A woman holds her head in frustration representing how to deal with a difficult coworker

How to Deal with a Difficult Coworker

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)

  1. 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). 

  1. 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

  1. 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. 

  1. 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

  1. 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:

  1. 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. 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. If your vision of career success includes experiencing things like emotional wellness at work, and like long term job satisfaction, a vital skill is learning how to deal with difficult coworkers effectively. On today’s show, we’ll be discussing the different kinds of tough cookies we can all encounter on the job, as well as action strategies for handling all of them.

Today’s mood music comes to us from wimps, with the song Garbage People, certainly not suggesting that all annoying co workers should be classified as garbage. But if you are in close contact with somebody who was making your working life kind of hell on a day to day basis, some choice names for them may have crossed your mind.

So in that spirit, we’re listening to wimps and you could learn more about the wimps on their Bandcamp page, thesewimps.bandcamp.com. So let’s just dive straight into this super important topic that I know is near and dear to so many of your hearts because this is one of the key components to true job satisfaction. It’s often not the work itself, it is the interpersonal relationship dynamics that we encounter on the job. 

And as you may know, if you’ve listened to this podcast before it my practice Growing Self, we often do career counseling, and certainly some of it is devoted to things like career exploration, what do I want to be when I grow up. But because the career counselors on our team have a background licensed therapists, we’re often doing work in the career domain that is much deeper than that just like goodness of fit career coaching piece.

We’re talking about personal growth opportunities that come to us from our careers and from our jobs. And oftentimes, a very important point of conversation happens when we’re talking about difficult co-workers. In some ways, those conversations are very strategic, you know, like, literally, how do I handle this difficult situation with a coworker on the job.

We’ll certainly be talking about those action strategies on today’s show. But also, these kinds of moments afford such a rich personal growth opportunity for us. Because when we encounter these kinds of relational challenges, it invites us to be self reflective, to take a look at our patterns and our ways of showing up in these relationships, to become stronger and more confident, to become more assertive and appropriate communicators, maybe to have better boundaries, or learn how to advocate for ourselves in a different way.

And also sometimes even exploring ways that we could potentially be contributing to a relational dynamic that we actually don’t want. So it invites us to take a look at how we are showing up as people in the workplace. And that becomes very empowering, when we could say, okay, maybe I could handle XYZ differently. And therefore, you know, if I take charge of my side of the street, this relational dynamic can change for the better.

So, again, we’re thinking about relationships as only being personal in nature. But to overlook the opportunity to grow in this area professionally, on the jobs is a lost opportunity. So that’s where we’re going on today’s show. And as always, I’m going to be talking about a lot of other podcasts that are related to this subject that might also be helpful for you. And if you’d like to access all of them or the other articles that I might talk about over the course of today’s show, they’re all there for you on my website, go to growingself.com, and you’ll navigate to the blog and podcast homepage. From there, enter this success collection, and then you’ll have access to all the different career related content collections that I’ve put together for you.

You’ll find emotional wellness at work, emotional intelligence at work. You can enter into any of those and then find the podcast, Spotify playlists I’ve created for you as well as the other articles that I’ll be discussing and resources so, just putting it out there first so you know where to find them.

Okay, so to dive in. How do you talk to difficult co-workers? I mean, this is so important because when we don’t have clear strategies for dealing with challenging personalities at work, our jobs can begin to feel very, very hard. Like, really above and beyond the work itself, it becomes the environment that feels badly for us.

It can also feel like your time and energy at work are being sucked dry by some of these draining relationships. And that can impact the way that you show up on the job. You know, you’re spending so much time dealing with this difficult dynamic that your performance may be suffering as a result even. Or it might feel like this current role is unsustainable for you. Which might be a pity, I mean, particularly if there’s many other things that you like about the organization or the job itself; to feel like you can’t continue on in a role because of the obstacles, the issues created by other people. Like, that’s not fair to you.

And so, you know, as I mentioned, many people do end up in career coaching or career counseling, because their dealings with difficult personalities or coworkers have become so unbearable, that it’s made them start to hate their jobs, and even impact them emotionally. I mean, you might feel overwhelmed or anxious or frustrated or stressed.

