7 ways to get along with even your most difficult coworkers

Difficult people are everywhere. And it seems the more frantic and anxious the world becomes, the more its residents respond in kind. Considering the majority of our waking hours are spent in the workplace, it’s inevitable we’ll come across people who need to be treated with kid gloves. It falls to the rest of us (because we’re not hard to get along with, are we?) to figure out how to deal with someone we’d rather not have to deal with, in order to get work done with our psyche reasonably intact.

getting alone with difficult coworkers

be aware of different personality types

Not every difficult person in the workplace is a demanding screamer who’ll send you cowering under your desk. There are different kinds and levels of difficulty. Some are harder to identify and more elusive. And some may not seem difficult upfront. In fact, they can seem downright harmless, until months or years down the road, their small, insignificant issues snowball into a big problem. Some types of difficult personalities to be aware of:

  • Gossips talk about everyone else and spread information – true or otherwise – that undermines team spirit and creates distrust. They’re eager to rope others into their web; they love nothing more than to share whatever juicy detail they’ve picked up last, whether their colleagues want to hear it or not.

  • Control freaks do just what their name implies; they’re unable to delegate and if they’re forced to, they never truly relinquish control or grant autonomy to their team members. Micromanagers are the worst of this type. They’re always looking over your shoulder, treating you like a toddler who needs to be carefully monitored, rather than the mature professional you are.

  • Complainers and whiners never have a kind word to say. They live in a world that’s perpetually out to get them. Every glass they stumble upon is half-empty. Yet, they can’t figure out why the lunchroom clears as soon as they take a seat or why they’re picked last for work projects.

  • Passive aggressive and silent types are harder to spot. You’ll find yourself dancing to their tune without being able to recognize the melody, never really being sure of yourself or what they actually want. It’s not that they lie; they just manipulate and keep you guessing, resorting to sabotage when they feel the need to undermine.

  • Know-it-alls have all the answers and they’re always right. It doesn’t matter what the question is, they’ll tell you the right way to do things. When a situation comes to a he-said-she-said, the know-it-all’s version is always the correct version. They’re not going to let anyone tell them otherwise.

  • The overreacter takes issue with even the tiniest of infractions. If you’re a couple minutes late to work, ding, they’re all over it. Chewing gum too loudly? Your manager will hear about it. They go out of their way to find excuses to get into fights, complain, and otherwise make your workplace miserable.

  • The rage monster is the type of personality we’re most used to calling difficult. They have a short fuse and are prone to shouting and throwing tantrums if they don’t get their way. They’ll stomp around and make their unhappiness known. If you do something they disapprove of, you’re going to hear about it, and so will everyone else thanks to their volume.

So what can you do to alleviate some of the stress these folks create and find a way to work with them? Because trust us when we say that you’re going to have to work with them sooner or later! If you haven’t already, consider yourself one of the lucky ones!

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1. don’t react in the moment

Nature has provided us with an impulse to respond to problems immediately, usually with a fight or flight impulse. In workplace confrontations, the 'fight' impulse tends to be strongest. Our flight or fight impulse was born as a way to protect us from becoming dinner of other, aggressive species. Though we’re millennia past the days when these habits were formed, we’re still hard-wired to respond to aggression with the same physiological changes such as a twist in the stomach, an increased heart rate and so on that tell us ‘you must take out the enemy!’

We may be hardwired to engage, but we’ve continued to evolve since then. We’re also equipped with logic and intellectual reasoning, which are the tools we need in order to move past our automatic first response to get to the place where solutions and resolutions live. So if you feel like immediately jumping in with both feet, stop; count to ten, breathe deeply and slowly, and give yourself time to create a thoughtful, unemotional response.

2. learn to tune it out

If the situation is more of a minor annoyance than a true problem, then you’re probably better off finding your zen and ignoring it. Be the bigger person. It’s not worth your time to attempt to stop a coworker from going off the deep end over some insignificant thing. You don’t have to match their temperament, anxiety or volume and ratchet up the tension. Instead of engaging in a war that will have no winners, stay focused on your objectives and priorities or walk away. If you can decamp to a quiet meeting room or put on your headphones, it might be for the best. To quote yet another cliché… ignorance is bliss. Ignore what you can. Be selective about what issues you’re willing to fight for, and which you can let slide. Which brings us to…

3. pick your battles

Pick your battles, because you can’t win them all. (And if you try to, you’re probably one of the difficult personalities we’re talking about!) Professionals know when it’s time to concede or compromise. Trust us when we say there are times in your career when you’ll have to do both to keep the peace. Sometimes you’ll need to let the little things go so you can focus your energy on dealing with issues that are actually important to you. Remember the boy who cried wolf. If you’re raising a fuss at every little issue you encounter, no one will listen when there’s a big issue that actually needs to be handled.

4. remember the positive

Sometimes, in order to get the job done, you have to consider the situation from a different angle. Remember, everyone is part of the team – even the most prickly pear. Think of your personality differences as a benefit; different people bring different talents, skills, and ways of working to the table. That’s a good thing as long as everyone’s on the same page in terms of the ultimate goal. Preparation is a big part of reframing and ultimately diffusing conflict. Make sure you have an appropriate response ready for a reaction or behaviour you know is coming. And, as difficult as it may be, try to find positive things about the person you can hang on to when the going gets really rough. Most people, even the most difficult of coworkers, usually have some good traits. After all, they were hired and have been kept on the payroll for a reason!

5. don’t take it personally

This one’s easy to say, but not quite so easy to put into action. Everyone thinks it’s the other guy that’s the problem. In our own minds, we’re in the right, and they’re wrong. It’s completely black and white. An outsider perspective can have a little more gray. Often what sets difficult people off, and what they’re actually responding to, has nothing to do with you or the work situation at all. So don’t make it about you.

Try to think of the situation from the perspective of the difficult coworkers. (Again, this is harder than you think!) Did they recently go through some personal issues that are causing them to act out? Their behaviour most likely has nothing to do with you. Whatever’s going on has touched a personal nerve that they may not even be aware of. You may not be so quick to anger and retaliation when you learn a yelling co-worker is caring for an ailing parent or is a single parent dealing with a truant teenager. That’s not to excuse their behaviour, only to help understand it and look for ways to get along with the fewest casualties.

6. take the high road

At the end of the day, there are few things in life over which we truly have control. But what we can control is how we react, our behaviour and responses to situations and people. Responding to a difficult person in kind is giving over your power to them because you’re letting them change who you are. Meditate, practice deep breathing, role play and take a minute – do whatever you have to so that your responses are in keeping with your true nature. Whatever happens, remember how you want to feel about yourself and act accordingly.

7. if you do react, be professional

If there’s an issue that you have to deal with, how you bring it up is crucial. Many difficult personalities aren’t going to be receptive to what they deem criticism. However, some issues must be dealt with. There are some things you can’t just let slide, like an employee who’s putting colleagues’ safety or mental health at risk, or jeopardizing the company. 

Bring up any behavioural issues in a professional setting. Don’t raise your voice or berate them for their actions. Simply state the issue and why it has to change, and what the consequences will be if it doesn’t. Lay out all the facts calmly. If you need to, loop in a higher up or HR to ensure that everything is above board and follows company policy to the letter.

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Difficult people don’t just create minefields, they are the minefield. Their disruptive behaviour actually slows productivity, impacts deadlines and affects others’ engagement in life and in the workplace. Find strategies that help you cope; not only will you be seen as a problem solver, you’ll set the tone for appropriate and supportive behaviour in your department and identify yourself as a true team person focused on success.