How To Deal With Difficult People At Work

Resist the urge to blame.


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Last updated: March 20th, 2024


Last updated: March 20th, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Challenging encounters at work are very common. You may have a coworker, boss or client who you find difficult to deal with. But labelling them as “difficult person” and failing to take charge of the situation won’t help.

While difficult people at work undoubtedly exist, blaming them for the issue is not the best first step.

After all, difficult people seem to follow you around from workplace to workplace.

Don’t they?

  • I will show you how to handle challenging workplace situations.
  • But I won’t mollycoddle you and tell you what you want to hear.

I’ll cover strategies for identifying and working with truly difficult people, techniques for resolving conflicts and ways you how to be less difficult yourself.

(Related: How To Tap Into Australia’s Hidden Job Market).

Why The Mainstream Narrative About “Difficult People” Is Wrong.

You’ll find plenty of articles that wax on about the prevalence of toxic workplaces and epidemics of difficult people that plague our workplaces.

This topic is a favourite among dying legacy media journalists, because it attracts a never-ending stream of clicks from those who seek comfort and sympathy rather than actionable strategies.

Don’t succumb to the cosy, disempowering victim platitudes. Put yourself back in the driver’s seat with these views instead:

  • You’re 100% responsible for your situation.
  • Four options are available to you: get better at navigating office politics, identify your role in causing workplace conflict, get better at holding people to account, decide to leave.
  • Avoid the temptation to label people as “difficult”. People are not difficult – situations are. You can get better at handling situations, or learn to avoid them. (Notice how the power is back in your hands?)
  • Don’t succumb to the temptation to play armchair psychologist. “Narcissist”, “passive-aggressive”, and “insecure” people exist in every workplace, but indulging in these diagnoses is usually a waste of your time.

(Related: The Tactful Way To Turn Down A Job Offer).

How Mainstream Advice Keeps You Stuck.

Workplace conflict is always a two-way street, and human interactions are complex.

Yet, low-resolution advice is everywhere – and it fails to help you see your own blind spots. For example, Google “how to identify difficult a difficult boss”, and you’ll find these gems:

  • They exhibit “toxic traits” like being picky & bossy.
  • They insist on having everything their own way.
  • They leave you out of important conversations.
  • They second-guess everything you say or do.
  • You don’t feel comfortable around them.

While that is technically true, it’s also true that every underperforming employee with a good boss who runs a tight ship will view that boss in exactly the ways described above.

The challenging part is figuring out which situation you’re in.


If you fail to figure it out, you’ll jump around from job to job, trying to escape “difficult coworkers”, “overly demanding bosses”, and “terrible team players”. Your career will stall, and you’ll become resentful – looking for a person, an institution, a gender or a race to blame.

5 Unacceptable Behaviours You Must Fight Against.

Am I saying you should always look inwards and turn the other cheek? Of course not.

People will do dysfunctional things you won’t find acceptable, and you must learn to identify and call them out. Here are the 5 boundaries that your colleagues must not cross:

  • Aggression (physical and verbal).
  • Sexual harassment.
  • Namecalling, silent treatment.
  • Poor work ethic (blaming, poor integrity, making excuses).
  • Negative attitude (cynical, complaining).

Strategies For Dealing With A Difficult Person.

If you identify any of the above behaviours, learn to stand up for yourself and address them – to reinforce boundaries and prevent further escalation.

1. Organise A Private Discussion.

Arranging private discussions with the person is the most effective first step to addressing challenging behaviours.

 To do this: 

  • Approach the person calmly and respectfully and clearly state your intention to have a private conversation
  • Schedule a convenient time and place for both parties that provides privacy. 
  • Use positive language during the discussion to describe the issue (“I’d like to improve our communication” instead of “Your communication is bad”).
  • Actively listen to the other person’s perspective. 
  • Try to identify common ground.

2. Establish Boundaries And Remain Calm.

If the so-called difficult person refuses to meet you for a private conversation, you can go ahead with establishing boundaries to protect your productivity and mental well-being.

Expert Advice.

Be firm and clear about what behaviour you will and won’t accept from them and the consequences for unacceptable behaviour (you escalate this to your manager). This is best communicated over a private email.

3. Focus On What You Can Control.

With any toxic colleague, it’s often a waste of time trying to convince them to change their behaviour. Instead, focus on what is in your control!

You can: 

  • Manage your emotions: A vital step. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by anger or frustration, which is often gasoline to the fire for them. 
  • Step away from the situation and practice empathy: If moments become heated, remove yourself and return when you can clearly approach the situation. 
  • Focus on your work: Continue being a collaborative person who demonstrates positive and supportive actions towards your colleagues. 
  • Look after your health: Stress in the workplace can often impact your personal life. It’s important to talk to friends and family, make time for physical activity, take tech time outs, eat well and sleep adequately to support yourself through this time!

4. Record The Timeline.

If the unacceptable behaviour continues, consider constructing a timeline of the events.

When and if you approach a manager, they’ll be less concerned with your emotional response and more concerned with the issues that impact your productivity.

Our tips: 

  • Create a timeline of the events with objective language. 
  • Articulate clearly how the problems have arisen. 
  • Outline the steps you’ve taken to try and resolve the issue.

Should You Get Your Manager Involved?

If you’ve exhausted all options, you may need to involve your managers and seek additional support from the company (or decide to move on). Here are a few strategies:

  • Escalate to the manager: Be clear about the behaviour causing the problem and provide evidence if possible.
  • Approach Human Resources: Document the difficult person’s behaviour and ask for a formal investigation.
  • Leave the company: If the company fails to resolve the situation and your mental or physical health continues to be compromised, leaving is your next best choice.

Final Words About Dealing With Difficult People At Work.

Dealing with interpersonal problems at work is a necessary skill. But rather than becoming obsessed with dealing with a difficult coworker, be humble enough to realise that you’re also a difficult person at times.

Your career will go further if you focus on improving yourself than on psychologising others.


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