How To Manage Difficult People In The Workplace And Avoid Conflict

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Every workplace has them… Dealing with difficult people at work can be challenging and stressful. Whether it’s a colleague who often undermines you, a boss who doesn’t acknowledge your contributions, or a team member who’s consistently passive aggressive or negative, there are things which crop up at work which we could all do without.

But you’re likely to find yourself needing to handle these situations from time to time. Fortunately, there are ways to manage people and situations effectively without compromising your professionalism. And doing so will be of value to both workplace productivity and – moreover – your mental wellbeing.

Here we’ll look at some strategies to employ when dealing with difficult people in the workplace.

Key points:

  • If coworkers are hurtful or frequently difficult, it’s always worth addressing, as otherwise the situation is likely to persist. And as the situation continues, this can have an effect on productivity, morale and your mental wellbeing.
  • If you choose to address a situation, examine your role in it first; consult with trusted colleagues; take some time to rationalise the situation; and speak to the colleague in question in private if necessary. Be sure to explain yourself clearly, listen to their thoughts, and reach an amicable compromise.
  • In all scenarios, it’s vital to remain calm and professional. Listen to your coworker’s point of view, take it on board, but not at the expense of being assertive. Ultimately, you need to reach a solution which works for both of you.

About difficult workplace behaviours

When any workplace gets to a certain size, it becomes more-or-less inevitable that some people may display difficult behaviours now and again. While some may be fairly benign, other behaviours may have a negative effect on you or your team.

Difficult behaviours could include things like:

  • taking credit for other people’s work
  • gossiping
  • being passive-agressive
  • refusal to take on certain jobs
  • being stubborn
  • lacking accountability

And it can affect management too, who may be guilty of things like micromanaging, or not giving credit where credit’s due in the team.

Often, what’s required is that team members need to reach an understanding. People may not find themselves on the same page due to different opinions or outlooks, for instance, or having different personal boundaries. Usually these issues can be resolved between the people involved, without resorting to butting heads.

⏰Key Point: It’s worth noting that certain workplace behaviours such as bullying, harassment and/or discrimination often go beyond being resolvable by the parties involved, and may require escalating to management or the HR department.

Shouldn’t I just ignore difficult workplace behaviours?

There are certainly times when addressing undesirable workplace behaviours may simply not be worth the effort.

For instance, you may decide that a jarring remark may not warrant reacting to. Perhaps the colleague in question is having a bad day and responding uncharacteristically, or an off-the-cuff remark might have been misinterpreted. Being empathetic to a situation is often key, and a sure sign that you can be emotionally intelligent as a leader

However, it’s always worth addressing if what’s been said or done has caused hurt in some way. A situation is also worth addressing if it happens more than once. If a certain difficult or negative behaviour is a pattern, then – if left unaddressed – it’s likely to continue, or even to get worse.

Persistent negative behaviours can have a significant impact on workplace dynamics, morale and ultimately productivity. And on a personal level, it may be causing you stress at work . This is why it’s essential to address them effectively, and hopefully switch them out for something more positive.

What steps should you take when dealing with difficult colleagues?

Taking control of difficult situations may sound challenging or even off-putting, but doing so can help improve skills such as communication, conflict resolution and leadership. And it also demonstrates that it can be done!

Here are some practical steps you can take when addressing difficult workplace situations.

Step 1: Look at your own actions

Before wading in, it’s a good idea to self-regulate your thoughts and ask yourself some questions.

  • Were you overreacting, or could you have handled the situation better?
  • Was your communication clear?
  • Were you as flexible as you could have been?

We’re not suggesting that any difficult workplace situation is your fault – but showcasing self-awareness and seeing your role in a situation objectively may help to see the other party’s viewpoint. 

Step 2: Speak with another colleague

Talking about the situation with a trusted (ideally neutral) colleague should also prove helpful. They may be able to offer thoughts and points of view you may not have considered, and give you an objective opinion on whether your concerns are well-founded. You can also work through potential solutions.

Also, more generally, it’s good to talk. Being able to speak about the situation is likely to help reduce your feelings of frustration, and get a sense of perspective.

Step 3: Sleep on it

As much as we’d like to be cool, calm and collected at all times, often the first response is clouded by emotion. As such, it’s usually best not to address a situation immediately. Rather, take a bit of time to cool down, and work out what you’d like to say to the difficult person. Again, being able to self-regulate your feelings showcases that you can be emotionally intelligent as leader.