And, and again, it’s just such a bad place to be in if you legitimately don’t know what to do to make the situation better, I think many people can experience this as helpless feeling when they are in a job in a role, and may not be fully aware of their own power to create positive change in that situation. And by learning about the power that you do have the things that you can do, that is a path of empowerment and potentially positive change.

But also too, I think that there are some skills around assessment of whether or not change is possible in an organization because you know, the other answer to that question might be that you are genuinely in a system where you don’t have power, you don’t have control, and you won’t be able to change it.

And then that does turn into, “Okay, well, what do I do next?” But I want us to at least explore on today’s show all of the points of empowerment that you had do have available to you, so that you’re in the driver’s seat here, you’re in the driver’s seat, and that dealing with a difficult co worker doesn’t turn into you needing to make major life changes, including quitting your job or changing your career path. So just putting it all out there on the table.

So you do probably have opportunities to manage this, maybe more than you know, and, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about first because, you know, difficult colleagues are people too. And, you know, might not have guessed it for my musical selection that we opened with, but you know, they’re they’re human, understanding them, understanding their personalities, what is motivating them to behave in the way they are, that also cracks open a lot of options that become actionable, when you consider how those relationships may be managed differently.

So we’re gonna be talking about all of that, and, and hopefully, you’ll find actionable things and new perspectives, and hopefully some compassion for yourself and others along the way. The first thing that we’re going to do is talk about different types of difficult co-workers. Because understanding these types, also informs the action strategies that you may deploy to handle the different types because different personalities and ways of being have different relationship management strategies attached to them.

And so this is also part of the emotional intelligence cluster of skills that you’ve heard me talk about on this podcast in the past. An important component of emotional intelligence is relationship management, which requires empathy and understanding for yourself and for others, but then those management strategies so that you know, you like what to do and behave appropriately in response to different situations. So I’ll refer you back to all of the podcasts and articles we have on our blog on the subject of emotional intelligence for more on that subject, specifically.

But to dive in, let’s just talk about some of these different personalities and things to consider when you’re figuring out, “What do I want to do with this?” So one of the I think most challenging personality styles that can be encountered on the job is the untrustworthy schemer.

The hardest part about this this personality type or way of being is that we don’t often understand that that’s who they are until we have often multiple negative experiences of their scheme-iness, or untrustworthiness, or underhanded way of dealing like, you must need to get burned by these people a number of times before, you’re like, “Ah, okay, I understand I understand what’s happening here.”

But things that you might be looking out for, if you are dealing with an untrustworthy schemer: taking credit for other people’s work, while ensuring that the blame for mistakes fall on others. So being very defensive, kind of critical, blaming other people, but basking in the glow of success that they’re sort of like, yes, I did this actually, that can be a common manifestation of this.

And they can also oftentimes engage in passive aggressive behavior, like being nice to your face, and saying all the right things and really lulling you into this trusting relationship with them while they have ulterior motives, and may be acting in ways that are not being good friends, let’s just say behind your back.

So if you suspect that your coworker falls into this category, an important management and survival strategy will be to honestly document what’s going on, like keeping records of what you’re doing, what your day to day is like, but also, your interactions with them. And I know that this sounds a little bit extreme, but to begin compiling, evidence, and kind of, these are all of the different things that I have experienced with this person on these dates, and this is what they said, and then this is what they did. This kind of documentation can really be an asset in the event that you ever need to meet with a management team about what is happening, because if it’s an isolated event, it’s very easy to sort of blow it off or make excuses as you have probably done with this person yourself.

Like before you really understood what was going on here and be like, “Oh, well, you know, they were just XYZ,” like it’s very natural and normal for nice ethical caring people to give others the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of intentions. And it really like it takes a while to see this build up to think oh gosh.

So to have this will help you in the event, you ever need to take this to supervisors and say I wanted to make you aware of a pattern that I’ve noticed in my relationship with this person, here is how it is impacting me. And I’m seeking your support for how I should deal with this going forward. And also wanted to make you aware of it, because I don’t know if other people on our team could potentially be impacted negatively in the same way that I am.

And so when you if you choose to go to leadership about this, be respectful, be kind, be honest, be talking about yourself, don’t be labeling people don’t be, you know, assuming other things are happening or making demands, it’s just coming from the position of as a business owner or manager, I feel that you have the right to know about how this person is being experienced by other people on the team.

