How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers: 9 Steps

With some jobs, the best part of work is your lovely coworkers. Yet, for other jobs, it’s the exact opposite. For those times, knowing how to deal with difficult coworkers is a necessity and a saving grace.

Thankfully, like all soft skills, with time, experience, and practice, you can learn how to work with difficult coworkers. It requires patience, composure, integrity, and wisdom. 

With these characteristics and the 9 steps below, you will be more confident in dealing with tough coworkers and problems with colleagues at work.

Two women having a discussion, where one woman has an exasperated expression on her face.

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How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers

When it comes to dealing with difficult coworkers, it’s not a matter of if but when. Everyone eventually has a tough work situation that involves conflict with their fellow employees.

How do you respond to a difficult coworker?

Dealing with difficult coworkers requires patience, composure, integrity, and wisdom. In your response to a tough work situation or difficult coworker, it’s important to exhibit these traits as well.

  • Patience – Patience gives you the time to fully assess a work situation and process what a colleague is saying before responding. Having all the available information and thinking thoughtfully about your response will lead to a more favorable outcome.
  • Composure – Composure is an antidote to a dramatic situation, toxic argument, or difficult colleague. Also, composure may help the other person calm down and reflect on their own actions. But if not, then composure paints you in a better light if the situation escalates to management.
  • Integrity –You must act with integrity when you find yourself face to face with a difficult coworker. Instead of engaging in gossip or rumors, stick to the facts and tell the truth.
  • Wisdom – Wisdom gives us discernment about how to confront the person and when to do it. For example, giving a colleague constructive criticism about their work most likely shouldn’t be done in the middle of a team meeting. Or if repeated attempts to diffuse a toxic situation have failed, perhaps it’s time to escalate the matter to Human Resources.

How do you deal with stressful coworkers?

Some of you may describe your coworkers as difficult, stressful, toxic, or all of the above. No matter which option you select, here are 9 steps you can follow to deal with and work with your fellow colleagues.

  1. Don’t Fight Back
  2. Look to Diffuse the Situation
  3. Document Everything
  4. Talk to Your Mentor
  5. Don’t Gossip
  6. Talk to the Coworker
  7. Set Boundaries
  8. Know When to Escalate to HR
  9. Do Your Job

1 – Don’t Fight Back

When we face tough work situations or difficult coworkers, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and rile up ourselves. Perhaps, we even find ourselves exhibiting the same negative behavior as the difficult coworker who started the conflict. 

The result is a bigger conflict, which, if it ends badly, could have steep consequences for you and your colleague. Resist the urge to fight back and continue to exhibit composure and integrity. 

In other words, don’t lose yourself and your character in the conflict. 

2 – Diffuse the Situation

Diffusing the situation is a technique I learned from Business Made Simple by Donald Miller.  This takes calmness and composure to another level. 

The key to diffusing a situation that’s intensifying is to underreact.  

Instead of also getting riled up and raising your voice, speak calmly, stay silent, or leave the room. When someone tries to shift the blame on you for a failed project, simply outline your responsibilities and the completed status of your tasks. 

If it’s clear the tough coworker just wants an audience, then exit the room or adjourn the meeting before things escalate. The key here is not to give them an audience or “metaphorical ammunition” to use against you later.

3 – Document Everything

Like Hansel and Gretel, you always want to leave a paper trail of documentation when dealing with a difficult coworker. 

I preface this step with a clarification. The goal here is not to gather evidence to get your coworker fired or find ways to blame them for other company problems.

Paper trails and documentation are meant to maintain your innocence in work conflict in case the situation escalates. 

For example, if you’re working on a project with a difficult colleague, make sure the tasks are divided appropriately. Then keep track of the status of your tasks, write updates, and keep your project manager and boss in the loop, preferably over email, too.

Now, if there is any dispute over your role in a project or a missed deadline, then you can show your boss evidence of your work and status updates.

In these situations, it’s important to not add color commentary or opinions about your colleague. Let your documentation and your work speak for itself. You shouldn’t need to add anything else.

4 – Talk to Your Mentor

In addition to the steps above for how to deal with a difficult coworker, you should also seek advice and guidance from your mentor. 

You can bounce ideas off your mentor and benefit from their experience and career insights. 

Mentors are valuable assets to your career. And here are tips for finding a mentor and asking for help at work.

For tough coworker situations, I encourage you to seek advice from your mentor. They can use their experience and objective perspective to offer suggestions and conflict resolution strategies. 

