Five simple strategies to deal with difficult co-workers

Do you struggle with a difficult co-worker? Someone who seems to have a problem with you, and just wants to make your life hard? Read five simple strategies to deal with them.

You can choose your friends, but generally (unless you make the rather drastic decision to quit) you’re stuck with your co-workers.

Hopefully, your colleagues and managers are reasonable, even nice people. But what if they’re not? It’s not easy to avoid someone who works at the next desk, or you need to communicate with as part of your job. So instead, you need a strategy to try to manage them, and hopefully even get them onside.

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Five simple strategies to deal with difficult co-workers

To help you tame antisocial colleagues, we’ve got some five simple strategies for you. These tips might not work all the time (there will still probably be times when irritating co-workers get on your nerves) but they should hopefully make it easier for you to cope with them on a daily basis.

1) Find out what their problem is

Before attempting to deal with a colleague who’s annoying, try to figure out what’s really troubling them. You may find there’s more to their unpleasantness than you realised.

For example, is there a pattern to their behaviour? Are there any specific things that seem to trigger them off, or particular things they say or focus on? Do they start behaving in a certain way only in some situations, or around the same people? These questions can help you get at the root of the problem.

If they seem to have a problem with just you, could you have offended them in some way, without realising it? Are they perhaps jealous of you? Or are they struggling with personal problems that are spilling into their work life (you can read tips on how to deal with this here)?

Whatever the reason is, try to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they’re just difficult, and instead see if you can find out why. A bit of understanding and appropriate response to whatever the cause of their unpleasantness can make a huge difference to the atmosphere at work.

2) See if you can fix whatever is wrong

If you think you’ve identified the cause of your colleague’s behaviour, the next thing to consider is whether you can ‘fix’ it.

If it’s something you’re doing that is irritating them, for example, can you avoid doing it around them? If the problem is a bit more complicated, or if there’s a misunderstanding involved, it may be a good idea to have a one-to-one chat to try to clear the air or find a solution together.

Depending on the issue, you may want to mention the things that are bothering you half-jokingly, during a break, without making a big deal out of it.

If the problem is more serious, or personal, don’t discuss it in front of others. Instead, speak to them privately. If your co-worker is a bully, it may be difficult to get the message across at first, but it’s better to talk to them, rather than lash out during random conversations when other people are present, and risking looking like a bully yourself.

If the cause of their behaviour isn’t something you can fix, then you need to try to let it go – stressing about something beyond your control isn’t healthy, and won’t help anyone. (You can read a simple, four-step technique to letting go of worries here.)

Try to make peace with the fact that there will always be people who just don’t click. There are probably some people you don’t like either. And that’s fine. Having a difficult relationship with one co-worker or another doesn’t say anything about you as a person.

3) Talk about it

If trying to ignore a difficult colleague isn’t working, and the situation is really getting you down, you need to talk to someone.

If you’ve tried to have a reasonable conversation with your colleague but it’s not helped, confide in another a co-worker you trust, or who may be in a similar situation. Be as objective about the situation as possible when discussing the issues, and focus on solutions, rather than your feelings of frustration and anger – venting your rage will only amplify your feelings.

If the situation is affecting your work and your emotional wellbeing, you may also want to approach your manager or HR department and ask for help. You might even find you’re not the only one with an issue with this person.

4) Laugh and move on

A final option is just to block out the negative behavior altogether. Blocking them out doesn’t mean ignoring them – anyone who has ever tried to apply that piece of advice knows how difficult it is, especially when it’s someone you have to spend eight hours a day with!

If your difficult co-worker has a tendency to poke fun at you, you can try turning the tables. Make it seem like it’s just lighthearted fun, or pretend you don’t understand.

Half the fun in making jokes at the expense of someone else is seeing them get annoyed. If you act as if you didn’t get the joke, your colleague will just become more and more frustrated, and look for new ways to push your buttons. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

Blocking your co-worker’s bad behavior basically means not letting them reach their goal, and making sure that you stay in control.

So if, for example, they like stealing your food, ask them as sincerely as possible if they would like it if your brought some for them as well. Or just bring an extra serving, and leave it in the fridge with their name on it. The prank’s not going to work anymore if you just roll with.

5) Keep it professional

If all else fails, just go back to keeping a cool, distant and professional relationship. Don’t react to their poking and prodding, just focus on your job, and encourage them to do the same.

If you can’t have a nice relationship with them, but are forced to maintain a professional one, stick to that. It would certainly be much nicer for both of you if you could find a way to connect, but you can’t force it if it doesn’t happen naturally.

Eventually, they’re going to tire themselves out, and you won’t have to worry about their difficult behaviour. You need to focus on your job anyway, and staying on track with your work can be a great way to keep yourself distracted from your difficult co-worker.

Why being happy is the ultimate revenge

Having to deal with a difficult person on a daily basis can be an extremely stressful experience. You probably feel like you’re trapped, and there’s not a lot you can do about it, if the advice above doesn’t resolve the situation.

But you can take solace in the fact that a happy person doesn’t make others unhappy. So if a colleague is causing you angst, it’s a good indication they’re pretty miserable themselves.

You can’t change their misery, but you can focus on making the rest of your life happy. So be thankful for the people and gifts in your own life, and enjoy your time away from work. Being clearly happy, despite their best efforts, is the best possible revenge!

Need more advice on toxic colleagues?

You can read more tips to help you deal with toxic people here:

Mike Jones is a Boston University graduate, with an MS in Mass Communication. He is now a full-time writer, passionate about everything related to business and career development. He sometimes writes for CustomerSurveyReport.