Dealing with “Difficult” Co-workers

We all have coworkers who rub us the wrong way, get on our nerves, and generally drive us crazy.

Let’s consider these examples of three people who have difficult coworkers:

1. Ted finished working on a difficult bit of code and headed for the team meeting. When he got there, Sandy looked at her watch and glared at him. “You’re late,” she snapped. “Hey, it’s only ten after,” Ted responded.

How selfish! Sandy thought to herself. Ted has no respect for other people’s time.

Meanwhile, Ted wondered why Sandy made such a big deal about arriving precisely on time. It’s hard to put down what I’m working on when I’m in the middle of something important. What’s more important, anyway?  Getting the code done so we can release this fix or coming to a  meeting? Why doesn’t Sandy understand that?

2. When the technicians showed up to install more memory in Frank’s computer, Frank asked Talia if he could use her machine, since she was going to a meeting. “Sure,” Talia replied. When she returned to her cube and logged into her computer, she discovered that Frank had changed the settings. She spent half-an-hour fixing the obvious ones, and stumbled over more of Frank’s little “fixes” for the rest of the day.

Sheesh, thought Talia. He asks to use my computer for an hour, and he acts like it’s his. I’m never letting him use my computer again. I wonder if he read my mail, too.

Frank, however, was pleased that he’d set up several helpful shortcuts on Talia’s machine.

3. Sam greeted Jennifer with a cheery hello as he entered her office. “How was your weekend,” he asked. “Did you do anything fun with the family?” Jennifer scowled. “Let’s get down to business, Sam,” she said.

What a grouch, Sam thought. I’m just trying to be friendly and build a working relationship.

Jennifer, on the other hand, wondered why Sam was so nosey. Doesn’t he get that I don’t want to discuss my private life at work? I don’t want to talk about having to take Chad for a psych evaluation over the weekend.

No one in these examples is a bad person. They aren’t wrong or behaving atrociously. But Ted, Frank, and Jennifer are acting in ways that are different from how Sandy, Talia, and Sam expect people to act.

The opposite is true, too: Sandy, Talia, and Sam are acting in ways that Ted, Frank, and Jennifer find puzzling and irritating.

Conflicting Definitions of Appropriate Behavior

We find other people difficult when they don’t meet our expectations of “appropriate” behavior. The trouble is that each of us has a different definition of “appropriate.” To further complicate matters, some areas of mismatched expectations are easy to see and comment on, but others aren’t.

In the first example, Ted and Sandy have different ideas about how important it is to arrive exactly on time. Sandy believes that not arriving on time shows disrespect for the group. Ted believes it’s more important to accommodate individual needs and be “close to on time.” These mismatches are easy to spot and most people are able to reach some accommodation because there is some external reference point: the clock and the agreed upon meeting time.

Other mismatches are about personal space, personal property, and privacy. What may seem like friendly conversation to one person may seem like prying to another, as in the example with Sam and Jennifer. Fred doesn’t view Talia’s computer as “hers.” To him, it’s company property and, therefore, belongs as much to him as to anyone else who works in the group. There’s no external reference point for these.

Each individual has his own idea of what’s appropriate. Psychologists call them “boundaries.” But, unlike boundaries on maps, we don’t always know where our boundary lines are until someone crosses them. Others don’t know where our boundary lines are unless we tell them.

Deal with Difficult People Where You Have the Most Leverage

We can hope that people we find difficult will realize how unreasonable they are and will change on their own, but they won’t. They won’t wake up and change because they don’t see themselves as difficult or inappropriate. These troublesome (to us) people believe they are acting in a reasonable way. In fact, they may wonder why other people are so upset.

To deal with difficult people more effectively, start where you have leverage. Start with you. When you feel yourself becoming upset, ask yourself if you’ve been clear in what you expected from the other person. Check on your emotional response. If you are having a strong response and wondering why the other person doesn’t get it, it may be a clue that someone just walked all over your boundary lines for acceptable behavior.

Understanding why people drive us to distraction at work doesn’t mean you have to tolerate behavior that you find distressing. Talia could set a boundary with Frank by saying something like “Frank, it’s fine for you to use my computer as long as you return the settings to my preferences when you’re done.” You can always make a request for a change—not for the other person to fix herself, but to respect your boundaries or find a third way that will work for both of you.

Life is too short to let the people we work with fray our nerves. We can’t change those irritating people, but we can recognize the source of our irritation and change our own response.

An slightly different version of this article appeared on

6 Replies to “Dealing with “Difficult” Co-workers”

  1. Well, let me tell you my story
    I worked with a guy, who was sarcastic all the time
    it is nice to be sarcastic for a short time, sometimes.
    but all the time? I am sure you will hate it.
    He used to talk about other members in our team behind their back, and call them the clowns.
    he used to mimics other team members accents.
    other team members are not native English speakers, and he used to mimic them behind their back

    What you do with such a guy?

    • As a team member, describe the impact of his behavior on you.
      As a team member, decline to participate in conversations that involve talking about other people behind their backs or mimicking.
      As a coach, describe the impact of his behavior on the team.
      As a coach, coach him.

  2. I agree with the general principle – there are conflicting definitions of appropriate behavior, and the right way to deal with them is to bring it up and describe the impact of behavior on you, and set up boundaries, not fume in silence. But I didn’t really buy your stories.

    So Ted just decided that his time is more important than Sandy’s, because it’s hard to put down what you are working on. And yes, I know that it is very hard, I am a developer. And yet doesn’t Sandy have a job that contributes to getting the code done, and therefore is as important? Ted made this decision about what is important unilaterally.

    Similarly, Frank thinks that he knows more than Talia does, hence the “helpful” setup without asking her if she needs it. I have this “feature”, and I have to bite my tongue and not to insist that people can do things faster if they just use my shortcut or command. I have just learned over time that this is not always true, people have their own work processes, and interfering with them is only likely to make the other person frustrated.

    I can relate to Jennifer as well. I have a chronic illness, which can impact a lot of my life, and I don’t necessarily want to tell my co-workers that I spent the weekend in bed because of a flare. But it is still my responsibility to have a way of dealing with innocent questions that does not involve scowling or otherwise being rude to people.

    So, yes, different people have slightly different definition of what is appropriate. I can think of examples – coming in person vs. email contact, asking questions vs. spending a lot of time solving the problem for yourself, offering and accepting help, participating in group social activities – people do have different expectations there and these need to be negotiated. But I think your stories take it too far – making unilateral decisions about the importance of tasks, or computer setup, or being rude in response to innocent questions one have surely encountered before does not strike me as a “different definition”, but rather as a specific problematic behavior, which is what makes such people “difficult coworkers” in the first place.

    • MD –

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I actually don’t find any of the people in these stories (which are all based on actual conversations) difficult. They might be difficult for people who don’t know how to have the conversation about differences and reaching common ground.

      In each of these stories, *both* parties have made unilateral assumptions about what is correct and acceptable.

      It happens that on one side of each interaction, the assumptions are closer to the general US business culture than the assumptions on the other side. But there are plenty of regional cultures, subcultures, ethnic cultures, and organizational cultures within the US where the other side would be the more prevalent assumption.

      We each have a set of assumptions about correct and acceptable behavior. Assuming that our own set is the universal standard leads to all sort of problems.


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