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How you can deal with difficult people at work and still keep your job!

by Amanda Collins

Bosses and colleagues: they can mean the difference between loving your work and dreading getting up in the morning.

When it’s good, you feel supported, valued, part of a team, and heard; when it’s bad you feel resentful, lonely, stressed and depressed.

When it’s good you’re prepared to stay in your job for the long term; and when it’s bad, you daily weigh up the ability to pay rent and eat, against the sheer joy of leaving your workplace and never, ever coming back.

But before you walk away, read our top tips for dealing with difficult people at work.

deal with difficult people

These tried and true methods have changed many toxic work relationships, turning what once seemed intolerable, into workable.


We’re all the star of our own TV shows. We all see things filtered through the lens of our personality and thoughts. That’s what makes assumptions so tricky.

We are often assuming things about people based purely on how we view a situation, not on the the truth. For instance, you may have a tendency to catastrophise things. Like if a colleague at work is always frowning, you may assume that they don’t like you, when in actual fact they have a really stressful home life, and haven’t even noticed you enough to dislike you.

Sometimes the way that people act at work has actually nothing to do with you, and everything to do with an issue they are facing in their personal lives.

They may be less chatty than usual because they have just had a break-up, they may seem cranky because someone they love has passed away. There are a thousand reasons that a person may be acting in a certain way.

If you have a feeling that someone doesn’t like you, or they are short and sharp with you, or they ignore you, or they are a bit rude when they speak to you, muster your courage and ask them to come for a private chat with you.

You could invite them for a quick coffee. When you have them alone, ask them if they’re okay. You could start the conversation by saying “I’ve noticed lately you’re a bit on edge, is everything okay?”

Usually what will happen after this conversation, is that the person will be more aware of how they are coming across. Asking them if they’re okay will work to disarm them, and if there really was a problem, your concern will show them that you are a friend, not a threat.

deal with difficult people at work

Take them aside and confront them

Similar to asking if they’re okay, this method involves direct action. It is best to do this when the issue isn’t murky, where the person has actually been cruel, or mean, or a bit of a bully.

Here, what you need to do is take them aside and gently ask if there is a problem. If they say yes, then you can rationally and reasonably discuss it. If they say no, then at the very least they will be less likely to continue behaving poorly, because they know that you will call them out on it.

It’s important with this one, however, to remain calm and rational. Don’t accuse, don’t yell, just state your case, listen to them and try to work things out.

Manage expectations

If your boss, or your colleagues, keep dumping work on you and expecting it to be done yesterday, or if they are always pushing you to work faster, or if you feel underneath a mountain of work that just keeps piling up, it may be time to have a chat with them.

Let them know where you are at and the timeframe it will realistically take you to do the tasks.

Make sure they understand your work process so that together, you can work out realistic deadlines that work for everybody.

Here, you may also want to work out a process of prioritisation, so that you clearly know where jobs sit in the work food chain, and you know when one job needs to jump the queue.

deal with difficult people in the workplace

Different strokes for different folks

If you’ve never heard of personality typing, basically what it means is that there are a whole cast of different “types” of personality that people can roughly be grouped into.

Some people are more task oriented, some people feed off talking about ideas, some love the details, and some love communication. If you want to learn more about grouping, Google NLP personalities, Myers Briggs or DISC training.

Businesses need employees from all different ‘types” because every type has something different and important to offer a company. For example, the detail-orientated people make sure mistakes don’t happen and the visionaries move the big ideas forward. Ideally, a company will be made up of all different personality types, so that it has a rounded business approach.

If you find yourself clashing with someone, or irritated by someone, observe them for a day.

Try to work out what their personality style is, what they react to positively and negatively and what gets the best out of them.

When you next interact with them, try to use the information you have gathered to find a better way to work with them, to get on with them. Often a personality clash comes from not really understanding a person.

