How To: Deal With Difficult People At Work

Posted in : How To... with Dr. Gerry McMahon on 4 January 2022
Dr. Gerry McMahon
Productive Personnel Ltd
Issues covered: HR Matters; Difficult people; Policies and procedures.


Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. So, your approach to dealing with them should be driven by the type of difficult person and behaviour that you’re experiencing. Of course, how you deal with the dilemma will also depend on your self-esteem, self-confidence, professional courage and particular circumstances. Given the variety of tricky types one encounters, this article summarises the ‘Top 10 Tips’ that are widely acknowledged as helping us to cope with unnecessary and unhelpful interferences with our ability to do a decent day’s work.

 1. Know Yourself 

A helpful starting point when dealing with difficult people is to look in the mirror. This can be a difficult process, but it is an important first step to successfully dealing with the problem. That is, it helps if you can ask yourself whether you are contributing to the ‘difficult person’ dilemma.  By honestly assessing your strengths and development needs, your emotions and their effect on you and others, the prospect of a positive result can be significantly enhanced. Put plainly, honest answers to straight questions can be hugely beneficial (e.g., Am I overreacting in any way? Do I have any sensitive spots or problematic patterns?). If your response to this self-assessment is: ‘I’m perfect’, you now really need unbiased honest third party ‘warts and all’ feedback!

It’s also true that we can overlook the way we react with difficult people, failing to see the feedback loop of unhelpful behaviour that you’ve both developed over time. So, with the right feedback and insights, you’re now better placed to be the one to break this loop and to interact in a more appropriate way. This will allow you to move forward in a positive and progressive manner when interacting with the difficult person, as you view it as a development opportunity rather than a crisis point.

2. Team Members Are Different

It’s well known that effective teams are comprised of different styles, personalities and approaches – and your style can clash with others. However, that may be just what the team needs. You may find that the ‘difficult co-worker’ isn't actually doing anything wrong, it’s just simply that you don't gel easily with their personality-type. This is a normal part of life, and it may be that – for your and the team’s success - you must learn to accept that and get along with them. So, try to find things you enjoy about their personality and give them a chance to show their good side. It also helps to remember that though you can’t control the behaviour of others, you certainly can control your response.

3. Keep Calm

Calm co-workers are commonly viewed as being in control, centred and more dignified. Most of us prefer interactions at work with those who are calm rather than edgy. Indeed, it may be that when your ‘difficult person’ gets the message that you are cool, calm and controlled - despite their provocations - their response may be the behaviour you desired. So, ‘losing the rag’ is rarely the best way to get a colleague’s collaboration. And using bad words to express a bad mood doesn’t help either, as you’ll have many opportunities to change your mood, but you won’t get the opportunity to retract the spoken word. So, just because someone spoke to you with disrespect, gossiped about you or did something offensive, don’t stoop to their level by responding in kind.

4. Empathise

We don’t always know what’s going on in another person’s life. As the comedian John Cleese advised in his assertiveness skills training video some years ago: ‘Just imagine that on their way into work this morning they reversed over their favourite pet on the driveway’! The point is that whatever the situation, avoiding judgement in preference to practising empathy can help you to understand why a colleague is behaving in a difficult manner. Who knows what’s going on in their personal life?

With some empathy and compassion, you may discover that if you were in similar straits, you would be doing the same thing(s) or worse. By getting to know them a bit better, you may see that their circumstances and experiences affect their behaviour and perspectives, ultimately helping you to understand the way they see things. Trying to understand where a co-worker is coming from may make it easier to get along with them.

5. Meet Fire with Friendliness

Instead of reflecting about how to get revenge on the ‘difficult person’, ask how you can help them. If you react to their provocations, it may encourage them. So, avoid the reaction, by ignoring it or responding in a manner that feigns indifference. It may even be more effective to disarm them, by asking how they are - as you want to make sure they’re okay. Now you’re presenting as supportive as opposed to a threat, or an ally rather than an adversary. By taking time to get to know someone, you gain insights as what makes them tick and by showing concern, their behaviour may change, as they start to show you the respect you deserve. If you treat a person with disrespect, it's not surprising if they respond in kind. As the old maxim runs: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, as you become a role model that provides a learning opportunity for the ‘difficult person’.