If you have a good boss — and I will refer you back to podcasts that I’ve made about the how to be a good boss, if you’re in that leadership role, and also a podcast about managing up which is really how to be operating in your relationship with your manager or supervisor in a way that is really helpful for them and that helps increase their trust and respect of you. They will really want to know about this because if there’s activity in the teams that they’re responsible for that is negatively impacting people on the team, it could lead to poor performance across the board. It could lead to you know, attrition, people leaving their jobs.

And so like if somebody said that to me and my position I would be incredibly grateful to know about that. But also be very careful about how much you share who you share it with and just assume that what you share is going to be passed on to other people, possibly publicly. And so just be very cautious and conservative in what you share and the way that you share it. And that would be another piece of advice there for you.

But then also, if you understand that the coworker that you have is fundamentally untrustworthy, then you can also act accordingly and adjust what you give them, what you allow them the amount of control or insight they have into your role, then you can begin to think about what boundaries should be in place, if you’re not operating with somebody who has good intentions or who is trustworthy, they lose access in that situation. 

Another personality type that is an unsafe unfortunate, is someone who has a kind of orientation around meanness, like I don’t even know how else to say it. But there is a certain personality type that was probably like that kid in middle school that was just just a mean girl, mean guy. Perhaps even bullied, other people historically, oftentimes, they can be judgmental, gossipy, are very quick to anger and take offense is often a hallmark of this personality type.

Very blaming of others, very defensive, but also do not generally think well of other humans, unless they’re in your like this very little sacred circle of one or two other people, they oftentimes try to create little factions, where they are. They have their little posse that can be part of this dynamic. And so the good thing about this personality type is because I think in this day and age, work requires so much collaboration. Many times, it really does require trusting relationships, positive relationships that are founded on respect and effective communication.

If somebody’s fundamental orientation is towards kind of that negativity, or nastiness, or cynicism or critical illness, they’re going to have a hard time getting ahead, at work, unless they’re really good at hiding. That could be another thing. But anyway. But it’s also the case that sometimes people act one way with their peers at work than they do with leadership. And so because of that, the way this person interacts, maybe with you or with others, isn’t known to leadership until somebody speaks up.

And so if you are dealing with hostility, nastiness, just judgment, like relational interactions that just feel really gross to you. Please, I hope that you take control of your empowerment, and embrace this idea that your leadership has a problem that they might not know about yet. And that this is not your problem to solve.

This is squarely the responsibility of your manager, your supervisor, or the owner of your company is responsible for building effective teams who can play well together, they are also responsible for creating and maintaining a positive culture in the organization, and emotionally safe working environments for everybody on the team.

So to schedule a one on one with them, helping them understand what’s happening, helping them understand how it is impacting your morale. If you do have peers who have been similarly impacted, it could be useful to kind of come in as a block and say, hey, you need to know about this. And you’re not being a tattletale. This isn’t the playground, it is a workspace. And it is a significant problem in an organization if things are happening interpersonally that are impacting, again, performance, morale, making people not want to be on that job anymore. I mean, that’s a real risk for a company. Because if that problem isn’t resolved, and you’re like, “Well, I’m leaving,” you know, you may take be taking years of organizational knowledge with you, you may be somebody that your team really depends on and who is such a fantastic colleague, that they would hate to lose you and so to help them be aware of the factors that feel like they’re pushing you out is really incredibly important.

And so in the meantime, remain neutral. When you do interact with this person, remain polite, keep your side of that fence sparkling clean. So do not meet, you know, weird, grouchy negative meanness with, you know, returned insults on your side? And you’re like, yes. “Okay, John, good to see you, I hope you have a good happy Wednesday,” and like, you know, just leave it there, you don’t have to engage with it at all.

And so the right thing to do is to communicate about what is happening in terms of the organizational dynamics. And if you discover that you are in a workplace where management doesn’t care about creating a respectful, emotionally safe environment, that is information, that is a great reason, actually, to reevaluate whether or not the culture and values of this organization are in alignment with yours and you may start looking at other options.

