How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

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By Maureen Robb on April 23, 2018

Is someone at work making your life difficult?

If so, you’re not alone.

Every workplace seems to have its difficult co-workers, bosses or customers. And they come in all varieties.

When trying to cope, it can help to understand the human dynamics of a situation. The inescapable fact is that any time two people are together, there’s potential for conflict.

Personality Styles Differ

“Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses,” said Robert Trestman, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Carilion Clinic. “There is no such thing as a perfect person, and it’s also rare that any one person is totally in the right or in the wrong. It’s more a question of personality differences.”

That said, there are personality styles that are more apt to provoke.

“Some people are perceived to be difficult because they are very direct and outspoken, and our culture doesn’t always respond well to that style,” said Dr. Trestman. “In the midwest or south, for instance, that style can be seen as confrontational and make people uncomfortable.”

Others are passive-aggressive and indirectly display hostility by being sullen, procrastinating or engaging in subtle insults.

“Some people just have a nasty streak,” Dr. Trestman added.

Then there are those who like to stir the pot and may say things to pit one person against another just to create a little chaos.

“Another type can be almost sociopathic, but in a skillful way,” noted Dr. Trestman. “It can be very hard to pin them down. All of these can undermine an effective team.”

Taking Action

How to deal with these challenging types?

 A basic remedy can be used for each.

“In general, it always pays to be very upfront,” said Dr. Trestman. “When people are causing disruption, for whatever reason, gather as much information as possible about their behavior.”

If you are their supervisor, he suggests:

  • Meet with the person and discuss the concern
  • Be concrete about their problem behaviors
  • Lay out your specific expectations
  • Give them guidance as to preferred behaviors
  • Offer them an opportunity to practice the new behaviors
  • Do all this with a reasonable amount of sensitivity so the person can grow from the experience
  • Create a culture that rewards the results of collaboration

If you’re dealing with a person who is almost pathologically undermining others, be sure to set boundaries for them. Set specific performance expectations and protocols to follow.

“These are the kind of folks who can create a hostile work environment, or situations that can escalate dramatically and cause legal difficulties,” said Dr. Trestman. “You may want to get Human Resources involved sooner rather than later.”

Approaching a Colleague

If you are a colleague or peer of a difficult co-worker, you have similar recourses.

“The normal human tendency is just to try and get along, but that can undermine your ability to work as a team,” Dr. Trestman pointed out.

If you must rely on each other, say as part of a health care or legal team, it can create problems.

Here are steps to take:

  • Gather up your courage and approach the other person in a non-confrontational way
  • Tell them what specific things they are doing that make life difficult for you
  • If he (or she) denies it, say “This is how I perceive what you’re doing.”
  • Ask if there’s anything you’re doing that they perceive negatively
  • If you don’t get anywhere, go to your supervisor or HR

Coping Skills

If you’re now trying to decide how to deal with a difficult person at work, make sure you also take good care of yourself.

To help you cope, take time to:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat well
  • Exercise
  • Engage in stress-relieving activities

“All the little things at work can become magnified if we’re not taking good care of ourselves,” Dr. Trestman said.  

What to do if someone is truly making it hard to do your job or advance and all remedies fail?

“You may want to consider getting a new job,” he advised.

And if possible, try to find whatever humor you can in the situation. Humor is a great antidote to stress.

As the old saying goes:

"Sometimes I think the whole world is crazy except me and thee, and at times I suspect even thee."

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