Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
20 Apr 2015

How to handle difficult work colleagues

20 Apr 2015 • by Changeboard Team

What is a difficult colleague?

It is likely that at some time in our working lives, we will encounter problems with our co-workers. We may find our fellow colleagues tricky to get along with for a number of reasons, such as clash of personalities or perhaps they are disorganised and rarely listen to other members in the team.

Often, these are minor issues that can easily be ignored or accommodated but sometimes the problem can escalate and it can impact upon us in a way that directly affects our ability to get things done.

In these instances, steps will need to be taken to resolve the situation, but one should consider carefully how best to deal with it first before taking action.

When should I take action?

We may find the behaviour of other people irritating or downright annoying, but as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work or compromise your organisational effectiveness then it can sometimes be best to let the problem go and accept the situation.

However, if the behaviour is affecting you or your colleagues directly, you may benefit from taking action.

Remain calm

Even if your colleague has said or done something that you consider reprehensible, there’s nothing to be gained from losing your temper. In fact it’s likely to make things worse for you so stay calm and in control of your emotions.

If you’re struggling to keep your emotions in check, you may need to pick another time to raise the issue when you feel calmer but, if that is not possible, try counting to ten and then re-focusing on the situation.

Try to empathize with the other person

If you’re struggling to get on with someone, it can be difficult to understand how they are feeling but empathising with the other person, can help reduce the emotional intensity or feelings of hostility towards the individual.

There is usually an intention behind their behaviour as it’s rare for someone to be difficult just for the sake of it. Consider whether their behaviour is driven by positive intentions but poor execution.

Keep things in perspective

When emotions are running high, it’s easy to blow such situations out of proportion, which will serve no purpose at all. One way to maintain a balanced view is to have a chat with some of your other colleagues to see what their perception of that person may be.

It could be that they have a different perspective on the situation or, if they agree with you, perhaps they will be able to add something to help you understand their behaviour. If you’re new to the workplace, they may even have useful advice on the best way to deal with the person in question.

Speak to the person directly

Although this sounds obvious, many people dislike any situation that could be considered potentially confrontational and therefore avoid it at all costs. This will, of course, solve nothing.

You simply have to steel yourself, take a deep breath and go to speak with the person (nine times out of ten it won’t be as bad as you think it will be and often it will improve your working relationship immeasurably).

Explain your own position clearly

As mentioned above, the difficult colleague may not realise the impact that their behaviour is having on you and, when speaking to them, you need to make this clear.

Avoid making any statements that are emotive and could lead to an argumentative situation developing. For example: “How dare you stroll in late for the client meeting – what were you thinking about?” is clearly an emotional and highly fraught statement.

Instead, select a more neutral tone when speaking to them. Firstly, clearly identify the behaviour in question. Explaining how you feel about it in a tone that is neutral will help the other person to understand your position and your needs and can then lead to a more productive dialogue.

For example: “When you arrive late for the client meeting it makes me anxious. I need to feel relaxed and in control so that that we will look as professional as possible.“

This is not an attack on the person but a clear signal about how their behaviour is affecting you.

Explore solutions

In most cases, a calm approach will create the opportunity for discussion about how the situation can be rectified or avoided in the future. Again, the most important thing for you to do is to remain in control and state your case clearly and firmly.

Treat the person with respect

Whether they are junior or senior in position to you, no one responds well to being labeled negatively as useless, incompetent or stupid, for example. This method would lead to a far worse situation as, if you disrespect the other person, then it is likely that they will treat you the same way.

Take it to the next level

If, after trying all the steps laid out above, your actions prove fruitless or the person simply refuses to accept that their behaviour is causing problems, then the only option open to you is to take it to the next level and raise it with your manager.

For your own peace of mind, reassure yourself that this is the final course of action as you will have tried to do all you can to resolve the difficulties before turning to management for help.