At that point, I think this to find a good fit in terms of values and cultures is very, very important. And what you will see in healthy, positive organizations is that there is receptiveness to feedback, there is responsiveness that when a manager or leader learns that there is a problem, they take that seriously and start working on how to resolve it. If you get minimized or blown off, or, you know, there’s no follow up plan or no responsiveness, that again, that’s an indication of just the kind of culture that you’re currently in.

And also, hopefully, clarity about, that helps you get more clear about what you really need and want at perhaps a different role in the future. If I had a magic wand and could turn the situation into anything, you know, what would my ideal boss have done in this moment? How would I have felt? What actions would they have taken? How would they have communicated with me? How would we have talked about it? What kind of relationship would I need to have with my boss and able to even feel comfortable having this conversation, then that becomes a new map of the world that can guide your choices going forward that if you decide to look for other positions, those are the leadership qualities you can be looking for, when you’re deciding what kind of situation you want to get into next.

So lots of positives on either side of that, no matter the outcome, if you do this thoughtfully, you can have lots of positive takeaways for yourself. Another thing that drives people crazy, this is so hard, particularly if you are conscientious, responsible, proactive, thoughtful, high achieving, you know, if you’re a really engaged team member who is not just like responsible for doing your work, but like takes pride in that to be in a team where you have coworkers who are literally like not pulling their weight.

That is so enraging. And there can be lots of reasons for this, then it can look like different things, I mean, maybe it’s just pushing their tasks off onto others, or slacking off during group projects. Or maybe they are currently being underutilized while you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Like maybe they are not actually being assigned tasks that’s in alignment with the amount of margin or capacity that they have. And so, and I bring this up, because the reason for their appearance of being dead weight has different strategies.

So if somebody, for example, is not really fully clear on their role compared to the role of others, they may actually be very responsible and conscientious but for whatever reason has come to believe that the right thing to do is delegate certain tasks to other people who maybe aren’t expecting it, or are surprised that that person would feel that those tasks are within their job description.

So sometimes it’s a clarity situation. And again, going to leadership to say, okay, whose job is this and whose job is that can just flip on the lights. And now everybody is on the same page. Oh, actually, that is Diane’s job. Diane, thanks so much for doing that next time. So that could be one outcome. Or if it is somebody who is actually looking for ways to minimize their own workload at the expense of others, they’re not following through or they are letting other people do more of a group project. They are pushing things off not meeting deadlines in ways that are negatively impacting the rest of the team or the outcomes.

Again, sometimes it can be feelings of entitlement, right? And a desire to not actually put that much energy into a job. That is definitely a thing, somebody who’s like, “Yep, I’m here, and I’m going to do my basics. But if it’s requires intense problem solving, or me, you know, really like working hard to figure somebody something out. And I don’t actually care enough to do that,” that could certainly be one one piece of it here.

Another fantastic strategy here is to draw very firm boundaries around your own work, and allow that other person to fail and become increasingly uncomfortable. In systems when one person over functions, it enables somebody else to under function. And so if you are in a group project, or if you have a deliverable, and you say, there you go, and then, you know, allow the project manager or whoever else on the team is responsible for the continued progress of that to notice, oh, we’re still waiting on Jim. You know, that turns up the pressure on Jim kind of shines a light on them, and it makes it their problem, rather than your problems.

So the sooner you can get comfy with just knowing like what your limits are, and stopping there, rather than doing a little bit more starting to help them with their job, you know, you just want to see this project through. So yeah, you know what, I’ll just go ahead and put together that presentation, because you can do it, you’re very confident it would take you 45 minutes, we’ve been waiting for Jim for the last seven days, you know, don’t do that. It increases the pressure on the system, and will facilitate the change that you are seeking. Yeah.

All right. Another challenging personality type that is around is a control freak. And I also have podcasts available on the subject of control freaks, I think I recorded that more around, you know what to do with a control freak in your personal life. But heaven knows they can be around us at work, too. And so one of the things that I have found to be most helpful in understanding what’s going on with these people who are very attached to specific outcomes, and what’s going on, is probably there, they have a lot of anxiety, it can be difficult to have a lot of empathy for people who are trying to control you.

But, you know, if we’re able to back up just a little bit and understand that controlling people usually have this mindset around, bad things will happen. If I don’t, you know, act, if I don’t maintain control, if I’m not vigilant, make sure that XYZ is happening, you know, and it’s stressful for them to be them. Oftentimes and, of course, in a relationship with these people, it feels stressful for you to be around them too, particularly if that spotlight of their anxiety shines on you and whatever you happen to be doing or not doing, or perhaps doing but not up to their standards in the moment, right.