💡Tip. Spend some time rationalising the situation. You could even write it down. Think about how it made you feel, and why it made you feel that way.

Step 4: Discuss the situation with the coworker in question

If the person is someone you deal with regularly, and you feel the situation needs to be addressed, then suggest a meeting to discuss it in private. If you’re both polite and reasonable, there’s no reason why this can’t be productive.

Calmly tell them what the problem you’ve had with them is, and give them an opportunity to speak about it. Let’s say, if this person is often taking credit for your work, you could ask them why it is that they do this. It may be, for example, that they’re insecure about their work, and feel the need for recognition.

They may even be unaware that they’re affecting you in a negative way. Hanlon’s razor states: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. While not the nicest way of putting it, it makes the point that often people do things unthinkingly, without bad intentions.

In any case, it’s important to be understanding and empathetic. There may be reasons why your coworker acted in a certain way. If they wish to explain these, it’s a good idea to listen, which should help you to empathise with them in future.

Step 5: Reach a compromise

When coming up with solutions as to how to move forwards, it’s important to involve the other party, and not make demands.

You might also find that they found your behaviour difficult in some way, so you should also be receptive to any feedback they give you. If you weren’t as communicative as you could have been, or there’s been a misunderstanding of some sort, then take this on board. This could help to avoid similar situations down the line.

Step 6: If things don’t work out, speak to your manager

Of course, there’s also the chance that the conversation doesn’t go well, and the situation is left unresolved. If you’re unable to progress, and the workplace difficulty persists, you may need to involve your manager or supervisor.

Again, it helps to have a list of valid concerns that you have, which may be shared by others in the workplace. While shared concerns may be relevant to the situation, it’s also important not to instigate a pile-on.

💡Tip. It’s also worth having this conversation with your manager in private, as doing so prevents embarrassment to your coworker. Plus it allows your manager to think of an appropriate response in their own time. They may choose to intervene directly to stop the difficult behaviour, find a way of separating your duties from theirs, or simply speak with your coworker to find a solution.

In any case, you should remain calm and professional while waiting for them to take action.

6 tips for dealing with difficult people at work

We’ve outlined above the steps you should consider taking when it comes to confronting a difficult work situation. But here are some more general tips for how best to compose yourself, and approach any situations involving people you’re having issues with at work.

#1. Stay calm and professional

It should go without saying, but it’s crucial to remain calm and professional, no matter how difficult the person is. Avoid reacting emotionally, as this can escalate the situation and affect your reputation. Instead, maintain your composure and focus on the facts. Stay polite and respectful, even if the other person is not.

#2. Be assertive

Assertiveness is an essential skill when dealing with difficult people. It means standing up for yourself, expressing your opinions and setting boundaries. However, being assertive doesn’t mean being aggressive, rude or confrontational. Rather, it involves using clear, direct and respectful language to get your point across.

#3. Be an active listener

Active listening means giving the person your full attention, without interrupting or judging them. This shows that you respect their opinion, and want to understand their perspective. Repeat what they’ve said in summary, as this should ensure you’ve understood their point of view correctly. This can help defuse the situation and promote mutual understanding.

#4. Try to find common ground

Even if you disagree with the other person, try to find common ground. This can help build rapport and create a more positive working relationship. Look for shared goals or interests, and try to focus on these rather than your differences. This can help shift what might otherwise be a negative conversation to a more constructive tone.

#5. Offer constructive feedback

If the difficult behaviour is having a negative impact on your work or the team’s performance, it may be necessary to provide constructive feedback. Be specific about what you’ve observed and the impact it’s having. Focus on the behaviour, not the person, and offer suggestions for improvement. This can be a difficult conversation to have, but it may be worthwhile for the individual’s growth and development.

#6. Know when to walk away

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not be able to resolve the situation. In these cases, you should know when to walk away. This doesn’t mean giving up or ignoring the problem, but rather recognising that the situation is beyond your control. Focus on what you can control, and seek support from colleagues or your manager if needs be.

Dealing with difficult people in summary

Dealing with difficult people at work is a challenging but unfortunately inevitable part of professional life. By taking the steps outlined above, listening while also being assertive, and knowing when to walk away, you should be able to manage these situations with aplomb.

Just remember: always remain calm and professional. Your response to difficult people and situations can make all the difference, so choose your words and actions carefully.

Picture of Matthew Channell
Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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