Coping with Difficult Coworkers

Coping with difficult coworkers effectively requires significant forethought and restraint. Three guidelines can help you when dealing with difficult employees and other coworkers.

By on / Dealing with Difficult People

coping with difficult coworkers

At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves coping with difficult coworkers. We might experience flare-ups over workload, funding, or personality issues, to name just a few sources of workplace conflict. The experience of coping with difficult coworkers can be extremely stressful. The following conflict negotiation skills can help you address this type of difficult situation at work, whether you are managing difficult employees or dealing with coworkers.

1. Reappraise Negative Emotions

The anger triggered by workplace conflict can damage our decision making by prompting overconfidence, unrealistic optimism, and aggression, negotiation researchers have found. 

One negotiation study by James Gross of Stanford University and his colleagues compared the relative costs of two forms of emotional regulation: 1) suppression, or attempts to tamp down and avoid confronting our emotions, and 2) reappraisal, or attempts to control our emotions by changing how we think about a given situation. In this study, relative to those who engaged in reappraisal, participants who suppressed their emotions had impaired cognitive processing, and their negotiation counterparts liked them less. 

How can you reappraise your anger when dealing with difficult employees or coworkers? Try to anticipate when you may be subject to strong emotional experiences and reappraise the situation beforehand, suggests Stanford University professor Margaret A. Neale. As an example, before a conference call with a difficult coworker, think about what they might say that could cause you to react emotionally. If you anticipate a threat, consider what it might suggest about what they value, says Neale. This type of reappraisal may help you head off an emotional reaction when coping with difficult coworkers.


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2. Respond to Challenging Moves

Whenever negotiators are bargaining over concrete issues, such as the terms of a work project, they are simultaneously conducting a parallel negotiation regarding their relationship, write Deborah M. Kolb and Judith Williams in their book Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining (Jossey-Bass, 2003). This “shadow negotiation” explains why discussions of concrete, seemingly rational matters can lead to angry outbursts and hurt feelings.

Negotiators may make any of several “moves” to question each other’s legitimacy and assert their power, note Kolb and Williams. For example, whether subtly or directly, a negotiator may challenge your competence or expertise, demean your ideas, or criticize your style. 

How can you defend yourself against such moves without being accused of overreacting? Kolb and Williams suggest several responses, which they call “turns”: 

  • Interrupt the move. Take a break, which should give everyone present time to gain control of their emotions. 
  • Try naming the move. Put your coworker on notice that you recognize their power play. If someone says, “You can’t be serious!” in response to one of your ideas, for example, you might respond, “Actually, I’m quite serious. Instead of cutting me off, how about if you give me a chance to clarify my plan?”
  • Correct the move. Substitute the other side’s negative remarks with a more positive interpretation of your behavior. If a coworker incorrectly blames you for a decision that went wrong, rather than lashing out, provide hard evidence in the form of the facts.
  • Divert the move. Shift the focus back to the issue at hand. If someone criticizes you as overly sensitive, you might say, “Let’s try to avoid personal judgments and concentrate on the proposal.”

3. Mediate a Resolution

The techniques of professional mediators can help us when coping with difficult coworkers and other sources of workplace conflict, writes Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse in his book Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People (Amacom, 2006). 

In mediation, disputants work together to reach a resolution that satisfies both sides. The mediator helps disputants deal with conflict by encouraging them to share information about their interests and explore creative solutions.

As a leader, you can never be fully impartial, but you can adapt mediation skills with the goal of handling difficult conversations and helping the organization. By listening closely and encouraging problem solving, you may be able to bring employees together. 

Leaders also can leverage punishment and rewards to resolve workplace conflict, writes Salacuse. If two unit heads have been fighting over an account, you could threaten to penalize them or their departments—say, by giving the account to a third unit or by decreasing their funding—to motivate them to negotiate a resolution. Alternatively, you could reward disputants for setting aside their differences, whether with praise, additional funding, or some other valued resource. 

What other advice do you have for coping with difficult coworkers?

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  • Approach the difficult coworker by first rephrasing the comments s/he made and then asking what response s/he would like to hear. Then work with that.

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