Dealing With Difficult Co-Workers

Ah, the joys of the working world. Many of us wouldn’t choose to work if we won the lottery; for most of us it’s a necessity. And dealing with colleagues who challenge us emotionally often has a big part to play in our overall work satisfaction.

I must admit my biases before I begin.  While I spent a decade and a half working for and with others, I no longer do.  I’m now joyfully self-employed. So, I make my comments from a different vantage point now.  Yet, it’s an issue I remember well.

What is a difficult Co-Worker?

I used to have a theory that wherever you work, there is always that one co-worker that really stands out; that person planted there, through some kind of divine placement, designed to help us to grow as a person.  Well, it may not be that deliberate, but sometimes it feels that way.

Difficult co-workers can be anyone we work with that triggers distress for us, in any level of authority. Problem colleagues may challenge us both consciously (in ways we are aware of), and subconsciously (in ways beneath our awareness).  Here are some examples:

Staff Meeting

Conscious Thoughts

“He’s always dominating the meeting. He’s so controlling.”

Unconscious Thoughts

“He’s just like my father.”

Reports to You

Conscious Thoughts

“Can’t she just work independently for once?! She’s coming to me with every little thing!”

Unconscious Thoughts

“Her neediness triggers the needy traits within me that I hate so much.”

Supervising You

Conscious Thoughts

“He’s always breathing down my neck, monitoring every little thing!”

Unconscious Thoughts

“I can’t stand being scrutinized, just like my ex did to me!”

Conscious thoughts can be difficult: sometimes they dominate our mental space and we ruminate.  Troublesome thoughts can be relentless; we get caught in a loop or dialogue inside our head that’s difficult to break out of. It’s the unconscious thoughts, however  that have the potential to create the most havoc with our psyche: it’s hard to address a problem that we can’t see.

Common Workplace Conflicts

What is a conflict to one person may be nothing to another, although some situations are more common than others.  These include:

  • When our authority is threatened or questioned
  • When our autonomy is threatened, diluted or removed
  • Change in the working conditions/job description, particularly if you have no say in the process
  • Personality clashes
  • When we feel unappreciated or unfairly compensated
  • When we feel unsupported or ignored
  • When we feel disrespected
  • When workload demands are too high or are unreasonable
  • When we feel micromanaged or mistrusted
  • When we are understimulated or underchallenged
  • Communication problems

Other factors which enhance conflict

These include feeling: hungry and tired, having personal problems outside of the work situation and difficulty with alcohol or drugs.

And larger, more systemic and sometimes even sinister forces can exist too, such as workplace bullying or sexual harassment. Professional legal, medical or mental health support may be needed.

How To Deal…Some Tips

Practice Mindfulness: This is the foundation for responding sanely and consciously to others. If we know what is going on inside our mind and body, we can make and informed decision about how we want to deal with the situation we are in.

Be Aware: notice your thoughts and feelings coming and going. Don’t grab hold of them, don’t push them away. Notice thoughts, feelings and body sensations.  For example, this may look like: “I can feel that my brow has become all knitted up. I’m having worried thoughts about how to get my work done for the deadline that my boss has given me. I’m also worried about how she will react if I don’t meet that deadline. I’m actually feeling kind of panicked.”

Be Present: If you’re writing a report, keep bringing your mind back, over and over, to writing the report.

Active Listening: While this topic is an article in itself, highlights include reflecting back what you have just heard, staying focused in the present and on the presenting issue, choosing an appropriate time and space for listening and using “I” statements when needing to express yourself.

Be Assertive: Again, an article of its own. This includes healthy psychological boundaries, describing behaviour (as opposed to personal attacks) and stating what you need in positive terms.

Be Practical: While it’s never generally a good idea to “run away” from problems, sometimes a change is in order. Maybe feelings of obligation are tying you to a job which is stunting your career and your happiness. Maybe you crave stability and are fearful of making a change that could take you to new heights. Maybe you have a toxic boss or a workplace bully and you need to get out of the situation, for your own mental health.  There are many valid reasons for finding new work.

Further Reading

The book links on this page are Amazon Associate links; if you choose to make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission which I use to fund my low-cost counselling resource lists. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide To Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab (2021)

This book has emerged as a prominent and popular choice for those who wish to better understand emotional boundaries and communicate more effectively. Straightforward and practical.

The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Patterson (2022)

This book was first written when there was very little on the market to help with assertiveness skills. This practical workbook for understanding and improving assertiveness is now in its 2nd edition.