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How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

Most workplaces are collaborative environments. That’s great for creativity and often produces amazing results. But unfortunately, it also means that you have to deal with people, sometimes when they’re not at their best — and it’s not like you get to choose every member of your team.
difficult people at work
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Some of those team members are bound to be, well, difficult. It might be a communication or chemistry issue, or it might be that your teammate is just generally tough to deal with. They might be a bully, for example, or an extremely negative person.

Depending on the situation, there are a number of ways you can handle it. When you have to deal with difficult people at work, try this:

1. Avoid Them When You Can

Look, there’s no law that says you have to squander your precious free time on the office jerkface. Yes, if you’re working on the same project or assigned to neighboring cubicles, you’ll have to deal with them. But let that be the limit.

Don’t volunteer for their projects, don’t let them corner you at the company happy hour. Wear noise-canceling headphones and mime that you’re short on time when they try to monopolize you during the workday. Refuse to participate when they try to rope you into listening to gossip. Be pleasant — but be firm.

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2. Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

Which is to say: have good boundaries and enforce them, but don’t make things worse by going on the attack.

“An assertive person sets limits and stands up for herself so others wont take advantage,” writes Marcel Schwantes at Inc. “But she takes the higher road and does it with class. She uses ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements, which tends to lead to attack and blame. That’s the last thing a difficult person in the heat-of-the-moment needs in an emotionally-charged situation.”

3. Separate the Person From the Issue

“In every communication situation, there are two elements present: The relationship you have with this person, and the issue you are discussing,” writes Preston Ni, M.S.B.A., at Psychology Today. “An effective communicator knows how to separate the person from the issue, and be soft on the person and firm on the issue.”

Focus on the behavior or the impact — being chronically late to work, for example, or not hitting goals — and not the person. For example, if one of your team members frequently turns in work that’s missing key elements, you might say, “I’m really interested in the point you’re making in this report. I’d like to show it to corporate, but it’s missing some data in the second section. If you can provide that, it will strengthen our case.”

4. If You’re the Boss, Consider Putting Them in Charge

“It might seem a little crazy, but putting a difficult person in charge of the very thing they’re being difficult about could be the answer,” writes Gina Belli in an earlier Career News post. “If they feel such passion for the issue, go ahead and try making them the point person.”

This could work out by showing them the difficulties inherent in the problem … or it could lead to a solution, thanks to their critical perspective. Either way, you’ll be a lot better off than you were with this person on the sidelines, lobbing snarky comments or maintaining a scornful distance.

5. Escalate Only When Necessary

Sometimes, no matter what you do, difficult people stay, well, difficult. If their problems are more than just annoying to you personally — if they interfere with the team’s productivity — you may have no choice by to escalate the issue to your manager.

Just be aware that once you pass along your problem, the solution is out of your hands. Your boss may well address the issue, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll love the fix.

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Do you have tips to add? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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