No matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to get along with everyone in the workplace. Maybe your colleague talks over you in staff meetings, or they're always on your back about impending deadlines. It could be that you just don't vibe well or have much in common.
Dealing with a difficult co-worker can test your patience, communication skills and ability to resolve conflict. But here's the thing: finding common ground and practical solutions is crucial if you want to maintain a positive work environment.
Try these strategies to help you handle a difficult co-worker in a considered and respectful way.
1. Identify what you find difficult
Before exploring solutions, it’s helpful to identify a specific problem or set of issues. What exactly is difficult about your colleague's behaviour? Are they disrespecting your work or your personal boundaries? How do their actions make you feel?
Next, think about why these behaviours are challenging for you, suggests SEEK's Resident Psychologist Sabina Read.
"Have you had a similar experience with other people? Do you find working in particular situations challenging?" she says. "You're certainly not responsible for your co-worker's behaviour, but trying to get a better insight into why it's hard for you can help you devise solutions."
2. Look for common ground
Personal differences can lead to problems with co-workers. In fact, SEEK research shows 40% of people have been involved in a workplace dispute around personality conflict. Read says focusing on things you have in common, rather than fixating on or complaining about differences, can help to close the divide.
"We all have things in common even with the trickiest of people," she says. "You might share a preference for a collaborative approach or out-of-the-box thinking. Maybe you've got the same goals but the way you go about meeting those goals is very different.
"You might say to your co-worker, 'I notice that we have different approaches here – can you help me understand your thinking and I will do the same?' You're acknowledging your differences, but you're also expressing what works well for you."
3. Step away from conflict
If you find yourself in conflict with your co-worker, often the most helpful action you can take is to step away and give everyone time to calm down.
"It takes at least 20 minutes for the part of the brain that gets triggered when we're in a state of conflict or agitation to calm down and reset," Read says. "If you continue the conversation when either of you is in this state, you're going to get nowhere.
"It's okay to say, 'It looks like we've got really different ideas on this. Let's circle back tomorrow and revisit this conversation.'"
4. Ask your manager for help
Resist the urge to complain if you approach your manager for help. Instead, focus on outlining what helps you thrive at work – and how the dynamic with your co-worker is getting in the way.
"Knowing yourself and being clear about the conditions you need to be at your best, as opposed to saying your co-worker is difficult, is much more constructive," Read says.
"You might explain that you thrive when you have space and time to think. It's an easier story to tell a manager than your co-worker is breathing down your neck."
If the situation becomes trickier, she suggests documenting problematic behaviour and sharing this information with your manager. "It's not your opinion and it's not coloured by your emotions – it's just the facts presented in an unbiased, non-judgmental way," Read says.
5. Know your rights
If the situation becomes serious and remains unresolved, you can lodge an internal complaint with your manager or HR department, who may arrange mediation.
"Often a person accused of poor conduct is shocked and horrified when they learn that their conduct has caused offence or hurt, and they are willing to apologise and change how they behave," explains Jaenine Badenhorst, an employment lawyer at Empower Law.
Strategies focusing on avoiding and mending conflict can help you deal with a difficult co-worker and contribute to a positive work environment. If the situation escalates, look to your manager or HR team for extra support.
Source: Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published December 2023.