How To Deal With Difficult People at Work: Collaborating Among Conflict

April 2, 2024by Jeremy Pollack

We’ve all experienced it—the clash with difficult coworkers or demanding bosses. Maybe they’re always negative, quick to blame, or simply impossible to please. These encounters drain energy, damage productivity, and make the work environment feel tense. While it’s tempting to avoid these individuals, the reality is that we can’t always control the person’s behavior. What we can control is how we respond to it.

This blog post explores the value of collaboration, even when dealing with a difficult person in the workplace. Rather than getting stuck in conflict cycles, we’ll discuss how to work with difficult people by addressing tensions to reduce friction, promoting understanding, and maintaining your sanity. The cost of conflict in the workplace is immense, and that’s why with the right approach, even those who seem terrible team players can be navigated for a better workday.

Photo of Conflict Between Co-workers

Identifying Difficult Workplace Behaviors

Before discussing solutions, let’s identify the culprits of that workplace dread. Here are some common examples of behaviors that might make someone a difficult person to work with:

  • The Critic: They find fault in everything, offering negativity instead of constructive feedback. Scenario: You finish a presentation only to hear a barrage of reasons why it won’t work.
  • The Ghost: They disappear when responsibilities need sharing, leaving you to pick up the slack. Scenario: A looming deadline and your teammate suddenly becomes unreachable.
  • The Drama Magnet: They thrive on gossip and negativity, stirring up trouble within teams. Scenario: They spread rumors about a coworker as a big project kicks off.

It’s crucial to remember that not every disagreement makes someone a difficult coworker. We all have bad days. The key distinction is a pattern of behavior that disrupts work and creates tension.

If addressing the issue directly doesn’t help and it’s impacting your ability to be productive, it’s time for a different strategy. Remember, while you can’t control or handle difficult people, you have a lot of power in how you choose to remain calm and deal with their actions without letting them derail your workday or company culture.

Understanding the Root Causes

It’s easy to see difficult people as bad seeds, but remember—everyone has a story. Understanding what drives a difficult person can be the key to unlocking a more collaborative approach. Here are some potential underlying causes to consider:

  • Lack of Recognition: Some people become problematic if they feel their contributions go unnoticed. A little bit of employee appreciation can go a long way.
  • Stress/Burnout: Overloaded employees may lash out, act irrationally, or retreat from responsibilities.
  • Fear and Insecurity: The classic know-it-all might be masking a fear of being wrong or inadequate.
  • Personal Issues: External problems with their family or home life can impact workplace behavior.

This isn’t about excuses. It’s about empathy. At Pollack Peacebuilding, we champion understanding the “why” behind the behavior. It takes self-examination to avoid taking things personally and can prevent simple misunderstandings from festering.

While some people are just incompatible, empathy offers a fresh perspective on whether there’s a path toward collaboration in a tough situation (even if the only option is to collaborate on maintaining a respectful distance). Sometimes, all someone needs is to feel heard—not to win every argument—and to know their concerns aren’t dismissed out of hand.

The Power of Open Communication

Sometimes, the simplest solution to de-escalating arguments between coworkers is also the most daunting: talking to the difficult person directly. Here’s why it’s worth attempting and some tips on how to approach this conversation:

Set a Clear Intention

Are you trying to understand them, express how their behavior affects your ability to work, or both? Knowing this goal beforehand helps guide the conversation.

Focus on Specifics

Instead of vague complaints like “you’re negative,” cite examples. “It’s hard to stay motivated when ideas are always met with criticism.”

Use “I” Statements

Frame things around the impact on you, like “I feel discouraged when…” This feels less accusatory than “You always…”.

Find a Good Space

Don’t try this amidst a busy workday; pick a neutral, semi-private space for a calm discussion.

Is this always successful? No. Some difficult people double down. But you gain valuable information: if they’re receptive, great! If not, you know a different approach is needed. Either way, you avoid the trap of spending time venting about them instead of addressing the issue.

Collaborative Conflict Resolution Techniques

If open communication isn’t enough to fully resolve the conflict when possible, these collaboration-focused strategies can make a difference:

Focus on Shared Goals

What’s the bigger project you’re both trying to achieve, even if your preferred methods clash? Reminding each other of the shared objective helps shift the dynamic.

Actively Listen

Truly listen to the difficult person’s concerns, even if you disagree. Showing a willingness to understand their side can be surprisingly disarming.

Look for Compromise

Can both of you make small changes to improve the workplace situation? It might not be your ideal solution, but even a partial win boosts morale.

