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How to deal with difficult coworkers and still be professional

June 3, 2022 - 12 min read


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Why is knowing how to deal with difficult coworkers important?

Before anything, check in with yourself

The different types of difficult coworkers and how to deal with them

How to deal with any kind of difficult coworker 

Everyone has a story about a difficult coworker. 

There’s always someone who never shows up on time, who borrows your favorite pen and never gives it back, or is regularly rude to you

In small doses, this behavior is tolerable. Everyone makes mistakes or has a bad day. But if it happens daily, their conduct becomes a pattern. Over time, however, this kind of difficult coworker can lower your job satisfaction and impact your overall well-being

Some studies even show that difficult coworkers can lead employees to leave their companies

So how can you deal with difficult coworkers? First, remember that managing these relationships is a vital part of office politics. Frustrated outbursts and angry behavior will only harm your career and contribute to a toxic workplace.

To keep your career on track and find some peace at work, use these 8 tips for how to deal with a difficult coworker. You’ll be on your way to maintaining a healthy and harmonious work environment before you know it. 


Why is knowing how to deal with difficult coworkers important?


In every area of life, you’re bound to meet someone that you find challenging to be around. The workplace is no exception. The difference is that while you might be able to snub someone at the supermarket, doing so at work could have an impact on your career

Retaliation against a mean coworker might seem satisfying at the moment. However, it’s worth thinking twice about. One passive-aggressive remark can turn into full-blown hostility. This can only make life more stressful than before. 

This kind of conflict can also ruin your relationship with your other coworkers. They likely won’t recognize that you are simply defending yourself by lashing out. Instead, you could be seen as another difficult person in the office. 

If you retaliate, you could also contribute to normalizing toxic behavior at work. This could eventually erode any positive culture that currently exists. That’s not an ideal outcome if your goal was to improve your quality of life.

Dealing with a difficult coworker is a delicate matter. You have a right to a peaceful work environment and a right to speak up for yourself. However, the workplace makes addressing your coworker a little complicated. The good news? You can learn exactly what steps you need to take to improve your work life.

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Before anything, check in with yourself

Before risking a potential conflict, take a moment to examine your feelings. Why does this person bother you so much? You should discern if you’re dealing with a coworker who is uncooperative, lazy, or downright mean.

We often dislike individuals because they remind us of someone from our past or have qualities we dislike in ourselves. Naming these feelings might be enough to diffuse your frustration. 

Journaling is a great way to put your thoughts into words and channel your negative emotions elsewhere. You can also try talking it out with a professional. BetterUp, for example, can help you navigate these workplace relationships by providing objective guidance. 

It’s also worth examining your own behavior. Think back on whether you’ve been rude or if you might’ve done something to instigate this situation. Remember, at the end of the day, the only person you can control is yourself. What can you do to improve things now, instead of waiting for someone else to change? 

The different types of difficult coworkers and how to deal with them

There are many constructive ways to deal with a difficult colleague, but the strategies vary depending on the person. Here are 5 common types of difficult coworkers and how to deal with them. 


1. The sloth

This person is generally considered a slacker. They complete their work, but only just, and they thrive on doing the bare minimum. They’re often slow, working up to the deadline when they could easily finish right away. 

The sloth is particularly frustrating if your own work depends on theirs. 

Solution: First of all, be kind and respectful. Speak to them privately. Ask about the ETA for their work and politely push for an explanation. They might have personal issues you don’t know about. If they don’t appear to have a good reason, tell them how their tardiness affects your work, as this might be the kick they need to work faster.

Track your attempts at addressing this difficult situation. If you fail on several occasions, your manager or human resources department can help with conflict resolution.

2. The bellyacher

Look, we all need to blow off steam sometimes. But it can be exhausting when a colleague never stops complaining. These types of coworkers dwell on problems and rarely offer solutions. After a while, the negativity can be grating. It can even make you more unhappy with your job over time, even if you truly enjoy it. 

Solution: Try acknowledging your difficult coworker’s complaints and subtly moving the conversation elsewhere. You can also ask them to pitch a solution. Remind them that nothing will change unless someone takes action. Since they seem passionate about the issue, why not them?

Another way to surprise the bellyacher is to offer a contrasting opinion. Continuing to be kind and respectful, you can simply say, “I actually enjoyed that meeting.” If you don’t echo their complaints, this difficult coworker will likely get bored and move onto the next person. 

3. The center of attention

Some people love the spotlight but don’t like working for it. This person will often take credit for other people’s achievements. Usually, this behavior masks their underlying insecurities.

Solution: This is a case where it’s more productive to focus on yourself. Keep a list of your accomplishments and share it with your manager to help them recognize your work before someone else takes credit for it. 


4. The hotshot

You might have a team member who fancies themself a know-it-all. They’re loud in meetings, rarely accept criticism, and make reckless decisions. These people like to steamroll over other people’s ideas.

Solution: This might be difficult, but try asking for their advice on a problem. This shows you’re willing to have a positive relationship. They may learn to trust you and be more inclined to hear your ideas.

If that doesn’t work, be direct. Explain that you don’t feel heard. Maybe this person doesn’t know their behavior is harming people. 

5. The gossip

There’s such a thing as innocent office gossip, but sometimes, it can go too far. This person talks behind people’s backs and spreads unverified rumors. Anyone who remembers high school knows how this behavior can cause harm. Put-downs and gossip have no place in a workplace.

Solution: Don’t participate. When the conversation turns negative, simply leave and don’t repeat the rumors. You can also try changing the subject. If someone is spreading particularly harmful lies, politely ask them to stop. 

How to deal with any kind of difficult coworker 

Outside of the above scenarios, here are some general ways to stay sane around a difficult coworker.


1. Avoid them if you can

Some people are best in small doses. Don’t feel bad limiting your interactions with them. To avoid drama, remember to be kind and continue to engage in small talk. Don’t give them the cold shoulder — just keep your time with your difficult coworker brief. 

2. Don’t let them push your buttons

Figure out why your difficult coworker bothers you so much. What behaviors are the most bothersome? What buttons do they push? When they start exhibiting those traits, you can politely excuse yourself. You can also work on coping mechanisms such as deep breathing.

3. Stay positive

Don’t let a difficult coworker burn you out. Remember why you love your job and focus on the people who bring you joy. This will help protect your mental health in the long run.

4. Don’t take it personally

A difficult coworker’s behavior isn’t your fault. Let it slide off your shoulders, and only intervene when it interferes with your actual work and professional goals.

BetterUp can help you learn how to deal with difficult coworkers and navigate these relationships. Whether you need career advice, to find better work-life balance, or help developing your career, we’ll always be in your corner.

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Published June 3, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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