illustration of people with different expressions on their faces

There’s that one person on your team who just grinds your gears. You avoid them at team events. You stifle eye rolls every time they speak up in meetings. You dread collaborating with them, and you may have even butt heads with them once or twice. Or more?

First off, take heart – you aren’t alone. A reported 85 percent of employees have dealt with conflict on some level in the workplace.

But here’s the thing: you don’t want to let your differences with a coworker create a breeding ground for continued resentment. You need to nip this in the bud and set the stage for a more positive working relationship.

Sound tough? It can be. But it’s certainly not impossible.

Is it you or me? Why some people are more difficult to work with

There are a lot of perfectly reasonable explanations for why some people just grate on you more than others.

Dr. Greg Barnett, Senior Vice President of Science at The Predictive Index, a talent optimization platform, explains that value misalignments and situational pressures could be two big causes at play here.

“Value misalignments occur when two people have two totally different belief systems, whereas situational pressures are things about the environment – like toxic managers, high-stress atmospheres, or limited resources – that can add fuel to an already contentious fire,” he says. 

Particularly in the workplace, conflicting work styles are likely the biggest culprit of strained relationships. “Think of a scenario when two people are working together and one is extremely detail-oriented and process-focused, while the other is a big picture-thinker,” says Dr. Allison Siminovsky, Senior Research Consultant at The Predictive Index

“Unless both individuals are extremely self-aware and extremely patient, conflict is bound to arise when these two people work together. Often, work conflict has nothing to do with whether both parties like or respect each other.” 

Are you overreacting? Know when it’s time to speak up

You probably have a specific colleague in mind right now – a person that you just struggle to be around. But, it can be tough to figure out whether you should address the dynamic or just let sleeping dogs lie.

There’s a difference between a bad day and a continuously tense relationship. If a colleague was stressed and lost their cool with you in the heat of the moment, that probably doesn’t need to be addressed as a long-term issue (although, an apology is always nice).

However, if you’ve noticed persistent behavior that makes collaboration increasingly difficult, that should be handled. “It’s very easy for conflict to spiral and for the involved parties to assume negative intentions are causing the conflict – even though this is rarely the case,” says Siminovsky. 

“It’s very easy for conflict to spiral and for the involved parties to assume negative intentions are causing the conflict – even though this is rarely the case”

A growing conflict not only leads to a tense work environment, it can also cause us to self-sabotage. “These people can bring out the worst in us, which can threaten our jobs, our reputations, and ultimately hurt us in our own careers,” explains Brandon Smith, The Workplace Therapist.

You’d never want to put your career in jeopardy over an unresolved work dispute. 

Of course, for behaviors that surpass conflicting work styles and would be classified as bullying, harassment, or discrimination, you shouldn’t handle the issue on your own. Bring the issue directly to your manager or HR representative who will help you take the appropriate steps to make the workplace safe for you and resolve the problem. 

4 tips for working with difficult people

Unfortunately, you’re bound to encounter your fair share of challenging colleagues in the office, and exactly how you handle them will depend on your unique circumstances. However, there are a few tips and best practices you can use to forge a healthier working relationship – and kick that tension and resentment to the curb. 

1. Boost your emotional intelligence

It’s tempting to point the finger. That other person is the difficult one, so they’re the ones who need to put in the legwork and change, right? 

But, while counterintuitive, turning the magnifying glass on yourself is a good place to start when attempting to improve that dynamic and smooth over a strained working relationship. 

8 emotional intelligence articles that help you work better with others

“You can’t start fixing other people unless you understand who you are and what your role is in not getting along,” says Barnett. “In the normal course of work, there really aren’t any victims in bad relationships – unless someone truly is toxic and abusive. It takes two to tango, and people need to understand how their approach comes across, how it impacts others, and how those impacts may be received positively or negatively.” 

“Experts in emotional intelligence will tell you that self-awareness is paramount in being able to navigate difficult interpersonal situations,” says Siminovsky. Emotional intelligence (often abbreviated as EI or EQ) is your ability to pinpoint and appropriately handle your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. 