So it is important to first of all, notice their anxiety so that you’re not personalizing it, because then you can manage it more effectively. And here. The you know, the strategy, again, is to be appropriately assertive and kind, but also boundaried. So for example, one really effective strategy for dealing with a controlling coworker is to ask curiosity questions, you know, for example, I mean, this person probably doesn’t think of themselves as controlling their narrative is probably that they are conscientious, they are responsible, they care deeply about outcomes, they have high standards. And so simply stating what you’re noticing and asking questions about that can encourage self awareness.

So like, it seems like you have a lot of strong opinions about the way this should be done. And helped me understand what that’s attached to or what your vision is for this just, you know, help them talk about it. And really, you know, I think one of the best ways of softening somebody with controlling tendencies is to increase their trust in you. A control, a person who is behaving and controlling ways does not trust you or other people to do a good job or follow through unless they make it happen. So by increasing their trust in you, over time, they will settle down, and they know that they won’t have to be vigilant or micromanage you because you’ve shown them time and time again, that they don’t have to be when it comes to you.

Controlling this can manifest in other things. I mean, there can be a hoarding kind of component. So if somebody is maintaining control of aspects of projects or aspects of work, that makes it difficult for you to do their job, can say, I noticed that it seems like rather than, you know, sharing this with me and allowing to do my portion of it, it seems like you have an attachment to doing this work yourself what’s going on there. I mean, I want to be a good team member for you. And this is an awful lot of work for you to do on your own. So what’s up with that?

Because you know, also approaching this with empathy. The other often, in our experience of somebody who has a lot of anxiety that’s manifesting in controlling tendencies is not, you know, that they don’t trust other people to do a good job, but that it also begins to feel like they have to do everything. And so oftentimes, on the inside, they feel incredibly stressed and overwhelmed, because they feel like they have to do everything. And that creates an unsustainably huge workload for them. And so I think the secret fantasy of most controlling people, is that they do have trusted partners who they can, yes, please do. Thank you so much for doing this, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with, in that trusting relationship.

So if you try to have these conversations, and they’re not able to engage with you in positive ways, or if they’re really defensive or kind of hostile, and response, you know, just take that in, don’t, you know, get mean in response, but again, potentially have conversations with your leadership about the things that you’re experiencing, and go to them for help in resolving some of these relational dynamics, you know, is Jill my boss? I feel like she’s really giving me a lot of feedback and guiding my work, assigning me things and telling me how to do things, I thought that we were sort of in a peer relationship, that we’re sort of on the same level of this team just responsible for different aspects of the work. But boss is that also your vision for the way our partnership should look? I just I wanted to take this to you. Because my awareness is that I was going to be taking assignments and directions from you rather than Jill.

But I, you know, again, just wanting to have an open conversation, because again, very important for your leadership to know that if they feel that they are in the authority position over you and over their team, and that they are responsible for what’s happening, it may come to their great surprise, and they might be very interested to know that actually, Jill perceives herself as having a lot of control and is taking over some management functionings of this team or some directing kinds of capacities that are actually not appropriate for her. And so that that turns into a conversation that your leadership can have with Jill to help her know where to stay in her lane, or you know, just have effective conversations about where where Jill stops and you start. So again, going into these with the intention of courageous conversations can have a lot of impact.

Okay, yet another kind of co worker that can be fairly exhausting is somebody who’s like, really competitive and, you know, to say friendly, competition can be healthy and in some kinds of organizations, it can be appropriate. So for example, if you’re in a sales role with other sales people, I mean, that personality is inherently less collaborative, more competitive many times and you know, that’s fine. We’re in different industries, you know, some people with a fire under them are very ambitious, go-getters, competitive, that can be positive in a positive organization.

However, if you’re dealing with a coworker who’s turning everything into a power struggle or a one upmanship you know, it is this subtle but pervasive, sometimes not so subtle experience of they are right and you are wrong, or whatever they’re doing is better and more important than whatever it is that you’re doing. They might get aggressive with you when your “collaborating” or resent you or tried to sabotage you even in small ways when you’re performing well.

