We’ve all had to deal with challenging people in the workplace. Maybe you’ve had a mean-spirited manager who was over-critical. Maybe you worked with a colleague who slacked on the job, to the detriment of your own productivity. Maybe you’re even working with a difficult person at work right now–a relentless gossip, or someone who just won’t listen to feedback.
In any case, these kinds of behaviors are problematic for several reasons. They make achieving productive, quality work more difficult. They decrease employee satisfaction and happiness. And ultimately, they can impact company performance by increasing turnover and damaging healthy communication and output.
We can’t always control who we work with, and how they act at work. What we can control, however, are our responses to those individuals. How will we choose to confront the problem? How will we examine our own biases and behaviors? And how will we develop our own healthy practices of self-awareness in the workplace?
In the following article, we’ll look at why working with difficult people can be so frustrating…and more importantly, how to approach the situation so that the conflict is resolved, and everyone can get back to work peaceably.
Why it’s so difficult to deal with difficult people at work
You might know the feeling well–you’re speaking with an especially challenging person at work, and you can feel your body temperature start to rise, your heart pound faster, and your breath shorten. In other words, you’re getting angry or stressed.
Confronting a terrible coworker might feel like it should be less frustrating than talking to, say, a difficult family member. But the truth is, bad relationships at work awaken the same sort of emotional response as any other tense interpersonal situation–physical stress induced by hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrines (the “fight or flight” hormone).
“When we deal with difficult people, ultimately what we’re doing is trying to get past that response,” says Jay Johnson, a Master Trainer through the Association for Talent Development (ATD). “We’re in a heightened state of anxiety, and our other systems start to shut down. We don’t think rationally, our metabolism slows…we can even get acne from having too many stress hormones.”
Jay continues, “Is that a way we want to live our lives?”
The bottom line is that conflict with coworkers or managers causes stress, which not only impacts our ability to work and our mood, but our physical health. That’s why it’s so critical to learn how to address difficult people at work.
Doing so, however, can’t be done without strategy or forethought. And it certainly can’t be done out of a place of anger, fear, or stress. Instead, learning how to deal with difficult people at work should take an intentional approach that can help to bring understanding, empathy, and ultimately, resolution.
When it comes to dealing with a difficult coworker or leader, it’s always easiest to assume the other party is wrong. But the truth is, there may be a root cause that goes beyond an annoying habit or personality quirk. When considering the aggravating behavior of a coworker or manager, ask yourself the following questions first:
- What are my emotional responses to this person? What are my triggers? Am I overreacting?
- Am I unconsciously biased towards this person in any way?
- How can I exercise empathy towards this person? Could they be dealing with a personal situation that’s particularly challenging, and causing them to act out?
Vickie L. Robinson, national director of HR, Armed Services YMCA of the USA, shares one particular incident in which she found that an employee no one liked to work with had a plausible reason for her bad attitude: She was lonely.
“In the course of our conversation, it became clear that work was all she had going on in her life. She was new to the area and hadn’t yet made any social connections.”
Robinson responded by helping her to get connected to her community, changing her level of satisfaction with work….and behavior.
The bottom line? There are often two sides to the story.
That being said, problematic behavior at work should never be “glazed over” or ignored. In the next section, we’ll take a look at how to begin to address–and resolve–conflict with coworkers (or bosses).
Confront the problem
Confrontation is uncomfortable for most people. And many of us would rather avoid discomfort in situations that already feel tense or emotionally stressful. If you’ve got a coworker who makes cruel remarks on a consistent basis, for example, the last thing you may want to do is confront the perpetrator.
That being said, ignoring the issue can only make the problem worse.
Here are a few strategies for confronting difficult people at work–and coming to a reasonable solution.
Talk to the person
It might seem obvious, but to deal with a difficult person at work, you’ll actually have to talk to them–in person (or on Zoom). Complaining about them behind their back or being passive aggressive about your frustration will only exacerbate the problem. Instead, plan a time and place to speak to them in person, and make sure you’re feeling calm and prepared going into the conversation. And be considerate of how they might feel. Don’t approach a difficult person when they’re already under stress (such as after a tense meeting or right before a deadline).
Use “I” statements
Confrontation 101: Use statements that begin with “I” (rather than “you”) to avoid sounding accusatory.
“I feel frustrated when I’m speaking up in a meeting, and you interrupt my train of thought.”
“I’d like to avoid talking about coworkers when they’re not present. Do you think we can limit these kinds of conversations from now on?”
“I’m feeling micromanaged on the job. Is there any way we can change this workflow?”
These are all examples of ways you can broach a difficult topic with someone without putting them immediately on the defense.
Listen to what the other party has to say. As mentioned above, there are often two sides to a story. Your coworker or manager may have a reasonable explanation for their behavior.
“We have to excavate what’s under the conflict and bring it out into the open so that we can analyze, understand, and begin to resolve the human conflict that’s building on the top,” says management consultant and business coach Liz Kislik.
Part of that “excavation” is, of course, the powerful act of listening: Stop explaining, ask for feedback, and start listening.
Suggest a solution
Don’t just tell the difficult coworker how you feel, and expect the problem to be resolved. Suggest a solution or a plan to move forward, and consider how you might meet the person halfway. If, for example, you have a colleague who verbally nitpicks your work, make a suggestion as to how they might make recommendations in a way that’s more digestible (an email or a bulleted list, for example).
In some cases, the difficult person may be exhibiting irrational or even psychotic behavior. If confrontation turns into a situation that feels unsafe, you’ll want to de-escalate the conflict using the following techniques.
- Stay neutral. Avoid raising your voice, and be aware of your body language and facial expressions. An aggressive person won’t respond well to an equal show of aggression.
- Wait before responding. Avoid responding immediately to angry verbal outbursts. Leaving space and silence gives the person time to think before reacting.
- Stay calm. To the best of your ability, avoid getting emotional yourself.
Approach leadership (if necessary)
If all else fails, you’ll want to approach leadership to discuss and manage the problem. Be prepared with concrete information about how this person has behaved, how it has affected you and your ability to work, and how you have attempted to resolve or reduce tension. Know that your manager may want to bring in the other party to discuss a solution. A mediator may be the best option for dealing with that person.
Final words: Be a kind and communicative employee
The reality is, most of us are capable of being difficult people at work, given the right circumstances. Most workplaces compel us to navigate differences in personality, culture, and belief structures. Work often places us in stressful situations that test our ability to be patient and kind. Finally, the workplace can bring our underlying issues to the surface, including crises at home, physical problems, or mental and emotional health issues.
In any case, going the extra mile to be kind and communicative goes a long way in a professional environment. Be patient, communicate as clearly as possible, and always seek to empathize with others. The pay-off will be worth it: Healthy, productive relationships, a happier workplace, and higher quality work. Cheers!