Five Tips for Dealing with Difficult Coworkers

Amanda Luzzader

Any office-dweller will tell you the struggle is real, and medical professionals will tell you that workplace stress is so real it can affect your health.

Five Tips for Dealing with Difficult Coworkers

Television shows such as The Office, Parks and Rec, The IT Crowd, and others do a great job of getting us to laugh at the trials and challenges of the workplace: office rivalries, too much work, not enough appreciation, difficult coworkers. But despite these sometimes-humorous situations, any office-dweller will tell you the struggle is real, and medical professionals will tell you that workplace stress is so real it can affect your health.

According to Jody Foster, a professor of psychiatry and author of the book, The Schmuck in My Office: How To Deal Effectively With Difficult People at Work, stress and trouble at work affects your health. “When you have a conflict with someone at work, and it’s unresolved and it turns inside you and affects your day, your life outside of work, affects your sleep–all of these things can add up and absolutely make a person sick,” she says.

Foster characterizes some common archetypes you’ve probably encountered if you’ve spent some time in the American workforce. There’s The Narcissist, for instance, “the self-centered, condescending peacock who tramples on others.” Ever met The Flytrap, “the bringer of chaos who can flip from angry to happy in an instant, creating an office maelstrom”? Then there’s The Robot, “the inflexible stone wall who is incapable of adapting, even in the face of much-needed change.”

How do you deal with vexing office mates and difficult coworkers? Foster suggests identifying, observing, and understanding the behaviors of the person or people who bother you at work, then tailoring your interactions to minimize their effects on your psyche.

Here’s a quick list of additional tips from around the Internet for dealing with difficult coworkers.

  1. According to employment agency Kelly Services’ list of do’s and don’ts, DO communicate the problem to your co-worker first (they might not even realize there’s a problem), but DON’T get drawn into unprofessional or inappropriate behavior (such as arguing, insulting, seeking revenge, or talking about the offending coworker behind their back).
  2. A recent article by Forbes includes its own list of five disruptive office types (the slacker, complainer, scene-stealer, know-it-all, and the office gossip) along with tips about how to deal with each of them. The common denominator? Don’t let it get personal. Rise above and work within what is permitted in your organization’s rules and regs to resolve issues.
  3. Most articles I surveyed for this list of tips had one tip in common for dealing with a difficult coworker: get your supervisor involved. Insert a big sigh here. Yes, it might seem like an easy way out, or it might even seem like a way to make the situation worse, but employee conflicts are something supervisors are assigned to deal with. If you approach the situation without anger, with an open mind, and with every intention to resolve the issue (as opposed to simply wanting to make trouble for the difficult coworker) approaching your supervisor should be effective.
  4. One very excellent tip from job search firm Indeed is to show compassion. It makes sense–very few people act badly just because they want to. An annoying and even hurtful coworker is likely dealing with their own issues or problems, some of which might be quite serious. Reacting with kindness instead of anger may not only help to defuse the situation and improve your work relationships, it will help you improve yourself.
  5. Lastly, circling back to Jody Foster’s bluntly (but colorfully) titled book, her final piece of advice (which is often echoed by other experts) is to examine yourself and your own behavior. Have you encountered difficult coworkers at every job you’ve held? Do you feel like your workplace is always full of nasty, insulting, unappreciative people? It may be time to ask yourself if you’re the problem instead of them. Maybe they are doing their best and it’s you who’s the slacker, flytrap, complainer, or know-it-all. Or, perhaps you’re not the problem, but you’re contributing to it in some way. Take an honest inventory of yourself, be open and sincere, and make changes you feel could improve the situation. A little introspection goes a long way.

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