Working with difficult people is neither pleasant nor stress free. We also know just how unavoidable it can be. Accomplishing your project and career goals requires you to be good at handling difficult people in the workplace, so take a moment to reflect with our top tips for how to handle difficult people in the workplace.
What to Do
You should always be aiming for a solution that betters your team, rather than attempting to "win" a particular situation. The workplace can be competitive, both literally and subconsciously, but resolving problems with a difficult coworker isn't about that.
This isn't to say that you should automatically and immediately take a situation head on; there is good reason to sleep on a situation, not least of which is coming in with a clear head. Rather, we mean that you don't want to let a problem drag out. If something is still bothering you after 24 hours, it's probably a good indication that you need to say something. Waiting only lets a situation fester and can not only make the behavior worse, but make the difficult coworker more defensive (e.g., "you didn't have a problem before").
Sometimes you need to be able to see things from their perspective in order to move forward and resolve the underlying situation. It could be that the coworker feels underutilized or underappreciated in the workplace, or it could be a personal problem. It could also be a simple clash of personality types, but if you close them out of meaningful conversation and contribution, you can't know, and you can't help.
Whether it's for the problematic coworker, yourself, or your team as a whole, difficult situations should always be leveraged into a learning opportunity. Instead of focusing on the negative, consider what constructive insights can be gleaned from the situation. The double benefit here is that it also gives you the opportunity to really address what the core issues are, removing whatever causes the difficult behaviors and promoting a stronger working relationship.
What NOT to Do
Remember, you want to do your utmost to create clear communication that enables understanding and forward movement. Sometimes what seems like a good idea in the moment isn't actually constructive and can end up making a situation worse instead of better.
We cannot emphasize this enough: Always act with respect. Losing your cool will only result in making the difficult coworker feel justified in their position, and is more likely to feed into their behavior rather than find a solution. Staying calm and focused will help keep you alert for clues about what's really going on, and will help you with our next tip.
Always consider your responses in difficult situations. This may mean removing yourself from the situation for a time to process what you feel and what you think about a situation. Hopefully you'll develop a process for working with this person, and acting hastily means you're much more likely to forget that plan. Furthermore, acting hastily can also mean that you forget to take steps that you'll need to if you end up needing to escalate your concerns to your supervisor (e.g., taking notes about situations).
It's always possible that they're not wrong — we all have blind spots after all — but even if they are wrong, approaching the situation from a positive angle is more likely to persuade them and promote finding a solution rather than a tense and difficult situation. Don't use an attack posture with them- this only serves to make them defensive and closed to new ideas or possibilities. Instead, act like you're on their side; in fact, be on their side. They're your co-worker and your teammate, and you're in this together, even if you need to bring them around to a new point of view.
Hopefully, these tips for how to handle difficult people in the workplace will help you keep your sanity and keep your projects on the right track. Remember, you don't have to handle this alone — there's a time and a place to bring in help from within your company. But if you're looking to better the way you're handling difficult people in the workplace, consider courses available from CLIMB Professional Development and Training. Our Working with Difficult People course will give you the opportunity to learn to analyze a situation from multiple perspectives and develop coping strategies in a stress-free environment.