5 Ways to Handle a Difficult Colleague

"Shiny, happy people holding hands" — R.E.M.

office colleagues
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We all have them — those people who make going to work a real displeasure. Every company has at least one and you are guaranteed them no matter where you go. Since we tend to spend more time with our colleagues than with our friends and family, workplace pressures are considerable enough without the compounded pressure of dealing with unlikeable people.

Given that we cannot change the fact that they exist, the best thing that we can do is learn how to best work with them and reduce their impact upon us.

Don't Panic!

Understand that difficult colleagues are a part of life and unfortunately part of your corporate environment. Take it in your stride and don't expect it to be any different. Acceptance is healthy and calming. I like to think, "Hey, these cranky people just make me look better!"

Don't Get Too Involved

You don't have to be friends with everyone at the office. Always be polite, courteous and approachable, sure. But not everyone will be your BFF. Keep a polite distance from the colleague in question to avoid getting involved in their negativity.

Cultivate Understanding

Compassion is the cornerstone of a happy life. Without getting close, think to yourself, why is it that this person always so erratic/angry/rude/fill in the blank? Perhaps they are going through some personal issues you know nothing about. If you work closely with them and want to address it, try mirroring to the person your observation, such as, "I have noticed you are a little tense today. What is wrong?" Based on the answer perhaps you will eliminate some of the tension. Remember that difficult people are often unhappy people.

Set Boundaries

If your role requires that you work closely with this person, keep the relationship professional. Boundary setting means focusing on the work or project in question without getting involved in any unnecessary drama. If the conversation veers to sh*t talk, complaining or resistance, a polite and firm, "it will be great just to get through this — let's stay focused" will suffice. It is not your job to please, help improve or change other people.

Learn Something

When we do not get emotionally involved in a situation, we can take the objective position of an observer. Use the difficult task of working alongside a problematic colleague as a learning experience. Problematic colleagues teach us something — patience, forgiveness, or even tolerance. Use this experience to your advantage and gain something from it.

At the end of the day, you can't change the person. All you can do it adjust your attitude.


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Susie Moore