How to handle difficult people at work

Every office has its cast of characters, each one bringing a distinct flavor to the work environment. And while most are generally great, some flavors just leave a bad taste in your mouth. Whether you are an office of 10 or a large corporation, chances are there will be at least a few personalities that clash with yours. Not everyone is easy to work with, get along with, or even be in the same building as. But if you’re on the clock and tied to the same project, you’re going to want to find a way to make the best out of a sour situation. 

Office Tropes

So who are these characters that you might see around the conference table? Well, first there is Unaccountable Uma. She’s always the first to say “I’ll take care of it!” and is “on it” when you inquire about the status. She’s always promising to take care of vital tasks but rarely delivers on time, and in full. You know you can’t count on her. Similarly, No Communication Kate goes about her portion of the work, and it’s not until a few hours before a deadline that she reveals she needs more time and help. Why couldn’t she just ask earlier? And somehow you just can’t avoid Manipulative Marissa, who, through her overly friendly and chatty personality, always manages to convince you to do her work for her. But at least she is there, unlike Always Late Luke, who never seems to arrive to work or to a meeting on time, or even in the right hour. He is on his own schedule and thinks everyone else should be on it, too. Then there is Lazy Larry, who just…well who knows why he is there, he is never doing anything related to work. 

Outdated Olivia just refuses to update to the modern technology of the office. She can barely open an email, and always requires additional time and assistance locating, opening and editing a file. That’s okay, at least she isn’t wasting time on her smart phone all day… because she doesn’t have one. Angry Allen is ready to explode at the smallest pixel of stress. And if something goes wrong, he is ready to place blame in your direction. Working with him means working in fear. And, of course, we can’t forget Micromanaging Mark who takes charge, controls every minute detail, and is constantly down your throat asking about your progress. It’s hard to get things done with someone constantly interrupting to streamline “efficiency.” The crazy thing is, sometimes this character doesn’t even know the first thing about the project and how to get it done, making the situation that much more frustrating.

With this potential cast in and out of the office, you’re going to want to equip yourself with some special tactics to keep deadlines on target, keep your pulse in a healthy range and keep the peace around the water. 

Just Accept It

Have you ever eaten a piece of candy that tasted horrible at first because you thought it was vanilla flavored, but as soon as you learned that it was dulce de leche flavored, it suddenly tasted marvelous? Once your expectations match your reality, you may have a better overall experience. The first step is to accept the reality of your difficult situation. If you know what you are up against and accept the terms and conditions, you will be able to adjust your expectations and have the foresight of what you may encounter. Acceptance is a great way to prepare for the tasks ahead.

From a Distance

Sometimes the best way work together is to be apart. Maybe you moved a chair out of your office so they wouldn’t sit around, or perhaps you attached a cup holder to the AC unit on the passenger-side seat of your car so during business trips they are no longer able to massage their foot on the vent (hey, it happens.) By creating distance, you establish boundaries between you and that person that can facilitate a better working experience for all involved. You don’t have to go far away, so to speak, but you can control your availability and limit your communication. You also don’t always have to be at their beck and call. Sometimes putting out their fires only starts yours and being indefinitely available can also shift the power structure. If you do need to get away, take a break and run, walk, or exercise it out. Whatever it takes to keep them at an arm’s (or foot’s) length, naturally, test it out. See what works for you. If all else fails, bolt down your door, batten down the hatches and keep the storm out (and be sure to stock up on water and canned food at your desk.)

Look From Their Perspective

To beat them, you must become them! Well, you don’t have to go that far, but having a good understanding of what makes them tick could transform your interactions. If you know what triggers certain reactions from them, you can avoid those triggers. If they are the type that needs constant feedback or updates on your progress, give it to them. It will save you stress in the long run. Knowing what they want and how they want, it is a skill that you can use to both of your advantages. (It could also help to be introspective and run this diagnostic on yourself to confront your triggers as means to avoid them.)

Listen Up

The key to getting into their shoes is to lend them your ear (don’t worry, you’ll get it back). Much like anyone else, the difficult person wants to be heard. Perhaps they need to vent. Or perhaps there is an even bigger issue that you could uncover by stopping to listen instead of blowing them off or nodding your head. A good listen on your part may give them the validation they need to make your working relationship better. A little empathy could go a long way.  

Calm Before the Storm

In many circumstances, you might not be able to avoid the anxieties of working with these difficult people. Communication is inevitable. So for your own sanity, it is best to practice the art of remaining calm. If their behavior fires you up, try to let it roll off your back. Count backward from a million, recall the lyrics to the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire,  list the elements of the periodic table—all while you let the fire simmer down. If you can do this with a poker face while breathing, that is even better. Doing what it takes to remain calm could make the situation a bit more bearable and less likely to worsen.

Be Direct

Don’t be afraid to unleash honesty. It is the best policy, after all. If you want to elicit change, be direct with how you feel and how you would like to be treated going into the future. “I prefer that you do this instead of this,” or “It would be better for me if you could do this.” Make it sound like a thought or idea instead of a command, and you may see their behavior change. If how they work or react is so unbearable that you need to add some force, lay it down straight and clear: “Stop doing this.” Who knows; perhaps they are not aware that how and what they say has any negative impact. Being direct can be eye opening and game changing. 

Separation of Work and State

In the end, you need to remind yourself that you only have to see these people at work. Separating your work life from your home life is key to sanity and might make being around difficult people more tolerable because you know you will say goodbye when the clock strikes “it’s 6 o’clock somewhere.” This is easier said than done. Not everyone has the luxury of a job that ends at the office. A lot of times it is necessary to continue the job at home or be on call on nights weekends and holidays. In these scenarios it is hard to get out of the mindset of being “at work” and very easy to get lost in the stress of waiting for a call to action. The reality though is that you don’t necessarily have to be with those people when you aren’t at the office, so there is no need to bring them to you emotionally when they don’t have to be there. 

It may seem like you are making an awful lot of concessions to work with people of the difficult variety. Sure, maybe you are. But it’s better to take those extra steps to make your personal experience a better one.  In the end, no situation lasts forever. Casts change. Projects come to a close. People switch departments or leave the company. Difficult people come and go, but the hard skills for working with them last forever. 

Work better, together.

Collaboration tools for modern teams

View Products