How to Deal With a Difficult Colleague

How to Deal With a Difficult Colleague


Difficult colleagues can be the bane of our existence in the workplace. And we're not just talking about those coworkers who will swipe your sandwich from the fridge without a second thought (though they're truly monsters) we're also talking about the more day to day difficulties with colleagues that prevent you from doing a good job.

These are the people who don't seem to pull their weight where teamwork is required, miss deadlines that can affect your work and always seem to have a negative answer for everything to name just a few of these toxic traits.

The bad news is that you're going to find difficult colleagues in almost every workplace on earth, but what's the best way to deal with them without making the situation worse?

What are your options and how to handle it?

Try to understand why a colleague is behaving a certain way

You might jump to the conclusion that a colleague is demotivated or not working hard because they're just lazy, but there might be an underlying cause you could help rectify.

How to handle it?

Start by initiating an informal conversation with your coworker and see if you can lend a helping hand. If they're demotivated try and find out why. Point them in the direction of opportunities for improvements and new challenges in the office, maybe you could help meet their needs and become a better colleague because of it.

If their behaviour is not work related but a personality trait that makes you feel uncomfortable, an informal chat is still the best first action to take. Often people aren't aware of the effects their actions have on other people and a friendly, casual conversation can clear the air, solving the problem there and then.

Follow up with your colleague after your initial discussion

Try not to neglect the relationship with your difficult colleague after your first conversation, continuing to help them out could pay dividends.

How to handle it?

Assess their behaviour after a few weeks or months following your conversation. Have things improved, gotten worse or stayed the same? If things have gotten better, catch up with your colleagues and let them know, give credit where credit is due.

If things haven't improved or have gotten worse, try to speak to them informally again. Keep working on the relationship before jumping straight to escalation routes.

Raise the issue with your manager or the manager of your difficult coworker

Sometimes talking directly with your colleague won't always resolve an issue and raising it with your manager is a legitimate next step.

How to handle it?

Do this diplomatically. You've likely spoken to your difficult coworker already and they'll be aware of your concerns. Phrase your escalation as an opportunity for a manager to mediate in a dispute, or if your manager is not suitable, then a neutral party can help reach a compromise between you and your coworker. This mediation can also help set clear expectations of each party.

If this fails, try to ignore or avoid the coworker if possible

If you've found none of your approaches are bearing any fruit, you could always try to ignore them.

How to handle it?

This is only possible in those situations where you don't always have to work directly with a certain colleague or their work doesn't have a direct impact on yours. While not ideal, if they're not affecting your work you can simply ignore them. However, if the colleague works directly in your team or you're reliant on their work to complete teamwork, then this just isn't going to be an option for you.

If this is the case, you could always request a transfer to another team within the organisation, but chances are you may find yourself with another difficult coworker wherever you go. We always recommend trying to deal with the root of the issue first.

What to Avoid

Don't be aggressive

As with approaching difficult bosses, don't aggressively confront the difficult colleague. This is unprofessional and can often make the situation worse.

Don't gossip

Gossiping about your difficult coworker could get you lumbered with the same title. While you might think it's good to vent your frustrations you don't know how everyone else feels about the colleague you personally find difficult, they may actually see you as the cause of the issue.

Don't take their actions personally

Try as you might you're not going to be friends with everyone in the workplace. Some people will always keep a professional distance and will act regardless of your personal feelings. In these cases, don't take things personally, just stay focused on your own work and doing the best job you can.

When is it time to escalate?

If you feel you're not getting any traction with your colleague after a few conversations then this is a good time to escalate to you direct manager. They're ultimately responsible for the cohesion in their team and should do their utmost to resolve the situation. Failing that, they'll be the ones who will direct any additional actions or meditation with the HR team.

Only escalate in those situations you've exhausted those options where you've tried dealing directly with your colleague.

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