Navigating Difficult Co-workers

Remember those dreaded group-projects in high school where you were put into groups that were not of your choosing?

Sometimes walking into our workplaces can feel eerily similar. We haven’t made the hiring decision to work with the people on our team and can be startlingly aware that each co-worker comes with their own personality, work style, and at times, unfortunately, their grievances and insecurities.

The good news is, if you find yourself in a workplace with difficult people, there is hope! You’re being presented with an opportunity to strengthen your resilience, exercise boundaries and increase your soft skills that are becoming invaluable to employers in the hiring process.

Learning how to work with people who are challenging and different from you is a major skill to have under your belt. In a study conducted by LinkedIn recently of 1000 working adults, 26% said their largest workplace struggle was dealing with co-workers.

So how do we navigate difficult co-workers effectively and help to alleviate this struggle? What are the strategies to deal with people in a way that produces growth, progress and reduces frustration?

While the reasons behind why someone is considered ‘difficult’ may vary, there are some universal principles that can help. We’ve listed a few of them here for you:

Avoid pointing the finger and take a moment to look at yourself…

Firstly, it’s important to note that you cannot change anybody else’s behaviour; as much as you try. A powerful realisation for every human to come to is that, as Nancy Colier, Psychotherapist, author, and relationship coach says, ‘…we can’t make another person want to or be able to change. But we can always make the choice to shift our attention inward, to focus the lens of curiosity onto ourselves.’ This self-evaluation is not to place blame but rather to try to understand why another person’s actions actually make us feel the way they do. Once we can name what a particular person triggers in us, we are able to have more control over how we react; even if their actions do not change.

Pointing a finger of blame on someone else will not help the situation when trying to approach an issue with a colleague. Management specialist Karen Gately says,

“For example, if you say, ‘You’re behaving badly and it’s stopping us from being able to work together’, that’s a very blaming, accusing thing to say. Instead, say, ‘I think it’s really important we have a great working relationship, but here’s something that’s making that difficult’. It’s about being honest about how things have to change.”

Use the STOP model.

Author Adam Brady created the STOP model for people to use as a way of disarming a situation and preparing themselves to enter into healthy confrontation. Again, it addresses what you can do to control yourself rather than the other person. STOP stands for:

  • Stop whatever you’re doing

  • Take 3 deep breaths

  • Observe how your body feels

  • Proceed with kindness and compassion

No matter how challenging a person or situation is, pausing and breathing is a great way to calm yourself down and not let your emotions take over before you have a conversation or confront an issue.

Sometimes, if a person is particularly upset and expresses this through raising their voice or aggressive behavior, even after you’ve asked them to stop, the best thing to do can be let them know you can have a conversation with them when they can talk in an appropriate manner and then walk away.

Gately says, “You don’t want to go into war and go toe-to-toe but it is important to have the courage and confidence to let people know when they are behaving in ways that have an adverse impact on us, and to let people know that what they are doing is undermining your ability to have a healthy relationship with them.

Seek Understanding and Pick Your Battles

So often, when we find someone difficult, it’s because they’re different from us and we don’t understand why they do what they do or say what they say. Listening with intent to someone with a different perspective to us is vitally important and requires patience and letting go of the need to be the smartest person in the room. Sometimes people are simply desiring to be heard.

When we become defensive or always insistent on our opinion being heard, we can turn a conversation into a heated argument that is completely unnecessary, even if we disagree with what the person is saying.

There are certainly times when it is important to speak up and share an opinion or thought process, but there are many times in our day to day office interactions in which we feel the need to defend a position more because of our ego than anything else. If keeping your mouth shut at certain times is the difference between friendly encounters in the workplace and stiff, on edge interactions, ask yourself if it’s a battle worth fighting or one you can let go of. You might also learn something that you hadn’t expected to.


If you are an Accounting/Finance Professional interested in exploring new opportunities in the Brisbane market we’d love to hear from you on (07) 3135 9780.

Leave a comment