We’ve all had a difficult coworker at one point or another — someone who talks over us, dismisses our feedback, complains constantly, or simply just irritates us. But difficult coworkers can have a major effect: They can cause stress and anxiety that follow you home from the workday. They can also make it impossible for you to do your own job when they don’t meet deadlines, refuse to collaborate, or worse, simply have it out for you.
For most people, simply leaving a job to get away from a difficult coworker isn’t an option — and there’s no guarantee you’ll end up somewhere without a new toxic colleague ready and waiting.
But you’re not trapped. There are plenty of ways to deal with difficult coworkers. Let’s get into it.
1. Practice explaining your point of view.
You won’t get anywhere with blame, so try telling your difficult coworker: “I feel like I’m not being heard,” not “you never listen to me.”
2. Try getting to know them.
So much conflict can be about a fundamental lack of understanding between two people, and getting to know your coworker as a person can humanize them — and take away some of the bitterness. There’s no need to become best friends, but asking about their weekend plans or if they’re watching any good TV shows can go a long way.
3. Make a plan with your supervisor.
If you’re not getting anywhere with your charm offensive, it’s time to bring in your manager. Explain the situation — with specific examples of your coworker’s behavior and how it impacts your ability to do your job — and ask your boss to help make a concrete plan for moving forward.
4. Accept this difficult coworker has limitations (like all of us!).
Any therapist will tell you that humans are simply limited creatures — our experiences, upbringings, roles in relationships, skills, and personalities limit us. And for the most part, those limitations are unlikely to change. Instead of being frustrated that your difficult coworker acts immaturely, consider that this is just who they are, and you can roll your eyes when they whine and stop expecting them to change.
5. Avoid personal jabs.
It’s easy to make things personal, but I strongly advise you to keep your conflict workplace-related. You don’t need to add extra tension by attacking your coworker as a person.
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6. Don’t take the bait.
A problematic coworker can bait you into unprofessional behavior, like a raised voice, gossip, or worse. Don’t fall into the trap they’re laying for you. No matter how unprofessional they’re acting, keep your cool and remember you’re at work. I promise that sinking to their level won’t get you anywhere.
7. Focus on what you get out of the relationship.
Your difficult coworker might drive you crazy, but they might also come with benefits: Maybe they’re a great editor who makes your copywriting sing. Maybe you just want to show them up, and the competition motivates them. Whatever the case, focus on what they bring to your professional life. It can help dull the discomfort and frustration they bring out in you when you remember how they’re pushing you to grow.
8. Put space between you.
Do you feel your coworker looming next to you, or do they come to your desk often to complain? Ask your boss if you can switch desks. You can blame it on any number of things: feeling distracted, an allergy to a plant, a desire for better light, or you can just be honest and tell your manager you and another coworker rub each other the wrong way, and some physical distance will diffuse the tension.
9. Ask your difficult coworker for help.
One foolproof way to get someone on your side? Ask them for help. Consider asking your coworker to have coffee so you can pick their brain about a problem you’re having, or ask them for feedback on a project. Thank them for their time, and be specific about how much you appreciate their help.
10. Physically avoid them.
Someone nagging you in the break room? This might sound obvious, but do what you can to avoid them. Wear headphones at your desk even if you don’t like working with music — they won’t know the difference, and they’re more likely to leave you alone. Try taking a walk at lunch away from the office to get some space. You don’t need to be available to them for any more time than is absolutely necessary.
11. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries.
Does a coworker constantly ask you about your personal life in a way that feels uncomfortable? Do they complain nonstop about other coworkers, and it’s starting to feel toxic? It’s time to set a boundary. Say, “Let’s not talk about that at work,” or “I don’t really want to gossip!” Then, try changing the subject to something innocuous.
12. Document, document, document.
If your difficult coworker is starting to establish a pattern, keep a record. Save aggressive emails or Slacks and write down in-person interactions as soon as they happen. If things escalate, you’ll have a log of evidence to take to management.
13. Practice this: “May I finish?”
Does a coworker constantly interrupt you in meetings? Three words: “May I finish?” It’s usually pretty surprising to the interrupter, and they’ll likely fall back and give you back the floor.
14. Try the “Gray Rock” Method.
Does a coworker constantly pick at you, asking questions and then criticizing? Try the “Gray Rock” Method, which is typically used to deal with toxic family members. You’ll want to make yourself as boring as possible, providing no details or opportunities for the coworker to latch onto. Keep answers brief and uninteresting, and you’ll hopefully bore your coworker into leaving you alone.
15. Redirect their complaints.
Does a coworker constantly complain about things that are out of your control or inappropriate for the workplace? Change the subject! Say: “Ugh, we can’t do anything about that. Let’s talk about something else. Did you see the new Marvel movie yet?”
