Dealing with Difficult People at Work

Posted: October 14th, 2020

The most effective way of dealing with others.

Written by:  David J. Volk, Esq. | July 1, 2016

        I’d love to say that this article teaches gamesmanship strategies on how to change bad behaviors of others at work but, the reality is, you can’t change other people. They must change themselves. You can (1) better develop your way of thinking and (2) work with your cranky co-workers to more effectively achieve your objectives.

       This article is about, “fixing yourself” as the most effective way of dealing with others. Understanding yourself first, and then seeking to understand the other person. That way, you can try to communicate with them in a mutually beneficial way. Once you are able to fully understand yourself and other people, then you are well on your way to happier work relationships.

       Try to remember that your co-workers are not exactly like you. They see the world differently and have different motivations. Don’t think they will react the way you would or that they are motivated the way you are.


Evaluating and Understanding Types of Difficult People

       Consider some common types of difficult people and big picture strategies. In, Difficult People At Work (Reprinted 2001), the National Institute of Business Management divides difficult people into four main categories. They are:

  1. Power Players which includes types such as tyrants, bullies, credit grabbers, malignants, and bureaucrats. Abuse, manipulation, and control types see the world in black and white. That exterior often covers a neurotic or narcissistic person. To them, power is identity.

Quick Tips: Confrontation is usually not successful. Try to make the person see things in a win-win fashion. Don’t act intimidated. Let them talk, repeat things back to show that you understand what is being said, and then appeal to reason rather than emotion.   

  1.  Indirect Aggressors which includes button pushers, putdown artists, saboteurs, and undercover operators. Think passive-aggressive. This person comes at you indirectly. They have a self-centered, rebellious nature.

Quick Tips: Avoid anger, address the behavior directly and how it affects you, don’t accept excuses, and understand that they will probably tell you what you want to hear but, they may make no real effort to change. Do not depend on them for approval. They are happier making you feel bad. They are best working by themselves with limited direction and a lot of autonomy.

  1.  Underachievers which include coasters, lifers, space cadets, success phobes, and substance abusers. Their drivers are all over the map. It might be personal problems, learning ability and intelligence, poor work habits, or poor self-esteem. Usually, it is attitude rather than aptitude.

Quick Tips: this group cries out for understanding and communication. Try to understand what they see as success and what they hope to accomplish. Place expectations on them, boost self-esteem, keep them learning, let them understand they are important to others, and don’t be afraid to discipline them. Actions should have consequences. 

  1.  Others includes mercurials, perfectionists, control freaks, and bulldozers. Owing to genetics, there are some types that simply cannot change. They tend to have conflict in all aspects of their lives, because of inflexible personality patterns. If you are counting on them for approval, it will be a wild ride.

Quick Tips: For the person that seems to be in conflict with everyone, the logical question is, what is the one constant? It is that they are part of each bad relationship. Your self-worth should not be dependent on this type. Talk with them to let them know that it is important to you to do a great job or if they are stuck, you can help. Again, talk. Let them know how you feel when they are rolling over you.

Try to Understand Others Beyond the Outward Expressions

♦ Who is this person away from the workplace? See the different parts of this person: the parent, grandparent, friend, dancer, skier, singer, or loved one. Chances are, you are only seeing the annoying part of your tormentor? Widen your perspective. Maybe they have personal or financial problems. Try to understand why they are the way they are.

♦ What is their positive intention? Underneath the bad behavior, what do they really want? Respect? Independence? Control? Acknowledgement? Attention? You may realize that you have similar goals, though you seek them out differently.

♦ Why do you think they behave as they do? It’s useful to adopt the attitude that their actions have little (if anything) to do with you. Most people operate out of habit. Even if they don’t get the respect or attention they desire, they can’t change because they don’t know any other way. Maybe the responsibility falls to you, to help them find it. Suggest ways they might achieve their aims more effectively. Be their teacher.


Strategies for Evaluating People Clearly

       See things as they really are at work by eliminating your biases such as double standards and back-up behaviors. Be open minded and actively listen.   

Double Standards

       Do we judge ourselves by the standards we judge others by?



Deserving of what we get

Free rider



Long term perspective

Short term thinker

See the big picture

Narrow vision

Act in organization’s best


Out for themselves



Easy to deal with



Back-Up Behaviors

Under stress or working with difficult people, “back-up behaviors” often kick in. They include:

Avoiding: “I don’t want to talk about it now.”

Acquiescing: “I give up; we’ll do it your way (until I get the chance to do it my way!)”

Attacking: “This is ridiculous (you, your project, your idea)! What are you thinking?”

Autocratic: “That’s the completely wrong solution all round. The facts speak for themselves.”

Don’t give in or give up. See it through.


Benefits of Identifying Biases and Back-Up Behaviors

Helps us to separate the people from the problem.

Encourages us to adopt consensus- based methods of gathering information and making decisions


Be Open Minded

Manage your internal judging voice and seek to understand

Learn to listen actively instead of judging, preparing our response, daydreaming


Engage in Active Listening

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Paraphrase:  Restate what you heard the other person say without necessarily agreeing.

Inquire:  Test your understanding by asking open-ended questions.