6. Ask Others

Building alliances with co-workers can be helpful when dealing with difficult or destructive workplace behaviour. It’s highly likely that others have or are experiencing similar difficulties with the offending employee. So, a tactful inquiry can confirm this, allowing others to volunteer their ‘take’ on the matter. By listening to this ‘take’, one can get invaluable advice as to how best to deal with the difficult person. It may also confirm that you’re not the problem! Don’t take matters personally, as you discover that the ‘difficult person’ is widely perceived as being just that!

7. Ignore, Avoid or Formalise

If possible, limit the time you spend with the difficult person. Dealing with them in small doses - whilst building relationships with others – should help. Just focus on your job tasks and minimise interactions with the difficult person. Avoidance is a viable option in some circumstances. Of course, with the ‘right to disconnect’ and remote working now standard fare for many, it’s also much more feasible to formalise working relationships (e.g. via emails, text messages). This is the ideal solution when dealing with malicious gossip and (best avoided) negative people!

8. The Quiet Word

If you want some happiness at work, you must address the irritating issue(s). As per your organisation’s ‘Dignity at Work’ policy, you are entitled to respect and in such circumstances, it directs you - preferably privately - to tell the offending party how you feel, what the problem is or what you need from them. Be constructive and solution-oriented. Whatever their response – apologetic, defensive, dismissive or counter-attacking – they now know that it’s risky to persist with the bad behaviour, as there’s a prospect that the matter will be escalated.

Of course, they may not be aware of the effect of their behaviour or comments, so reaching agreement about positive and supportive actions for the future may prove simple and straightforward. Pick a quiet moment when you can talk to them calmly about the issues of concern, with a view to agreeing how best you can work together (e.g. appropriate interactions, what can and can't be done, realistic timeframes, dealing with urgent issues, tones/vibes). Don’t focus on the past and what can’t be changed. Focus on actionable steps that will improve matters. It may also help if - in a pleasant and agreeable manner - you tell them what you are experiencing in ‘I’ messages, focusing on your experience of situations, rather than attacking or accusing the other person and involving others (see previous article: ‘How to Have a Difficult Conversation at Work’

9. Get Support

If the problem persists, you must decide whether a follow-up discussion is needed or would have the desired impact. If not - and you’ve tried everything to diffuse the ‘difficult person’ scenario – it’s time to seek support. As noted above, talking to a trusted colleague may help. It may also help to talk with your manager or even someone in the Human Resources Dept., as you explain how the ‘difficult person’ affects your work progress. From a starting point where you just want to do a good day’s work in harmony with others, they should be able to help you succeed in this pursuit. A checklist of the difficult person’s adverse behaviours can help to focus minds, prove evidential and help you to find ways of resolving any conflict or ill-feeling in a manner that enables mutual respect at work.

However, this is the ‘nuclear option’ and shouldn't be deployed unless all other avenues have been explored. Careful preparation is required for this meeting, allowing you to present as calm and considered when communicating the problem(s), how they affect you and your job and how you would like them to be addressed.

10. Move On

The average working life in Ireland runs to well over 37 years. So, if ‘How we spend our days is how we spend our lives’,you may want to re-consider where you’re working. That is, if all of the aforementioned approaches to the ‘difficult person’ fail, you could request a transfer to a different department within the organisation or - given the current proliferation of ‘Staff Wanted’ advertisements - quit the job. Happiness and success are too high a price to pay by staying where you are.


In the unlikely event that none of these ‘top tips’ serve to successfully address your ‘difficult person’ conundrum, it will help to revisit your assertiveness skill-set at: How To: Be Assertive At Work, thus ensuring that you can:

  1. state your needs and feelings in an honest way;
  2. be clear and direct in what you are saying and
  3. stand up for your rights without violating the rights of others.

You shouldn’t be experiencing negative emotions at work - anger, pain, humiliation, fear and concern should play no part in your endeavours, when doing a decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay’. The benefits of rising to the challenge will stand to you.

This article is correct at 04/01/2022

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Dr. Gerry McMahon
Productive Personnel Ltd

The main content of this article was provided by Dr. Gerry McMahon. Contact telephone number is +353 1 490 7490 or email

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