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How to deal with a difficult coworker

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

Reviewed by Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

At a glance

This article was updated on December 4, 2023.

For many, the most rewarding part of a job are the diverse personalities that come to work every day. Research has shown that bonding with co-workers is integral to developing workplace social capital, a resource linked to job satisfaction and career success.

But what happens when you encounter difficult co-workers while trying to slay your career objectives?

Maybe your boss is a narcissist. Or Phil from Accounts Receivable never returns your emails. Or Sharon in Legal turns every meeting into a tense negotiation.

Mastering the workplace skills needed to navigate these career challenges is part of every job. So, we sat down with Sarah Rodriguez, a Senior Human Resources Business Partner at University of Phoenix (UOPX), to compile a list of proven strategies to help you handle yourself, even when dealing with difficult people at work. 


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How to deal with a difficult co-worker (while keeping your cool)

1. Create and respect your personal boundaries

Knowing and enforcing your professional limits is crucial for maintaining a healthy work-life balance while protecting your overall well-being. Employees with clear boundaries can preserve their time, energy and mental health, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction.

Without boundaries, work can easily spill over into personal time and cause burnout or resentment. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, overworking leads to decreased performance and employee health problems, like depression, excessive drinking and even a decline in cognitive function.

If you’ve never considered your workplace boundaries, where do you start? “Healthy boundaries start with having an awareness of your values and what’s going to help you work most effectively,” Rodriguez says.

This can look many different ways, such as:

  • Not checking emails after hours and on the weekends.
  • Taking your PTO, sick and mental health days.
  • Not feeling obligated to participate in optional after-hours social activities.
  • Setting your working hours (and sticking to them).
  • Keeping relationships professional.
  • Declining unnecessary meetings.
  • Delegating work when necessary.

And remember, your career and personal life are constantly evolving, so your boundaries should too. Covering extra shifts for a flakey co-worker could be something you do early in your career but less so when you have children to pick up from school or more responsibilities in the office. 

2. Practice thoughtful communication early and often

Second only to knowing your boundaries is being able to communicate them. Perhaps the most important word in your vocabulary to practice is “no.” It’s impossible to say yes to every request and do everything well (especially if you want to preserve your sanity).

Practicing a thoughtful and professional way to decline excess demands while respecting your boundaries is critical. But sometimes that’s easier said than done — especially when dealing with a difficult co-worker. According to Indeed.com, most workplace conflicts arise due to ineffective communication tactics, which leads to misunderstandings. 

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“The first part of a good communication strategy for dealing with anyone who seems unpleasant, rude or unfriendly is to pause and think about the situation and your role, their role, and any potential environmental factors contributing [to the situation],” Rodriguez says. “Moving from reactive, automatic thinking to more thoughtful, rational thinking allows us to challenge our biases and assumptions, more accurately assess the situation, and find solutions.”

3. Avoid gossip and other toxic behaviors

Even as our workplaces become ever more virtual, office gossip still exists. In the moment, indulging in a juicy exchange may seem fun, even a way to bond with colleagues. But office gossip has such serious negative consequences on office morale and productivity that many companies have outlined formal policies restricting gossip behavior.

According to Rodriguez, a harmful workplace behavior she observes more often is employees thinking the worst about each other, or “assuming malicious intent.”

“For example, if I’m really short with someone in a meeting, I might explain my behavior as I was busy and needed to get to the point,” Rodriguez explains. “On the other hand, if someone’s short with me, I’ll judge that they’re rude, which will sour my impression of them. Empathy and self-awareness are key to navigating and building healthy relationships in the workplace.”

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4. Involve a supervisor or HR when appropriate

Often, it’s possible to deal with a difficult co-worker without involving supervisors or HR, but you shouldn't always.

“When behavior passes into ethical or legal territory, don’t hesitate to involve a supervisor or HR,” Rodriguez advises.

Examples of situations where you should involve a supervisor or HR include experiencing or witnessing signs of violence, harassment, discrimination or retaliation. Another instance when it’s time to ask for help? Experiencing or witnessing illegal activities.

And if your difficult co-worker is your supervisor, it’s also a good idea to ask for help. “Managing up is trickier,” concedes Rodriguez. “Consider looping in HR to walk through strategies, or you might want to work with a higher-level supervisor.”

5. Level up your soft skills

Every job requires both workplace and technical skills for an individual to be successful. While it’s the technical skills that may get you hired, it’s the soft skills that will determine career resilience and promotional potential.

Soft, or workplace, skills are behaviors and traits such as effective communication, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution and teamwork.

“Anyone looking to work more effectively with people of different personalities should invest in their professional development,” advises Rodriguez.

And you don’t need to wait until HR sends you an email about a communication webinar; opportunities to self-train abound. Rodriguez recommends a few easy ways to get started, such as listening to podcasts like How to Be Awesome at Your Job and reading business books. (Radical Candor by Kim Scott is her current fave.)

There is also zero and low-cost training available on platforms such as LinkedIn that can empower employees to vocalize their boundaries.

Rodriguez adds: “We play a role in our own experience in the workplace. That’s not to say that we’re responsible for people’s poor behavior towards us. But the more we educate ourselves and upskill ourselves in those areas, the better we will handle those difficult situations.”

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Portrait of Claire O'Brien

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Claire O’Brien has led copywriting teams for Hilton Worldwide Corporate’s creative studio and advertising agencies specializing in the real estate, hospitality, education and travel industries. In 2020, she founded More Better Words, a boutique copywriting agency that taps into her global connections. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs.

 

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