And certainly if you’re kind of taking the blame for things that go wrong, you know, that is never healthy for you. So, you know, the core of this personality oftentimes is feeling threatened, feeling insecure. So really competitive people have identity stuff around being at the top of the heap, winning — whatever that means — and can genuinely feel threatened by the success of others.

There’s this mindset around scarcity, like only one person can win. If I am not successful, it means there won’t be enough of the pie left for me. So it’s like almost a survival drive kind of thing. So, because of this core belief, success is scarce, I have to fight for it, I have to take something away from other people in order to have enough for myself, you know that that is a problematic mindset when it comes to functioning well on teams.

A more helpful mindset, of course, is one that is more collaborative, that says we are, this is an organization and we are working together, we will all have more successful outcomes. And we have positive and collaborative working relationships that support each other, you know, going back to that team idea, no “I” in “team,” no, “me” in “band,” right, like we’re doing this as a collective.

But again, if you are working with somebody who, you know, probably from a very early age, it was indoctrinated into them from family of origin experiences, and many, many, many life experiences that shaped them well, before they ever darkened the door of whatever organization it is that you’re in together now, it can be very difficult, if not impossible for you to have the power to change this mindset. Because this, this is an old one, this is a deep one.

And there are also strategies to deal with competitive people, and narcissistic people, frankly, effectively. And first is by just helping them feel safe with you, being generous with them, extending kindness with them, showing them that you are a good teammate that you care about their success.

And really I think being able to do that helps you get back into alignment with, “who do I want to be? How do I want to show up in my working relationships?” And it becomes less of like you reacting in negative ways to them being like, “How can I be the highest and best version of myself in this situation? How can I be emotionally safe for this person? And how can I demonstrate to them that they don’t have anything to fear from me?” 

That can actually go a long way. And just remembering that people are being weird like this because they feel threatened. So if you’re able to do that more consistently, particularly if you are both lucky enough to be in an organization that has core values around collaboration, communication, emotional safety, growth, they can begin to soften over time, particularly to if you have a leadership that supports this way of being.

I will share just an anecdote. You know, I as a business owner, and as a manager, I have worked over the years with a number of people who have sometimes even been traumatized, in past job situations.

And again, like if it’s super old stuff, and if there is a scarcity, like mindset that has been with them their whole lives, you know, being in a different job for a while probably isn’t going to change this. But if you’re dealing with somebody who has learned in past experiences that it is eat or be eaten kind of thing, and have been used to having to kind of fight for things. If they have a foundational life experiences of emotional safety of being valued of having positive relationships with other people in their life, I have seen over time, people can really soften a lot by virtue of the health of the organization that they’re in. So I did just want to share that.

Again, if this is your colleague, and you’re currently being directly negatively impacted by this, you know, being kind, being supportive, being safe can help. And it can also be super helpful for leadership to know like, “Hey, you might want to know this about, Jennifer, this is how she’s showing up with her peers. And I think it’s going to be really important for us organizationally to help her understand that this is a safe space for her that we strive to be collaborative, it seems like she might not trust that so I just wanted to let you know that manager so that you can be supporting her emotional well being on this job.”

Because then it also becomes their problem. Because they start thinking, “Ooh, is this person going to be a good cultural fit? What can I do as a leader to help bring out the best in this person? And what do I need to be paying attention to, as a leader, to know if I need to eliminate this person’s ability to create negative experiences for the other people that I’m responsible for?”

I mean, those are all inner narratives that a good leader should be having. But again, they don’t know what they need to do to support the team unless they’re getting that feedback from you. So do it in positive and constructive ways. It’s really very helpful.

Okay. Now, this is probably the part everybody’s been waiting for. But what do I do if my difficult co-worker is actually my boss? So again, because of the power dynamics here, this one is just by definition more challenging, right. But it’s still not necessarily a deal breaker. I mean, for many of my career coaching clients, learning how to deal with a “difficult boss” turns into a fantastic growth opportunity for them both personally and professionally.

And the key here is really learning how to manage up and developing the ability in yourself to try and have the kind of relationship with your boss, that would facilitate an excellent relationship with somebody who is available to do that with you. And I say it in these terms, because managing up, learning how to manage up and, and handle those relationships with authority figures, there can be so much of our own deep stuff tied up in our automatic assumptions and our habitual ways of being with professional authority figures.

