ve got it out for you. As long as you can get the support and shelter of your superiors, you should be able to dodge their attacks.

  • CF
    September 3, 2012

    I had one very, very difficult co-worker when I worked in cancer research. She was the supervisor of one of the departments, but had very little formal education or training. She took issue with everything from the way I spoke to my supposed attitude problem. I found the best way of dealing with her was to make her feel like I was “on her side” by asking for advice and favours. Eventually, she fancied herself a mentor to me. It’s kind of stupid and plays to people’s egos, but it works. It is basically the same thing that Ben Franklin advocated: http://lifehacker.com/5847051/turn-haters-into-friends-by-asking-them-for-a-favor

    On the other hand, I’ve had co-workers I’ve actively disliked. That’s a different story. ;)

  • jen@balancedlifebudget
    September 3, 2012

    good post! I have definitely had to deal with this before. Unfortunately, I found that there’s little that I can really do to change their behavior towards me. One helpful piece of advice that I read (and that I still have trouble following sometimes), is to try not to let past experiences with a co-worker color any future experiences. I found this helpful because I would get seriously anxious leading up to the times I would have to work with these people and it probably did not help the situation. I try to treat each occurrence as its own now. Now, I’ll never try to make friends with these people, but unfortunately they are here to stay!

  • rob mac farlane
    September 8, 2012

    i just started this job 5 months ago, a great job and enjoy it very much. Any how theirs this co -worker whom i don’t get along with. He’s been there for 12 years, he’s been through many co -workers in the past, so i’ve been told by others at work, whom also don,t like him. I came on the job and became recognized quickly and as a worker which can be relied on, by the owner. The co worker and i have had screaming matches already, and i believe if this continues it may come to blows. i’ve told my supervisor and he said he’ll talk with him, nothing has changed . I try and talk with him and all i get from this person is attitude, all the time.

    He’s not very good at his job and i see it , but seems to get away with it. I complain again, nothing changes.
    Should i go to humane resourses and put in a complaint about how he reacts to me, when ask a question or just let it ride and see what happens? i don,t want to go into work if i have to work with him!! this co-worker drain me everytime!!

  • thethriftyspendthrift
    September 16, 2012

    I have worked with some awful people over the years and unfortunately, you cannot always make it better. (That already assumes you work with rational people, which isn’t always the case.) I have been in many places where they did absolutely nothing in order to rectify things. At my current place, someone who caused nothing but problems and had drama with everyone was finally fired—all within a span of almost three months. (Yep, she caused that much crap in three months!)

  • Gil@LearnFinancialEducation
    October 1, 2012

    Thankfully I have no co-workers who are very difficult to deal with in the past 9 years of working in 2 companies. However, there are few people who I cannot understand why they are doing bad things like cheating with the time sheet.
    If I gonna have a difficult co-worker in the future, I’ll try not to be like him and be professional in the workplace.

  • KIm
    May 13, 2013

    Hi

    I am having difficult with a male co worker. I have always shown him respect, said good morning and so forth and he has always been respectfully calling me mam and because of the age difference. But recently since he has been promoted to security guard he has started calling me by my first name and for some reason it really bothers me. I dont know whether to tell him to stop or not and in fairness to him I believe my response to him is tied to his behaviors towards women. He always seems to fawn over them.

    • KIm
      May 14, 2013

      Ok
      I just wanted to say that I went and spoke to the guy quietly without involving anyone. He felt calling me by my first name was a better sign of respect and I told him that I disagreed and that I always felt that he had shown more respect then the other men by calling me mam and I apologized for not responding to him. So it was pretty amicable handled. so time will tell.

      Thanks
      Kim

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