Acknowledge:  Listen for the underlying feelings of the other person. Reflect them back.



Hierarchy Situations

The Boss

       A demanding, temperamental or insecure manager can make your work-life miserable. There’s the workaholic who expects you to toil around the clock, and the micromanager who can’t delegate or let go of projects. Or perhaps your manager is hyper-critical and routinely berates you in front of the rest of the team.

A solution. Avoid direct confrontations or passive-aggressive tactics. Accept your differences. Try to understand and respond to your manager’s concerns. Don’t fight, change the subject, or become defensive. Listen. If your boss can’t delegate, for example, it may be because she’s afraid of losing control. To help her feel that she’s in the loop, provide frequent updates and status reports. With a workaholic boss, discuss expectations and mutually acceptable limits on when and for how many hours you’ll work. For critical manager, control your own emotions. Focus on the content of what your manager is saying, rather than the delivery, and try to move toward a resolution.


The Subordinate

       The desired result is an agreed upon solution. Employees need to know what is inappropriate about their behavior and what appropriate behavior is. Clear communication is required. Fact gathering, agreeing on the need for improvement and how it will come about, and follow up to assure it has improved are required.

Evaluate. Act quickly to understand the situation as completely as possible. Act on facts instead of gossip or overbroad allegations. If you have not seen the inappropriate behavior yourself, look into it. Ask the people involved. Collect all the facts you can before you act. Don't delay because you haven't seen the inappropriate behavior. If you played a role in the conflict, remain calm and impartial and acknowledge your role at least to yourself.

Develop a meeting plan. Plan the timing and structure of the meeting. A quiet, private place without interruptions and an agenda or structure for the meeting, discussed below, will help. Decide if you need to have others like an HR representative present.

Deal with the behavior, not the person. Your goal is to develop an agreed upon solution. Focus on the inappropriate behavior; don't attack the person. Use "I" statements like "I need everybody on the team here on time so we can meet our goals" rather than "you" statements like "you are always late." Give the other person a chance to develop the solution. They are more likely to own the solution if they help develop it. An agreed upon personal improvement plan can set forth the bad behavior, the reason it is bad for the organization and the employee, and steps that will be taken by the person to improve.

Try to draw out the reasons behind the behavior. As you talk with the difficult employee, actively listen to what they say. Stay calm and stay positive, but remain impartial and non-judgmental. Ask leading questions that can't be answered in one or two words. Don't interrupt. When you do respond to the difficult employee, remain calm. Summarize back to them what they just said, "so what I understand you are saying is", so they know you are actually listening to them. Do not let them change the subject.

Repeat as needed. Minor problems, like tardiness may be resolved with a simple chat in your office with the employee. More ingrained behaviors may need more than one confrontation. Be patient. Don't always expect instant results. Aim for continuous improvement rather than trying to achieve instant success.

Explain the consequences. Make very sure they understand the requirements and the consequences which could include an unpaid leave, pay cut, demotion, and termination.

Know when you are in over your head. Sometimes the issue will be beyond your capabilities. The employee may have problems that require professional help. Learn when to keep trying and when to refer the employee to others for more specialized help.

Know when you are at the end. When you reach an impasse and the employee is not willing to change his or her behavior then you need to begin termination procedures in accordance with company policies and legally appropriate strategy.


Equal Level Coworker

These are nine productive ways to deal with your difficult coworker.

  1. Examining yourself.Are you sure that the other person is really the problem and that you're not overreacting? Have you always experienced difficulty with the same type of person or actions? Does a pattern exist for you in your interaction with coworkers? Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed?
  2. Discuss what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or colleague.Brainstorm ways to address the situation.
  3. Have a private discussion.Talk to them about what you are experiencing in “I” messages. Explain the impact of their actions on you. Be pleasant. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions on you. They may be learning about their impact on you for the first time. Attempt to agree about positive and supportive actions going forward. AVOID email arguments. If something is going off track, talk. It is just too easy to escalate by email.
  4. Follow up after the initial discussion.Has the behavior changed? Gotten better? Or worse? Will a follow-up discussion have any impact? Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself.
  5. Confront your difficult coworker’s behavior publicly. Deal with the person with gentle humor or slight sarcasm. Or, make an exaggerated physical gesture such as a salute or place your hand over your heart to indicate a serious wounding. Each of us is not spur-of-the-moment funny, but if you are, you can use the humor well with difficult coworkers.
  6. If little or no success, it’s time to involve others.You are escalating the situation. Prepare to talk with your boss. Take notes and address the issues, not as interpersonal problems, but as issues affecting your productivity, the work and your progress on projects. Be very specific to show it is not a personality conflict.
  7. Carefully rally other employees.Sometimes, a group approach convinces the boss the behavior is wide and deep. Be careful. Know what works with your boss. You want to solve your problem, not make it look as if you are rabble-rousing and ganging up.
  8. Limit the difficult person's access to you. Avoid working with the person when possible. Leave voluntary committees, choose projects he or she does not impact. Make sure this won’t hurt your career or business.
  9. Transfer to a new position. "Fight or flight"  What happiness and success price are you willing to pay to stay? You need to decide whether the good outweighs the bad. If the good wins, stop complaining and get back to work.


