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How to Deal with Difficult Colleagues

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Every workplace has at least one challenging colleague.  You know the one, they’re the guy or girl you don’t want to have to sit next to or the person you hope isn’t on your project team.  They can be whiny, bullish, rude or disinterested. Knowing the antidote is key to implementing successful relationship first aid.  If you’re struggling with a difficult colleague, here are five treatment tips for your workplace survival kit.

Within Agencies, this happens more often than you’d think.

Remember – No-One’s Perfect

When you’re on the receiving end of a curt response, it’s easy to forget that everyone has bad days.  If the individual you’re dealing with is not usually so abrupt, either ignore the incident and walk away or disarm them using nothing but your charm.

Let them know you realise they’re not normally so short with you and ask if they’re ok.  Expressing your concern is likely to diffuse the situation and get them to open up and apologise.  If they’re having a really bad day, be prepared for tears and get ready to listen.

Use Social Pressure to Get People to Conform

Some people have about as much self-awareness as a goldfish and may not appreciate they’re doing something that upsets or annoys others.  They often have thick skin so you’re unlikely to upset them by dealing with incidents in public as they happen.

Tackle minor infractions – like constantly talking over others – by drawing attention to their behaviour with an off-the-cuff remark.  Deliver your, “I didn’t quite hear what you were saying” line to the original speaker, with a knowing smile.  Catch the eye of the interrupter and other colleagues to include them in the joke.  Gentle social reproof can work wonders.

If this doesn’t work, try confronting the issue head on with them privately.  Give them an example of the problem and ask them why they do it.  They will either make an excuse or apologise if they realise they’re doing something untoward.  However they react, if they’re a nice person who doesn’t like to distress others, it’s unlikely they’ll continue.

Accept We’re All Different and Work with It

At work, we’re all thrown in together regardless of our personalities.  Sometimes, no one person is to blame for a relationship that’s gone sour.  It’s simply a clash of working styles.

If you’re action-focused and like to jump straight in, working with a detail-oriented analyst who evaluates the project from every single angle is like death by a thousand cuts.  But take a second to think about your colleague’s point of view.  They probably find your shoot first ask questions later policy just as aggravating.

Move forward by recognising you both bring different skills to the table.  Then figure out and agree a better way to work together in future. Neuro-linguistic programming is very useful in understanding and communicating more effectively with personality types different from your own.

Don’t Fight Fire with Fire

Whether an individual is waging a personal war specifically against you or they are belligerent with everyone, aggressiveness in the workplace can’t go unchecked.

It’s not wise to react instantly or angrily to verbal or physical aggression – this will probably make things worse.  However, don’t ignore the issue or leave it too long before dealing with it as you run the risk of becoming more emotional or distressed.

Talk to a colleague about the best way to approach the situation before confronting your assailant.  Play through some likely scenarios and decide how you will react to each one.  And ask someone to go with you if you feel unsafe.

You might be surprised to find that dealing calmly and assertively with an aggressive bully will turn them from a roaring lion into a snivelling kitten.

Shout When You Need Help

Wherever possible, it’s best to deal with challenging colleagues yourself.  However, if your attempts to resolve a situation have failed or the problem has escalated, don’t be afraid to call in support.

Managers often know who the difficult individuals are, but until colleagues voice a problem, unpleasant behaviours can go overlooked.

Speak to a manager you trust: make clear you would like to deal with the situation informally and sensitively without making things worse.  If other colleagues have experienced problems with the individual or witnessed inappropriate behaviour, get them to back you up.

A good manager will find a way to take the problem person to one side and address the issue carefully or lightly.  If necessary, take your complaint to the next stage with a formal grievance.  However, these cases don’t always end in dismissal so you could find yourself working with an even angrier colleague.

If this happens, consider requesting a transfer to a different team or department.  Or, in smaller organisations, where there’s no escape, you may decide to prioritise your wellbeing and look for a new job.

If you’re looking for your next career move, get in touch with us hereat Adam on 0207 871 7665 / 0161 359 3789 or at