16. Record your accomplishments.
One of the more infuriating difficult coworkers is the colleague who takes credit for your work. Keep a running list of your wins at work, and ask your boss to meet regularly to talk about what your team can learn from success going forward. If someone outright says, “That was my idea,” when it was yours, say, “I was thankful for your input on this project when I pitched it last Wednesday. I’m glad it got such a good response.”
17. Do your best to avoid gossip.
I get it. You’re annoyed by your coworker and want to blow off steam with your office friend in the breakroom. Do your best to avoid it. Don’t get caught being unprofessional and give your difficult colleague ammunition against you.
18. Charm, disarm, and kill with kindness.
Don’t sink to their level if a coworker is being snide, rude, or giving you the silent treatment. Go on a charm offensive, responding to their comments with a cheery retort. It’ll take the energy out of them, and they’ll eventually burn out when they realize they can’t get a response from you.
19. Ask for feedback.
When you and a coworker have friction, you can ask them for direct feedback about your working relationship. Say: “I feel like we haven’t been on the same page. How can I better support you and work with you better?”
20. Explain the hold-up.
A situation with a difficult coworker might be more than a matter of personalities clashing — it might be about conflicting work styles. In that case, there can be a domino effect on your own work. It’s time to make clear the effects of their actions. If your coworker constantly misses deadlines, say, “When you are late on your deadline, it means I am late on my own deadlines, and then I get in trouble. Can we work together to get back on track?”
21. Use positive reinforcement.
A difficult coworker isn’t so different than a toddler — or a puppy, for that matter. Just as you want to call out bad behavior, reward good behavior. They might see how nice and easy things can be and eventually rise to the occasion.
22. Push for the “Why” in Their “No.”
It can get demoralizing quickly when you’re always hearing no from a coworker. You can better examine those No’s by asking for concrete reasoning. When pushed, they might cave — or, better yet, talk through their reasoning with you in a productive and collaborative way.
23. Remind them you’re on their team.
Sometimes, a workplace has a super competitive environment — and ultra-competitive coworkers can take it to the extreme. When it feels like a brawl of competing ambition, try reminding your coworker that ultimately, you’re on the same team. You can even offer to help them meet their goals, which is a concrete way to say, “I got you.”
24. Ignore, ignore, ignore.
This one might seem silly, but it’s worked for countless older siblings for generations: If someone is being difficult and buzzing around you, just ignore them. I don’t mean you should give them the silent treatment, but you can shut them down with one-word answers and a refusal to engage.
25. Project manage a slacker coworker — within reason.
If a coworker is really holding you up and blocking your ability to get something done, do some calendar work to get them moving. Send an email that lists what they owe you with deadlines. You can go a step further and say, “If I don’t hear from you by Friday, I’ll assume you don’t have any objections, and I’ll move the project along.”
Note: This is not to say that you should take on a difficult coworker’s workload! If you feel that you can only meet your deadline by doing work that’s not your responsibility, it’s time to discuss with a supervisor.
26. Get to know their communication style.
So much conflict can come from a simple lack of mutual understanding. Try getting to know your colleague, particularly their communication style, to better empathize with how they work: How do they like to receive feedback? How do they want to discuss problems?
27. Read the room.
Pick your moments of confrontation wisely: When it’s time to have a direct conversation with your coworker about your working relationship, make sure they’re not on a huge deadline, juggling a million things, or generally stressed. They’ll be immediately defensive, and you won’t get anywhere.
28. Stick to specific issues instead of generalizations.
Get specific if you want to speak to your coworker about their behavior. Instead of “You are always rude to me,” try, “It made me feel undervalued when you dismissed my feedback this morning.”
29. Solve the problem of your relationship together.
Chances are that your difficult coworker is also upset about your relationship. You both got into this pattern together, so why not try to work as a team to get out of it? This could be as simple as inviting your coworker on a lunchtime walk, saying, “I feel like we’re struggling to work together. Can we collaborate on figuring out how to support each other better?”
30. Don’t rely on hints — be transparent.
It’s easy to try dropping hints instead of being confrontational, but nothing will change without clear communication.
31. Don’t suppress your feelings.
Bottling up your emotions around your difficult coworker doesn’t serve anyone — you’ll likely stew and stew until you boil over. Practice verbalizing your feelings to a trusted, outside-of-work friend, a family member, or a therapist.
32. Don’t retaliate.
You’re not going to get anywhere retaliating when a coworker lashes out. Instead, make a note of their behavior, and if necessary, take it to management.
33. Diffuse with humor.
To be clear: Do not make fun of your difficult coworker. But you can poke fun at the situation or — even better — at yourself.
34. Dial back the defensive stance.
Understandably, you’re on the defensive, but it’s likely not helping your cause. Try to look at how your behavior might play a role in the situation, and consider softening your touch. The truth is, the easiest person to change is yourself.
You don’t have to suffer a lousy coworker who is making your life impossible! I know some of these tips might cause anxiety — direct communication often does at first! — but speaking up for yourself, setting boundaries, and being open to working through the issue is a gift you can give yourself. You deserve better workdays, and they’re yours for the taking.