Helping People Take Responsibility

Obstacles to Taking Responsibility

Many are unable to accept personal responsibility for their actions. Some causes are:

 Feelings of Insecurity. Low self-esteem should be considered. Being raised in a chaotic environment with constant put downs and being yelled at or emotionally abused, an underprivileged environment, parents dealing with the same feelings, a lack of attention, positive reinforcement, or recognition growing up can be the source.

Arrogance. It can be inherited. Over confidence can make one completely self-centered and see themselves as flawless and incapable of making mistakes. Some are so insecure that their arrogance is a way of compensating for their insecurities. Acting superior can mask not feeling that way.

Perceiving Prejudice. Some feel like victims of discrimination, intolerance, or narrow-mindedness and are always on guard or on edge. They feel unable to get the recognition they deserve and feel that others stand in their way of progress. This triggers feelings of insecurities that results of the inability to accept responsibility for their actions.


Responsibility Tactics

       Getting a person to accept responsibility is often difficult. You will be doing them a favor if they instill the habit. Accepting that a person has a problem in an area and learning ways of taking responsibility for those actions takes your life to a higher level of existence. They will feel more vibrant and happier. So, how can a person learn to take responsibility? Try to make them:

       Realize they cannot place the blame on others for their choices.

       Understand it's ok to make mistakes. Rather than thinking less of them, the person will earn the respect of others for admitting errors.

       Seek to improve self-esteem. If self-perception and self-worth is so peaked that there's no need to pretend to be something else, life gets easier. There's no more need to feel sorry for one’s self. Feelings of inferiority dissipate. Then, admitting poor judgment in a situation and taking responsibility comes easier.

       Build self-confidence. Confidence in one’s abilities prevents becoming defensive after a mistake.

       Giving of one’s self in service to others teaches empathy and compassion which helps one to overcome self-centeredness.

       Letting go of fear and accepting who they are through learning to love one’s self unconditionally.

       Learn to see things objectively without bias, prejudice, or bigotry or feelings of victimization. Learn to see yourself as a victor overcoming adversity rather than a victim.



Have a Forgiving Spirit

       One key step we can take to avoid letting difficult situations haunt us it to learn forgiveness. In Dealing With Hurts, (Intouch,org) Dr. Charles Stanley tells us we can be shaped by childhood experiences that make us incapable of forgiving others. If we heal, we will accept others’ humanity. Stanley sees ten common phases related to hurtful situations and forgiveness.

1)  We get hurt. The seeds of non-forgivingness are planted when we are wronged or hurt physically, emotionally, or verbally. We may feel pain, abandonment, embarrassment, hatred, or some other negative emotion. But I believe all hurt has its roots in rejection.

2)  We become confused. Often our first response to hurt is bewilderment. In this stage, we may think, This is not really happening. We may even have a physical reaction, such as a deep feeling of emptiness in the pit of the stomach. This phase is usually short-lived.

3)  We look for detours. We find ways of avoiding painful thoughts and memories. We take mental detours such as to drink heavily or use drugs. We also take physical detours, avoiding certain people, places, and things. Anything that reminds us of the hurt becomes off-limits.

4)  We dig a hole. After rearranging our thought patterns and lives to avoid contact with any reminder of our hurt, we attempt to forget that the painful experience ever occurred.

5)  We deny it. Denying we were ever hurt, we may say, "Oh, I dealt with that" or "I forgave him long ago." Breaking out of this stage can be tough. Stanley says he has met scores of adults who are carrying around a load of bitterness. It's demonstrated through their temper or other negative behaviors.

6)  We become defeated. Resentment will still work its way out through our behavior. A short temper, oversensitivity, shyness, a critical spirit—all of these can be evidence of unresolved rejection. We can move, find a new job, change friends or spouses, make New Year's resolutions, memorize Scripture, get counseling, or undertake any number of spiritual exercises, but until we deal with the root of the problem, transformation will not be possible.

7)  We become discouraged. This is often where we seek professional help or bail out of our present circumstances altogether. Furthermore, an unforgiving spirit destroys respect, which is critical to the health of a relationship.

8)  We discover the truth. Through someone's help or by God's grace, we discover the root of bitterness. The pieces finally fit together, and we are able to see the connection between the past and the present.

9)  We take responsibility. In this stage, we decide to quit blaming others or expecting them to change and open our hearts.

10)  We are delivered. For those who are willing to deal with an unforgiving spirit, the final outcome is deliverance.


David Volk, a Business Litigation Attorney with Volk Law Offices, P.A., has 29 years’ experience and can be reached at or by visiting VolkLaw online at 

The matters discussed here are general in nature and are not to be relied upon as legal advice. Every specific legal matter requires specific legal attention. 

The law is constantly changing and matters discussed today may not be the same tomorrow. Legal matters are also subject to different interpretations by attorneys, judges, jurors and scholars. No attorney-client relationship is intended or created as a result of matters discussed here. You should consult counsel of your choice if you have any dealings in these areas of the law. Volk Law Offices, P.A. and its attorneys make no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the matters addressed.