It sounds obvious, but it’s a surprisingly challenging competency to hone – and there’s no surefire way to do it that works for everyone. With that said, here are a few things you can try to boost your own emotional intelligence:

  • Take time to reflect on your own emotions in specific scenarios by setting an appointment with yourself each week to quietly think through how you responded to different problems and dynamics. How did you react when that project was delayed? Why? Bonus points for writing this down!
  • Ask for feedback about your interactions with co-workers. Whether it’s after a team meeting or a shared project, have an informal conversation where you can ask things like, “Is there anything you wish I would’ve done differently?” 
  • Practice pausing before you speak (try holding your tongue for at least three seconds) to give yourself more time to process and think before responding. 

It takes some practice, but it’ll be well worth it. “Understanding others’ subjective realities can enhance empathy, cooperation, and communication and may also influence one’s own opinions,” explains Brittany Solomon, a Research Assistant Professor of Management and Organization at Notre Dame University’s Mendoza College of Business, who conducted research on how these perceptions help us manage relationships. 

2. Get curious about that person

Have you tried asking that notoriously difficult person questions? Nope, not accusatory ones like, “Why would we do it that way?” or “Are you serious?” But inquiries that help you understand where they’re coming from. If not, it’s time to start. 

“Curiosity and empathy are really the same thing, and one of the best ways to break down intractable co-workers is to get curious about the work they’re doing,” says Brandon Smith. 

Curiosity and empathy are really the same thing, and one of the best ways to break down intractable co-workers is to get curious about the work they’re doing.” 

This not only gives you insight into their values, goals, challenges, and approach, but it also demonstrates a level of investment and engagement in the people you work with – which even the most challenging of colleagues will appreciate.

However, there’s one important thing you need to remember about this tactic: it’s not all about the show. You need to actively listen to what they share with you. This involves:

  • Maintaining good eye contact
  • Asking relevant questions
  • Avoiding your devices 
  • Not thinking about your responses while someone else is speaking
  • Repeating back what the speaker has said 

“Curiosity is not the first question you ask somebody, it’s the second question,” Smith continues. “‘Tell me more about that’ is straight out of the therapist’s playbook, and is a great way to get people talking. The more people feel heard, the more those walls start to break down.”

You can even take this curiosity piece of the puzzle a step further by asking your manager to offer a personality assessment to everyone on your team. They’re a great way for teams to learn more about each other and how they can effectively work together. Popular assessments include:

See if your own organization is open to one of those assessments, and you’ll be equipped with knowledge that helps you better understand that challenging colleague – rather than only silently resenting them. If these assessments are a no-go, rest assured that you can still learn a lot through some informal one-on-one conversations with your colleagues. 

3. Don’t let the problem fester

“When people sense they aren’t connecting and getting along, they tend to just start avoiding each other, which makes things worse,” says Barnett. “And it’s natural. Nobody wants to talk about why they aren’t aligning well with another person.”

“The dynamic can make it difficult for the people in conflict to work together, but it can also cause issues for people working around the conflicted pair – including managers, peers, and direct reports,” adds Siminovsky. “It’s easy for negativity to spread, which makes it of crucial importance to try to contain and mediate conflict as quickly as possible.” 

3 types of peer feedback to avoid (and 1 to aim for)

The most mature and healthy thing to do is to have the difficult conversation about why you just aren’t meshing – and it’s smart to do so sooner rather than later. “In the absence of communication, people almost always assume the worst,” warns Smith. 

Approach this exchange with a more team-oriented mindset. “Go to that person and say, ‘I want to make sure we have a strong working relationship. I’m not sure how we get there, and I’d like to talk through that with you’,” advises Smith. “Make it more of an invitation and co-author the solution with the person.” 

That collaborative approach is bound to lead to better outcomes than a big game of finger-pointing would. 

4. Remember the power of positive feedback

You’ve become used to groaning at everything that person does, so dishing out a compliment at this point is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But, a little bit of flattery can go a long way.

Rack your brain to find something that you admire about that person – it can be something as small as their new haircut or as large as that recent presentation they gave. Then, take a deep breath and actually offer them that piece of praise.

Worried that they’ll think it’s disingenuous? Well, it probably doesn’t matter. Research shows that insincere flattery still has a positive impact, even when the recipient has consciously corrected for it (meaning, they took it with a grain of salt). 

And before you gag at the very thought of needing to applaud that difficult person, know that it’s still self-serving. Yep, that’s right – it helps you too. 

Thinking positively (which you’ll be forced to do when complimenting that colleague) decreases your stress hormone, cortisol, and increases serotonin, which improves your overall sense of well-being. 

That’s pretty worth swallowing your pride for, right?

How to work with difficult people