Dealing with Difficult People at Work

A spiral notepad with 1:1 meeting notes on a white desk next to a computer

If you’ve ever worked in an office, chances are you’ve had to work with difficult people. 

Difficult coworkers have always existed in the office environment. But the modern workplace has brought on additional stress to our professional relationships.

From the lack of privacy options in an open office layout to the feeling of being “on call”  on Slack and email, not to mention all the deadlines and the pressure to perform, it’s only natural for office dynamics to feel more strained and fraught than ever before. 

Learning how to handle difficult coworkers is a skill that you will need in any job or field. Here are some tips and solutions for dealing with difficult coworkers so that you can hopefully spend less time and energy on interpersonal challenges and get back to focusing on your work

The micromanager

Whether they’re your direct supervisor or a fellow team member, a micromanager can make office life very frustrating. Whereas a good boss trusts you to do your job and is generally hands-off when it comes to your day-to-day work, a micromanager is constantly looking over your shoulder.

A micromanagement style can also undercut your self-confidence and make you start questioning your abilities. Does this person not think that I’m competent? Do they think I’m not good enough to do the job?

Assess: Is the micromanager constantly scrutinizing your work? Or are they exhibiting this behavior during certain times of the year? For example, if your office has a big project launch or event coming up, the micromanaging could be a result of the stress and pressure that they’re experiencing.

Also, is the micromanager new to the office or in their role? They could be harboring doubt or insecurity about their new responsibilities and overcompensating with their behavior. 

Another thing to do is to assess your own work. Admittedly, this part is always hard. After all, it’s never easy to take a look at our own work or attitude and see where we’re falling short. But do you think the micromanager is harping on details because things have fallen through the cracks in the past? Take an honest look at your work and see if there’s a way that you can improve. 

Solution: One way to address a micromanager is to ask for feedback. Perhaps you could bring this up at your next one-on-one meeting or performance review. This way, you’re not torturing yourself wondering about all the reasons why your manager is on your case all the time. If the micromanager brings up concrete, specific areas that you can work on, then shore up those areas and see if the micromanaging reduces. 

Or, if a one-on-one meeting doesn’t seem likely, see if you can create some formal channels of communication. For example, if your manager is regularly stopping by your desk to get an update, you can say something like, “How about I email you a status report at the end of the day or week?” or “Because the project has so many details and moving parts, I’ll be able to give you a better picture at the end of the week.” 

This way, you’ll be more productive and able to work freely, and your manager will feel like they’re staying in the loop.

The negative naysayer

Whether it’s constantly complaining or saying no to everyone’s ideas, the negative naysayer can feel like a dark cloud hanging over any office.

Assess: Is your coworker going through a rough patch at work or at home? Is there a way to sensitively approach them and ask how things are going with them? You don't have to pry into their personal life; a simple, sincere "how are you doing?" can go a long way.

Or, see if you can spot any patterns to their negativity. Maybe they’re always complaining about how people never submit expense reports on time or clean up the office pantry. By taking a moment to actively listen, perhaps you’ll be able to come up with an easy remedy for their grievances. 

Solution: Sometimes, negative people at the office don’t even realize that they are being negative; it’s just a part of their nature. And as the saying goes, you can’t change other people, you can only change how you react to them. 

Perhaps the solution can be a change to your work environment. Maybe you can put in a request to relocate to a different cubicle. Or maybe you can listen to music or wear headphones when they’re on a negative rant. Or if they come over to you to complain, you can simply tell them that you have a deadline that needs your attention and you'd like to talk later.

If the issue is that the negative coworker is always rejecting your ideas or citing all the reasons it wouldn’t work, maybe you can team up with a colleague who can lend their support in meetings and positively reinforce you.

If these options don’t seem to work, you can firmly, but diplomatically say something to the effect of “I’m really excited about this idea and would appreciate it if you could listen before making a decision.”

The un-team player

Our founder Kate Matsudaira offers a helpful look on how to manage an un-team player in this blog post. Perhaps this coworker isn’t pulling their weight or shifting their work onto others, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to manage a project that requires everyone’s equal participation. 

Assess: Is everyone’s roles and responsibilities clear? Does this coworker have a different set of expectations from you? Is there a chance that the coworker already has a lot on their plate?

People frequently withdraw from teams due to their own internal fears or expectations of how something will go. For example: they think they'll be talked over, so they don't speak up. Or they think they'll end up having to do other people's work at the last minute, so they try to avoid team meetings.

Solution: Kate recommends giving credit and praise regularly. Use status emails and meetings to recognize everyone’s hard work and contributions. Positive reinforcement can go a long way toward making someone feel appreciated, and it will light a fire within them to continue doing good work. We all need encouragement to help motivate us to do our best.

Office dynamics won’t change overnight, but hopefully you’ll feel more confident and composed with these interactions moving forward. But if you’re finding that modifying your communication and environment aren’t improving the situation, then it’s time to raise the issue with a manager or HR focal point who can step in.

And remember: take time for yourself. Office interactions can be emotionally and physically draining. Little things like shutting off your laptop at a certain hour or going for a walk after work can go a long way towards helping you decompress and clear your mind from the stresses of the day.

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