When you don’t know how to deal with a difficult coworker, work feels hard. It can feel like your time and energy are being stolen by a draining relationship, rather than being put to good use to accomplish your career goals.
Many people end up in career coaching or career counseling because their dealings with a difficult coworker have become so toxic that they have started to hate their jobs. They feel overwhelmed, anxious, and frustrated, and they don’t know what they can do to make the situation better.
Fortunately, these clients usually have more opportunities than they realize to deal with difficult coworkers effectively. Difficult colleagues are people too, and understanding where they’re coming from will empower you to deal with them in a way that’s both assertive and compassionate, which creates a professional and personal growth opportunity for you. I hope this article helps you do that.
If you would prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can find it in the player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Types of Difficult Coworkers (and How to Handle Them)
- The Untrustworthy Schemer
This type of difficult coworker might take credit for other people’s work, while also ensuring that the blame for their mistakes falls on others. They might engage in passive aggressive behavior, like being nice to your face while sabotaging you behind your back.
If you suspect your coworker is an untrustworthy schemer, keep records of all of your dealings with them. Documentation will be your friend if you ever need to meet with management about what’s happening. Also, be careful not to share more than you have to with this person — pretend everything you tell them is going to be blasted in a company-wide email someday (because it just might be).
- Mean Girl/Guy
This type of difficult coworker has the attitude of a mean girl or guy from middle school. They might exclude people, be judgmental or gossipy, or even bully their coworkers.
Fortunately, the mean girl or guy usually has a hard time getting ahead at work. But sometimes their crappy behavior isn’t on leadership’s radar until someone speaks up. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your boss about what’s happening and how it’s impacting your morale. You’re not being a narc; this isn’t the playground, it’s a workplace.
In the meantime, remain neutral and polite and keep your side of the fence sparkling clean. Do that and it will be obvious where the mess is coming from.
If you discover that you’re in a workplace where management doesn’t care about creating a respectful, emotionally safe environment, then that’s actually a great reason to reevaluate whether you want to stay at this job!
- The Deadweight
Some coworkers are difficult because they’re simply not pulling their weight. They may push their tasks off onto others, or slack off during group projects. Or, they might just be obviously underutilized while you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Deadweight coworkers breed resentment, and they create big problems for an organization. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your boss about what you’re noticing, then at least draw firm boundaries around your own work. Don’t accept responsibility for their tasks, and seek clarity about who is responsible for what any time you have to work on a project together.
- The Control Freak
If you’re dealing with a control freak at work, the problem is probably anxiety. Controlling people usually believe that bad things will happen if they don’t maintain control. You can have empathy for your coworker’s anxiety, while also being assertive and having boundaries.
One effective strategy for dealing with a controlling coworker is to ask questions. They likely don’t think of themselves as “controlling,” so simply stating what you’re noticing and asking questions about it can encourage self-awareness. The next time they refuse to share information you need, or take charge of a project you’re supposed to be working on together, ask “Why?” (with genuine curiosity, not anger or blame) and see what they say. If they get defensive, don’t react, but do hold your boundaries.
- The Overly Competitive Coworker
A little friendly competition is healthy, but this type of difficult coworker turns benign interactions into power struggles or one-upmanship-fests. They might get aggressive with you when you’re “collaborating,” resent you when you’re performing well, or blame you for anything that goes wrong.
Overly competitive coworkers feel threatened by the success of others. They have a mindset that says “Success is scarce and I have to fight for it,” rather than one that says “We can all be more successful by having positive working relationships and supporting each other.”
You can deal with an overly competitive coworker first by extending kindness to them. Remember that they are this way because they feel threatened. If you’re nice, they’ll feel more secure around you, and less competitive. Whatever you do, don’t start treating them like your competition. Just focus on your own work and doing your best.
How to Deal with a Difficult Coworker Who Is Your Boss
If the difficult coworker is your boss, that’s more challenging — but it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. For many career coaching clients, learning how to deal with a “difficult” boss turns into a fantastic growth opportunity, both personally and professionally.
The key is learning how to manage up. Who is your boss as a person? What are their goals, and how do you fit into those goals? What would a win-win outcome look like for you both?
To be fair, not every boss is a good boss. It may really be the case that they’re just a huge jerk who enjoys mistreating their underlings. But more often, the problem is a failure to understand each other and to approach each other with empathy. You may not understand where your boss is coming from — Are they under a lot of stress? Are their own career goals being thwarted? Are they frustrated with you for legitimate reasons, which you are having a hard time allowing in?
