How to Deal With Difficult Coworkers


We’ve all been there. Getting the job of your dreams is a great feeling, but even in such perfect workplaces, there can be situations where you and a colleague come into conflict.We’ve all had to deal with coworkers who, either from jealousy, ambition, incompetence or general nastiness, create a toxic work environment, get us stressed out and generally make our jobs more difficult and more unpleasant than they need to be.

Unfortunately, even when being very selective as to where we will work and under what kinds of conditions, avoiding difficult coworkers is still nearly impossible. However, that doesn’t have to mean that we are powerless to do anything about it.

While every situation and every person is unique, there are proven steps that we can take to mitigate, if not completely eliminate, the negative effects. In this article, we’ll take a look at some practical tips and advice on how to deal with difficult coworkers.

Start With a Self-Assessment

It may not be something we want to admit, but when there is a problem between two or more people, rarely is the fault completely with only one person. It’s important when you first notice a problem or a potential problem brewing, that you take a minute to step back and assess the situation.

  • What is your role in instigating or fueling the conflict?
  • How much of the problem is due to misunderstanding, and what steps have you taken to mitigate the misunderstanding?
  • Is this a recurring problem between you and someone else? If so, this may be an indication that you are at least partially responsible for instigating or fueling the problem.

The more responsibility for the problem you are willing to assume, the greater the chance that you will be able to solve the problem. Not to mention the less likely it is for the problem to resurface down the road with someone else.

Set Boundaries


Dealing with difficult coworkers, to a large extent, comes down to control. You need to be in control of your environment, and difficult coworkers seek to take that control away from you. It is important that you set the boundaries you are comfortable with and that you communicate those boundaries effectively to all concerned parties.

Those boundaries should include:

  • Physical space (it is perfectly acceptable to make certain work areas off-limits to certain coworkers)
  • Topics of discussion (remember, you are trying to create a healthy work environment. That is not the same thing as making friends or being friendly)
  • Times and modes of communication (you are available to your coworkers, but not 24/7 and not by any means they wish. You decide when and how you can be contacted, within reason.)

Make Your Frustrations Known

Communicating the frustrations you are having with a particular coworker does require a certain amount of finesse and tact. On the one hand, it is important that others, most notably your superiors, are aware of the problems you are having. But on the other hand, you don’t want to come across as a snitch, complainer, or someone who is difficult to work with. In order to avoid these potential pitfalls, it can be a good idea to voice your concerns in the form of a question.

For example, instead of saying ‘I hate it when he or she does this’, consider saying instead: ‘is it normal or reasonable for me to be so frustrated when he or she does this?’

By communicating your frustration s in this way – which suggests you are willing to accept part of the blame or responsibility – you are more likely to receive sympathy and the eventual help you might need. Furthermore, this is also a way to compliment your self-assessment, which is a vital step in the process of dealing with a difficult coworker.

Acknowledge the Office Politics

Dealing with a difficult coworker is, more often than not, just one step in the broader unpleasantness of dealing with office politics. Office politics aren’t anything you will be able to wish away. It’s important that you identify them and decide on what role, if any, you are willing to play.

In most cases, if you are dealing with a difficult coworker, you aren’t the only one experiencing this problem. You could decide to create an alliance – there is strength in numbers. Though, do be careful. Once you enter the arena of office politics, it is impossible to step out.

Counter With Kindness

If you are dealing with a coworker who brings a lot of negativity to the workplace, one solution is to counter this negativity with positivity. It might seem, at first, like it is easier said than done. But in practical terms, the negativity one person brings to the environment can serve as a stark reminder to bring positivity. You could even treat it as a sort of game or competition. For every negative thing they say, now you are challenged to tip the scales back in your favor by saying one or two positive things.

This type of counterattack strategy can be implemented to offset a variety of negative attributes one brings to the workplace. If a coworker is mean, counter with kindness. If they are apathetic, take it as a challenge to muster up more enthusiasm for the job.

Implementing this type of approach is not easy. But it will yield positive results that will last longer than the current unpleasant situation you find yourself in. This kind of approach is likely to foster positive and productive work habits that will bring you success both in the near future and further down the line.

You don’t have a lot of control over how someone else acts, but you do have control over how you react to their behavior or their attitude. Take the negative experience as a challenge and turn it into a net positive for you and the overall work environment you are in.

Know When to Walk Away

A large part of being successful – both in your career as well as in your private life – comes down to knowing which battles are worth fighting, which hill you are willing to die on, and knowing when it’s best to simply walk away.

When a work relationship is toxic, you have made your concerns known, and nothing is being done about it, there is a good chance that the company culture is either already toxic or will soon be. You are in a better position to know how important the job is to you and if it’s worth fighting for. If you find the negative energy at work spilling over into your private life, this is a good indicator that you may need to consider simply walking away.

If you do choose to walk away, make sure that you have first tried to resolve the problem in other ways as it is unlikely this will be the last time you have to deal with a difficult coworker.

The Takeaway

One of the most rewarding aspects of integrating a company or a work team is the opportunity to interact with other people who comes from a different background and have a different perspective on things than you. However, this benefit also means that occasionally you will need to interact with someone you don’t get along with.

When this happens – and it is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ – the first thing you should do is a self-assessment. See how much of the problem is your doing or if you have exacerbated instead of alleviated the problem.

There are steps you can then take to try to resolve the conflict – as outlined in the article above. Ultimately, you will need to determine whether it’s worth fighting over. If not, you may need to walk away. But make sure, if you do decide to walk away, that you are at least doing so with knowledge gained and you are better armed to deal with similar conflicts that await you down the road.