How do I Deal with a Difficult Colleague?

wiseGEEK Writer

Dealing with a difficult colleague can be truly miserable, and there are many ways in which colleagues can behave that might pose challenges. In nearly all scenarios where a colleague is difficult, it isn’t really possible to change the colleague’s behavior, but it may be possible to diffuse it through personal behavior changes. These include trying to understand the colleague’s perspective, making boundaries clear, learning when to refuse, and if necessary, gaining administrative help to stop behavior that is unethical or illegal.

Colleagues with poor hygiene can be difficult to be around.
Colleagues with poor hygiene can be difficult to be around.

People may be so overwhelmed with their annoyance at a difficult colleague that they may not see their own part in the equation of a bad work relationship. They may want to “talk to” the colleague so much that they forget to “listen to” that colleague. It’s easy to demonize another person and fail to acknowledge that they may have good points or might be right some of the time. This is why it is important to try to gain some perspective by understanding the colleague, by practicing a nonjudgmental listening attitude.

Bonding with a difficult colleague may help a person gain a new perspective.
Bonding with a difficult colleague may help a person gain a new perspective.

With curiosity, and by setting aside judgment, people might ask themselves, “What does this person need, and how do they think?” Occasionally, answers to these questions point the way toward working with the person in the future. It is not necessary to take this stance if a colleague is threatening, discriminatory or abusive, but if he or she is merely annoying, it’s worth considering what that says about the colleague and oneself.

Once some perspective is gained and a better understanding of the difficult colleague is achieved, people also have to look at how they themselves contribute to poor relationships. Very often, relationships deteriorate because people don’t know how to set clear boundaries on how they allow others to treat them. Boundary setting is not about screaming at people who violate limits. Instead, it is about setting clear personal limits and consequences if limits are violated.

Setting boundaries is related to being able to refuse, and many people feel that if they say no to things, they’re immediately acting negatively. A number of books are written on this topic, but perhaps one of the best is William Ury’s The Power of a Positive No. Ury’s book and others like it can help people learn how to confidently refuse, thus diminishing the power of the difficult colleague.

There is a difference between a difficult colleague and one who acts in illegal, harassing or threatening ways. This second group of colleagues is not likely to respond to limit setting, saying no, and greater understanding. When a fellow employee acts in this manner, it’s always important to involve administration. All workers have a right to freedom from working with anyone who threatens or harasses them, and management must take all steps to correct this behavior or fire the employee.

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Discussion Comments


I work with someone who makes a lot of sarcastic comments, always insisting I am never busy and wishes bad things upon me daily.

But, as soon as a manager asks, he says I'm too good for this place and I am being wasted. He tells me to leave on a daily basis and that I could find a better job easily.

He refuses to update anything, and still uses a Windows 2000 pc even though he has been offered a new one. No new procedures can be brought in because he is negative about them working.

I have tried thinking the same way as he does, but it is impossible. The company says they want to get rid of him but he's been working here so long now (over 10 years) that it's just not that easy. Any ideas?


Could it be that the difficult person in your life is just plain clueless about his effect on you?

If someone in your office runs over everyone in his path, could it be that he just has a diminished capacity to care about other peoples' feelings?

I find that my difficult person truly believes that she is special and above others, and feels she doesn't have to live by the same rules everyone else does.

I have so often tried to change my automatic responses with difficult people. After all, I can only change what I do and say. And hope that one day she will look inside at herself instead of blaming everyone else for her problems and the chaos surrounding her.


It's inevitable to eventually run into difficult coworkers at the office. Dealing with a button pusher is a real challenge when it seems all he or she wants to do is rile you up.

Does it make them feel more powerful? Does it give them some perverse pleasure to see others squirm?

I'm no psychologist but after working with a difficult person for years, I'd dare say this person is stuck at a very immature level, never seeing himself as the problem, continuing to point the finger at others.

Working with this kind of person is like dancing without knowing any of the steps. I think the more we learn about difficult people in general, the better off we'll be when we have to deal with them on a daily basis.

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