People project all kinds of stuff onto their bosses making assumptions that are oftentimes subconscious. But like, if you had a difficult father, and now your boss is a man who’s about the same age, shape, form, color as your dad was, you know, it’s extremely easy, and I would say even normal, to have subconscious expectations that your boss is going to respond to you in ways that maybe your dad did in childhood, that can be very self limiting and inhibiting and create like a lot of fearfulness.

And like, oh, no, I can’t say that. That might not be true, might not be true. And so again, this is where exploring some of these patterns with an excellent career counselor who has expertise as a licensed therapist to help you unpack these kinds of things. Because wouldn’t it be amazing if your “difficult boss” would love to hear more of your opinions and ideas and would be very receptive to having courageous conversations with you, but that currently, you might have a self limiting mindset around “No, I can’t do this, they would get mad at me, I would be rejected, I would be criticized all these bad things would happen.”

Like, you know, it can be difficult sometimes to sort out what if that is actually a reality based understanding of this person’s capacity to have a relationship with you versus what is my inner narrative when it comes to authority figures in my relationship to them and what I can expect from them that is worth unpacking. It’s worth unpacking, it provides you with insight into yourself. And also, if you do discover it, no, this is actually a legitimately difficult person and I need to tread very cautiously here. That is also something really worth considering thoughtfully to figure out. Okay, how do I deal with this kind of personality?

And so again, learning how to manage up first requires having a reality based understanding of who is my boss as a person? What are their goals? What are their pain points? What are their hopes, what are their fears? And how do I fit into that, you know, what do they want from me? What would help them feel good about their relationship with me versus badly about their relationship with me and what would a win-win outcome look like for both of us?

So, you know, it can sometimes be challenging to have empathy for somebody who is in a power position over us but if you’re able to even do some journaling, talking through things with a good career counselor, and get some insight into what is motivating them and what they’re needing and wanting can help you consider whether or not those things are within your power to provide or have conversations about or perhaps even modify your way of being relationally so that you’re able to talk to them in language that they can understand.

So if you are a very creative person, if you are a socially aware person, if you have lots of ideas, and you know that you’re dealing with somebody who tends to be more technical matter of fact, linear, A to B to C kinds of things, and that they have a lot of internal pressure around making sure that things get done, you know, they might have core values of more vote motivations that are different than yours.

If you’re a creative person, you might not, might not be so much as how it gets done, or if it gets done or when it gets done. But like, what do we need to build in the first place if you have that kind of design oriented mind, but understanding the motivations and kind of in our world of other people, again, ties very much into those emotional intelligence skills, but being able to talk in language that they can understand.

Okay, boss, so what I’m hearing you say is that there’s like, we really need to get this out the door by this date. And it’s been frustrating for you, as we’re kind of doing different iterations of this design, you know, we’re still playing around with different ideas. And you’re starting to get anxious because we need to be like doing something we need to have a deliverable here in three weeks, which I completely understand.

Would it be helpful for you to have some insight from the design team about why we’re being so cautious with this, rather than jumping into just choosing a design, or if you’d like, we could also talk about how much time our team really needs to go through the creative process that’s required, because I know that we both really care about delivering something that has a positive impact and a positive outcome for the company. So it’s not just about creating a marketing campaign, it’s about creating one that leads to XYZ results.

And so we know that what we’re doing with design, what we’re doing with copywriting can significantly impact that outcome that I know, you know, you’re going to be on the line for at the end of the day.

And so, again, being able to have conversations about things that they care about, and acknowledging the things that they care about, while also presenting to them, you know, kind of the way that you see it can can open the door to having very constructive conversations that really bring out the best in both of you. And that positions both of you for operating from your strengths.

So for example, many highly creative people are Roman candles of ideas, and actually benefit enormously from having a strong structured manager who can say, Okay, we need to get this dialed in by this day. So because you know, creative people can keep tinkering with designs for basically ever for somebody to have that hard stop. And here’s what’s going to happen next. And we have to do this, it can be a beautiful partnership. But again, it requires a relationship where there’s mutual value and respect on both sides, right? A good manager doesn’t have a business to manage if the creative team isn’t producing stuff that is actually genuinely impactful.