Finding Common Ground

Is there something you agree on, even if it’s minor? Building from a point of agreement helps restore a sense of teamwork.

This is where Pollack Peacebuilding’s expertise shines. We facilitate discussions that unearth the root of disagreements and create action plans everyone feels invested in. Our goal isn’t simply to stop the conflict but to make ongoing collaboration less stressful for everyone involved.

It’s important to remember that collaboration with a difficult person can mean agreeing to disagree on some things and focusing on solutions to the problem at hand. Sometimes, the best way to deal with someone is to limit the scope of interactions to what’s essential for the new job while maintaining professionalism and respect. This can often help improve the working relationship, even if you don’t end up going out for drinks after work.

Photo of Conflict Between Co-workers

Case Studies—Successful Collaborations

Sometimes, it helps to see these techniques in action. On our website, we have case studies from various organizations. These highlight situations where clashes between employees were harming productivity and morale. Pollack Peacebuilding doesn’t swoop in with a magic solution. We work with everyone involved to unearth the crux of the conflict.

One common theme is miscommunication, where two people think they have the same goal but disagree on the best path. Our role is to help them articulate their needs more clearly, leading to a realization that neither person is entirely wrong. Sometimes, improving communication skills simply involves reframing, where instead of focusing on what a coworker is doing wrong, they’re asked to offer the solution the way they envision it. This shift in perspective often reveals a middle ground that had been overlooked when feelings were in control.

Pollack Peacebuilding’s Collaborative Training Programs

Would you like to prevent future conflicts and make collaboration the default in your workplace? Pollack Peacebuilding provides dynamic training programs designed to equip individuals and teams with the necessary skills. These aren’t lectures about abstract theory but immersive sessions where participants gain practical tools for:

Effective, Respectful Communication

Learning to navigate difficult conversations with poise, fostering open dialogue even when disagreements arise.

Conflict Resolution

Transforming disagreements into constructive problem-solving, finding solutions that benefit the work and the working relationships.

Empathy and Perspective-Taking

Developing a deeper understanding of coworkers’ motivations and thought processes, even when their personalities are challenging.

Building a Collaborative Culture

Shifting the workplace environment from one focused on individual achievements to one that values team-based contributions and problem-solving.

Building a Collaborative Workplace Culture

Dealing with difficult people is one piece of the puzzle. The ultimate goal is a workplace culture where cooperation and healthy conflict resolution are the norms, not the exception. This goes beyond conflict management and touches on company culture at large: working on managing conflict.

  • Leadership Support: Collaboration thrives when leaders model that behavior. They admit mistakes, solicit feedback, and acknowledge team wins, setting the tone for everyone else.
  • Open Feedback Systems: Employees need safe channels to express concerns without fear of retaliation. Anonymous surveys, regular one-on-ones, and a willingness to hear criticism all matter.
  • Celebrating Successes Together: Is the big project complete? Don’t just praise the leaders—find ways to publicly recognize everyone who contributed. This reinforces the value of teamwork.
  • Cross-Departmental Understanding: Encourage mingling outside of silos. This helps people see the big picture and appreciate how their actions impact others, making them less prone to selfish behavior.

Tips for Self-Care

Even when armed with collaboration strategies, dealing with difficult people takes a toll. Here’s how to prioritize your mental well-being:

  • Set Boundaries: You are not obligated to be everyone’s friend or emotional support. Limit conversations with draining individuals to what’s work-necessary.
  • Take Breaks: Step away from your desk, listen to calming music, or take a mindful walk outside. Short respites can help you calm down.
  • Don’t Take It Personally: Negativity can be easy to internalize. Remind yourself that someone else’s behavior is a reflection of them, not you.
  • Find Support Systems: Vent to a trusted friend (outside of work!), join a hobby group, or seek professional therapy if the stress is overwhelming.
  • Focus on the Controllable: You can’t change others, but you can manage your reactions and create a positive space for yourself at work.

Collaboration Among Conflict—Your Path to a Better Workplace

Dealing with difficult people is an inevitable part of work life. But it doesn’t have to consume your energy or derail projects. For those ready to create a truly collaborative work environment, Pollack Peacebuilding offers personalized training programs that provide lasting tools for conflict resolution, communication, and empathy. This proactive approach changes workplaces from the inside out, creating a more productive, respectful, and less stressful atmosphere for everyone. Visit our website or contact us today to learn more about how we can support your work environment.

Jeremy Pollack

Jeremy Pollack is the Founder and CEO of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems.

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