Additionally, your mentor could offer insight about the company culture or company operations. These insights may provide ways to get your work done despite the coworker challenges.

5 – Don’t Gossip

Venting is a normal way to process stress with close, trusted friends and family members. However, it’s important that when venting your frustration, you don’t gossip or tell stories about them. 

Talking negatively about a difficult coworker to other coworkers is extremely unprofessional and unkind. Even if they are exhibiting signs of a bad coworker.

Much like step 1, you don’t want to fight fire with fire. Gossip will only aggravate a situation even though you may feel better momentarily. Besides venting, there are other ways to unwind after work

6 – Talk to the Coworker

Before this step, I recommend talking with your mentor or other trusted professional. They can help you decide whether the conflict is small enough to handle one-on-one with the difficult coworker. 

However, for certain conflicts, your manager or a third party may need to be involved. Also, in more serious situations, Human Resources may require they also be involved.

Additionally, you can practice how you will confront the coworker and what you will say. Then, you can get feedback from your mentor on your tone, facial expressions, and professionalism.

If it is appropriate to handle the conflict one-on-one, then set up time to talk to the coworker. When responding to a difficult coworker, be sure to:

  • Sticks to the facts of the conflict
  • Focus on impacts to the team, project, and company goals
  • Avoid raising your voice and pointing gestures
  • Aim for confidence not arrogance in your tone and demeanor
  • Listen to your coworker’s responses instead of thinking about what you’ll say next
  • Put a time limit on the conversation so neither party is tempted to talk too long and perhaps say something they regret.

7 – Set Boundaries

Despite all attempts to resolve coworker conflict, sometimes the difficult coworker situation persists. Now, it’s time to focus on what you can do to maintain a professional environment and get your work done.

One effective way to deal with a difficult coworker is to set work boundaries around them. 

For example, you may ask for them to schedule meetings on your calendar in advance instead of calling directly and expecting an answer. Perhaps, you need to communicate your work hours more clearly in the next staff meeting and mention that you don’t work Sundays.

Whatever the coworker situation may be, consider what workplace boundaries could reign in the conflict and keep it from negatively impacting your work. 

8 – Know When to Escalate to HR

Our second to last step about how to deal with a difficult coworker is involving Human Resources (HR). For toxic coworkers and work environments, it may be necessary to have HR handle the situation.

For some companies, you can submit an anonymous comment to HR to describe toxic worker conflict or behavior against company policy. Other companies require you to talk to a HR professional directly or go through your boss first. Ask your mentor or HR about the corporate policy if you are unsure.

Next, Human Resources will often perform an investigation. During the investigation, they interview other coworkers and gather documentation about the conflict. 

Lastly, HR will make a decision regarding the coworker’s actions (such as whether company policy was violated) and determine any consequences or employment actions (such as a demotion, team transfer, or termination of employment).

The process can be lengthy and time consuming. However, some coworker conflicts are too complex or dangerous to handle yourself. In fact, trying to handle it yourself may implicate yourself in the matter, too.

Talk to your career mentor, boss, or other trusted professional to see if the conflict may need to be escalated to HR.

9 – Do Your Job

Sometimes, you may be unable to find a resolution or reconcile with a difficult coworker. Perhaps several of your coworkers are toxic and stressful, and none of the above strategies change their ways or effects on you.

Remember that in Colossians 3:23-24, God calls us to do our work as if unto the Lord. This doesn’t mean you should try to stay in a toxic work environment. But even when you’re dissatisfied or discouraged by your coworkers, that doesn’t negate your responsibility to do your job.

In fact, in these types of situations, it’s important to do your job well. So that when HR or your manager investigates the situation, they will see that you maintained a high level of professionalism and completed your work well and in a timely manner.

Why does my work matter if my coworkers are toxic? you may think.

Well, if you decide to change jobs, then the future company may ask for a reference from your previous employer. You should want to leave a good impression, so your previous employer speaks well of you to other job prospects.

Also remember that your job is not your identity. This work conflict or toxic situation does not mean you are a failure as an employee, or your career is over. 

young woman sitting at her desk shouting at the phone

How to Work with Difficult Coworkers

We spend 40 hours a week at work and oftentimes more. When there is coworker conflict and clashing work styles, it can be difficult to maintain proper focus and stay productive.

I hope these 9 steps about how to deal with difficult coworkers provide you with solutions to resolve and diffuse coworker conflict. As you interact with your colleagues, may you act with kindness, integrity, patience, and wisdom.

How do you deal with toxic coworkers?

Leave me a comment below!

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