If you need to chat in the morning, and someone ignores you, that can make you feel rejected and angry. What you might not understand is that they are task oriented, and have a need to focus all their energy on a task until it’s completed, then they’ll chat.

Knowing where a person is coming from can go a long way to building strong working relationships.

deal with difficult people in your team

Do a Craig David and just walk away

If you have a co-worker or a boss who gets aggressive or starts to shout at you, take a leaf out of the famous Craig David song of the early 21st century titled Walking Away.

Honestly, yelling, shouting and intimidating behaviour is bullying and you don’t have to put up with it.

If it starts to happen, as coolly and calmly as you can, tell the person that you are going to leave and come back when they’ve calmed down, then walk away or hang up the phone.

If after leaving and returning (or phoning them back) the behaviour has not changed, then it may be time to take the issue further up the work ladder to your boss. Or if it is your boss who’s doing all the yelling, take it to their boss.

Ignore the excluders and take their power away

You may have an excluder in your office. For some reason, whether it be jealousy, ambition or just plain cruelty, excluders will deliberately try to sabotage you or make you feel left out in the cold, by ignoring you, or only giving you a bit of information about a job, task or social event.

The only way to deal with these people, is to ignore them right back. Don’t feed whatever is going on with them by playing into their trap. Just ignore it all together.

If the exclusion has to do with information you need for work tasks, tell your boss what is going on. Ask your boss to either brief you directly, or to get someone else to brief you with job information. You could also ask other colleagues for information.

deal with difficult people by managing the micromanager

Manage the micromanager

There’s always one. They can’t let anything go. They are always on you for updates and reports, always checking up.

To minimise your stress, and to help you work with them, what you need to do is be on the front foot. Give them updates on progress before they stop in to ask. Keep them in the loop on deadlines, and be proactive with your communication with them.

Basically, what they are really looking for is communication. They want to know all the what’s, the where’s and the when’s. The more you keep them in the loop, the more likely they are to trust you, and give you a bit of breathing room.

Know your triggers and manage your response

We all have our pet peeves. Whether it’s a particular tone someone uses when they want something done, or the way someone will linger over your shoulder talking about their weekend when you really have a lot of work to get on with, or the lady who talks so loudly, people two floors down know about how wonderful her blue cheese salad was.

Knowing your pet peeves and your triggers will go a long way to helping you deal with tricky work situations.

Once you know what your triggers are, you can work out strategies and plans for how to deal with them when someone pushes your buttons.

You may find that going to the bathroom and taking five deep breaths will calm you down, or popping on your headphones and listening to music blocks out the sound of loud co-workers and signals “do not disturb”.

Having a plan can help to manage and eliminate stress. Instead of acting out in the moment, which usually heightens stress and anger, have a plan to calm down, to focus and to brush it all off.

deal with difficult people and confront the problem

Big picture thinking

When things get tough, stop, find a quiet spot, take three deep breaths and think, will this matter in a month? Will it matter in a year? Will I remember this in five years? Is this going to be something I tell at dinner parties 10 years from now?

If the answer to all those questions is no, then brush it off, because in the scheme of your life, it really doesn’t matter.

If the answer is yes, then you may have a problem. You may need to approach your boss, or their boss to chat about the issues and see if they can be resolved. If they can’t, then it may be time to plan your exit from the position.

Find a stress outlet

It’s important that you have an outlet where you can release your stress. This may be exercise (there are whole reams of research proving the stress-relieving power of exercise to calm, focus and energise the body and mind). It could be an art class, or swimming lessons, or working on your car.

Whatever it is, make sure you make time to have it in your life, especially when you are feeling stressed and on edge.

deal with difficult people and relieve stress

Hopefully these tips will help you to navigate the minefields that workplaces can be. If you try them, and they really don’t work, either nothing changes, or things get worse, then you really may be in the wrong job. It may be time for a change.

If they do work, keep them up and enjoy the lifelong benefits you’ll get from knowing how to deal with difficult people and situations.

Time for a change?

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