And, most importantly, is there anything you could be doing to make the situation better?
Asking yourself these questions and adjusting your own ways of being takes some emotional intelligence. When you’re feeling criticized or unappreciated, you want to defend yourself, or maybe even check out and stop trying. But what you really need to do is explore those feelings, understand where they’re coming from, manage your reactions, and use empathy to understand why your boss is doing what they’re doing. If that sounds difficult, that’s okay — you can improve your emotional intelligence. Doing that work will make every relationship in your life feel smoother, not just your relationship with your boss.
Don’t be afraid to talk with your boss about the issue, with humility and vulnerability. Just let them know you’ve noticed tension, and ask them if there’s anything you could be doing to make things better. Then listen to what they have to say. You may transform the relationship in a positive way, or you may discover that there’s not much room for improvement here. If you learn that you are in fact in a toxic workplace with a toxic boss, it’s probably time to dust off your resume and begin applying for a new job.
What If You’re the Difficult Coworker?
There is another possibility that I would invite you to consider, one that actually has the greatest potential for positive change.
Imagine your most difficult colleague. That person probably Googles “How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers” and then reads articles like this, and doesn’t see themselves in them at all. We are all wired to look for problems outside of ourselves, rather than to self-reflect. Exploring your own thoughts, feelings, and actions and taking responsibility for them is what allows you to become more empowered at work, and find greater success and satisfaction.
Here are a few things that might be going on if you’re struggling in your relationships with coworkers:
- You’re projecting your stuff on to others
It’s very common for people to play out old patterns in their relationships at work, especially in their relationship with their boss. Because your boss is an authority figure, they might remind you of your mom or dad. Your unconscious mind may be working out some leftover adolescent stuff with them. Strange I know, but it happens a lot.
One sign of this is needing validation, approval, or even love from your boss, and feeling resentful and hurt when you don’t get it. You may feel neglected or uncared for when your boss is having a normal, professional relationship with you. If you have a “sibling rivalry” dynamic with your coworkers, that can be another sign. Or, you may feel a rebellious impulse welling up inside of you any time your boss tells you to do something.
- Needing better boundaries
Sometimes, work relationships feel hard because we aren’t setting healthy boundaries, with ourselves or others.
For example, if you are a bit of a people pleaser, it can feel like your coworkers are demanding and needy, when the problem really reflects your own struggle to set limits with them. If you have a problem with perfectionism, you might feel like other people have unreasonable expectations of you, when in reality you’re making your job harder by “overdoing” your tasks.
Even in relationships with difficult people, you can make things easier on yourself by setting healthy boundaries, getting very clear about what is your responsibility and what is not, and being intentional about where you spend your time and energy.
- You need to develop a growth mindset
Having a growth mindset means believing that your strengths and skills are things you can develop, not stable fixtures of “who you are.” This leads to growth and easy workplace relationships in a couple of ways.
First, a growth mindset allows you to stay motivated when you encounter setbacks, because you view problems as opportunities to learn and improve. Your coworkers will regard you as a positive teammate, rather than a negative nancy whose energy is discouraging. A growth mindset also makes it easier to take feedback from others without getting defensive, because it doesn’t feel like a personal attack (because your skills, strengths, and deficits aren’t a part of who you fundamentally are).
If this is an issue for you, then changing your mindset to be one of continuous improvement will help you improve your performance, and it will also make your relationships at work feel easier.
- You need to increase your emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence has many benefits. It helps you not take other people’s weird behavior personally. It helps you stay motivated and optimistic. It helps you manage frustration, disappointment, envy, and hurt feelings. It also helps you build stronger, more trusting relationships with your coworkers, which can have a huge impact on your career trajectory.
Everyone has room to grow when it comes to emotional intelligence, and if this is a growth area for you, working with a career-focused emotional intelligence coach can make a big difference in how you feel and perform at work.
Support for Dealing with a Difficult Coworker
Difficult coworkers can be a drag, but they can also be some of your greatest teachers when it comes to empathy, self-management, healthy communication, self-awareness, and more. Understanding your workplace relationships — especially the ones that feel hard — can be an incredible opportunity for personal growth.
And if you would like to do this valuable work with a career coach or counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — For more advice on reaching your career goals, becoming your best self, and creating positive relationships at work, check out my “Professional Growth” collection of articles and podcasts. It’s all there to support your success.
Music in this episode is by Wimps with their song “Garbage People.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://thesewimps.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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How to Deal with a Difficult Coworker
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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