So they need you too. And so developing that kind of mutual respect. And a beautifully symbiotic relationship would be the goal here. So trying to have those conversations. So again, referring you back to that managing up podcast. But again, you may find that, you know, it’s true, not every boss is a good boss. Many people get promoted to leadership roles in companies because of their skill set. You know, they were good workers. So therefore, they know what they’re doing, they would be a good boss. And it’s important for the people making those decisions to understand that there are personality characteristics, ways of thinking, ways of being that are very, very different than having the technical skills and knowledge to be good at the specific job.

And if there is a disconnect there, it’s going to be very, very difficult for an organization. So if you are in a macro leadership position, thinking about, you know, who to promote to a management position, it isn’t just that they know the software inside and out and everything that needs to happen in the production cycle.

It is, “Do they have the heart of a coach?” Could they take somebody who’s struggling and figure out how to develop that person, can they have courageous conversations with people on their team, about things that need to change in terms of the dynamic, in terms of the relationship, and understand how to manage those effectively, because when we’re talking about healthy organizations, that is one of the fundamentally important roles of a leader, the guy who knows the software back and forth, may or may not be able to do that.

So, again, these are top down kinds of decisions. But if you are, you know, have had the misfortune of being in a place where perhaps the wrong person was promoted to a management role, and now you have to deal with it. You know, it’s also probably true that they’re not actually a horrible person who is sadistic and who takes great enjoyment for mistreating other people. I mean, yes, that can happen on rare occasions.

But, you know, really, most importantly, the reason for that disconnect and frustration, is a failure to understand each other, maybe they were put in a position where they literally don’t have the emotional intelligence and relational skills that are required for them to be an effective leader. And that’s kind of a sad thing, you know, because they probably feel like they’re struggling in their role, and they don’t really understand why. So just to have a little bit of empathy there. And also maybe to be able to recognize, you know, are they under stress? Do they feel like they’re failing in their role they might be, or their own career goals being thwarted?

So, you know, bringing a little bit of empathy into the picture, allows you to then ask the empowering question of, is there anything that I could potentially do to make this situation better? Are they behaving in this way with me, because maybe I’m not meeting their expectations in some way, or I am not communicating effectively with them.

Open the door to that. Mark, I’ve noticed that sometimes they feel like maybe you’re, you’re frustrated with me, or you’re unhappy with the work that I’m doing. I first of all, just wanted to make sure that that isn’t an incorrect assumption on my part, but also just open the door to the possibility that if it is, what needs to change on my side of the street in order to help you get more of what you’re wanting and needing out of this relationship. After all, you know, I am your employee, and you are my leader. And so my role is to be taking direction from you. And if I’m, you know, not understanding your intentions, or your hopes for my work, please provide me with that feedback.

Because you know, what, there could potentially be things that maybe Mark doesn’t know how to talk about with you, but that are actually pain points from him. And so you getting that feedback could potentially be a growth moment for your own career, but you know, you might have a boss who honestly needs support in broaching that conversation courageously, right?

And so if that isn’t what is going on, and if it is somebody who you come to over time, realize, for whatever reason, is not going to be able to have a positive relationship with you, if they have a very critical communication style, if they are inflexible, if they are not able or willing to take your feedback, or be responsive to your feedback, or operate as an effective leader in terms of supporting you with some of these difficult dynamics.

Certainly, you know, first of all, you need to try, like test that out. Is this actually true? Or am I telling myself that this is true because of my own stuff, right? So do that first. But if you learn that you cannot have a positive relationship with this person, and they’re not able to learn and grow with you in order to improve in this area, you know, it’s probably a good idea to just go ahead and call that sooner than later. So I hope that that feels empowering for you as well.

Okay, so much stuff in today’s podcast. I hope you found some ideas that are helpful and useful for you here. And if you try any of them, I will be so interested to hear the outcomes. You’re welcome to get in touch with me on social media, you can track me down. And of course, all of the articles and other podcasts I referenced today are available for you on our website, growingself.com. Find the blog and podcast and the success collection. And then from there, you’ll look for emotional intelligence at work and also emotional wellness at work.

All right, you guys. Take care and I’ll talk to you next time.


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