8 tips for dealing with difficult colleagues

Susanna Kahr

We’ve all found ourselves in that awkward situation of having to work with difficult colleagues. Maybe they have a strange sense of humor or they just don’t get anything you ask them to do, or act like they’d rather be anywhere than in a team with you. We’ve all been there. But there are things that you can do to make the whole thing easier for you and for them and impress your bosses in the process. Check out our 8 top tips for dealing with difficult colleagues and you’ll be a pro in no time!

1. Don’t judge

Tip number one is really important, whatever you do, try not to judge your difficult colleague based on past experiences or hearsay. Yeah, maybe they might do things a bit differently to how you would do them, but that doesn’t mean to say that their way of doing things isn’t just as valid. Also, make sure to ask yourself if you’re judging them based on something you’ve heard, instead of on their own terms. Gossip spreads round offices like wildfire, so just make sure you give your colleague the time of day and try to get to know them as best you can, before deciding how best to work with them.

2. Make sure to give them what they need

Think about what you need when you work with someone else, be it time, space, independence or specific support. Then, try to put yourselves in your colleague’s shoes and listen to what they need. Last time you worked together you might not have had enough time to do a good job and that could have resulted in disagreements or aggressive behavior. If that’s the case, try to ensure that you give your difficult colleague enough time to do what they need to do. If they’re fiercely independent then give them the space they need and if they’re more junior than you, or from a different team entirely, make sure to offer them the support they need. Just by listening and responding, you will alleviate much of the tension that can come with working in a team and make it much easier for you to communicate.

3. Be specific in your feedback

If you’ve given your difficult colleague everything they needed, but they haven’t done what you asked, or haven’t done it to the standard that you expected, then this tip is for you: Be as specific as possible when you give them feedback. This means, instead of pushing them into a defensive position by attacking their work in general terms, try to rephrase it to be much more specific and ask them for their opinion. Another great way to give feedback is to emphasize that it’s your personal opinion, based on your interpretation of the task in hand. This way, you can encourage them to be critical of their performance too and work out ways to improve it together.

4. Manage expectations

Clients and management teams very often put us under pressure by making unreasonable demands of us. In this situation, ask yourself how best you and your colleague can work together to minimize the stress on each other and the strain on your professional relationship. If your difficult colleague is known for getting really stressed out and taking this out on you or other colleagues then perhaps it’s worth reassessing the deadlines you’ve been given and managing the expectations of your client and your boss. Also, make time to sit down early on in the project to ask your colleague about their expectations and work out what can and can’t be done within the timeframe you’ve been given. This will help you both a lot, especially when it comes down to the wire.

5. Don’t gossip

Ok, who doesn’t love a good gossip in the office? But, in this situation you really shouldn’t badmouth your colleague behind their back. We all know how quickly gossip at the water cooler travels, so be mindful that whatever you say will very likely make it back to your colleague. This will undoubtedly make it more difficult to work with them and could jeopardize your whole project. So keep those thoughts about your colleague’s attitude, fashion sense or sense of humor to yourself.

6. Play the long game

This is a great tip if your difficult colleague constantly steals your ideas or repeatedly does things that drive you crazy. In this case, you might need to think about playing the long game to resolve the issue. The first thing you need to do is to verify if there’s really a problem. Did your colleague really steal your idea or was it something that you both could have come up with separately? Maybe they just forgot to credit you. Whatever you do, make sure that you talk about it with them before assuming it’s a problem. Then you need to work out how you want to resolve the situation and what you need. Do you want an apology? Do you need them to consult you prior to the next meeting, so that credit can be given where it’s due? Finally, follow up if needed. Review the latest meeting and decide if you think that your colleague took your feedback on board or not, and if not try to help them understand how important it is to you. Equally, you might also have to review your own performance; perhaps you could be more assertive when it comes to owning your ideas.

7. Be mindful of mental health

If a colleague consistently behaves in a problematic or destructive way, this is normally indicative of something else going on behind closed doors. It’s worth being mindful of the fact that 1 in 4 adults in the US or 43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.So if your colleague is behaving in a highly emotional way or in a way that just doesn’t fit the situation in hand, it could be that there is something deeper going on.

Sometimes all you need to do is be calm and rational and provide clear answers to your colleague’s questions. You might also need to sit down with them somewhere quiet to try to work out what’s going on and what you can do to help them. Other times you might need more support. Many companies are equipping themselves to deal with mental health and may offer counselling services.

8. Remember that we’re all only human

And finally, it may go without saying but just remind yourself and your team that we’re all only human. We all have good days and bad days and rough patches in our personal lives that can affect how we feel and behave at work. So instead of dismissing your colleague outright for their bad behavior, ask them what’s going on with them. This could help you to see eye to eye and help your colleague to see you as a supportive team member as opposed to an enemy.

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