On Managing Difficult Coworkers

N Gautam
4 min readJan 9, 2023
Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

I enjoyed writing medium articles and I did that quite regularly for a year. Then, for the past 1.5 years, I have not written a single article. One of the challenges I faced is to figure out what to write about. Week after week, coming up with a topic was an ordeal. But guess what? I think I have found a solution! I have come across someone who will do all the searching and re-searching for ideas, and suggest something meaningful to write. Their name is ChatGPT http://chat.openai.com, yes the uber-popular chat bot. In fact, I tried logging in today and got an error message “ChatGPT is at capacity right now” (I know so many colleagues and coworkers wish they could say that).

Last week I asked ChatGPT for topics related to workplace success that people might be looking for advice on, but that may not be widely available. The very first item on that list is Managing Difficult Coworkers or Supervisors. ChatGPT said, “Many people struggle with managing relationships with difficult coworkers or supervisors, and may be seeking advice on how to handle these situations effectively.” I first thought that I am not at all qualified to write about this because I have little or no experience with this. If anything, I have been in the giving end and not the receiving end of being difficult. Nonetheless, let me take the bait ChatGPT has thrown and say something.

One way to manage difficult coworkers or supervisors is simply quit (not the quiet quitting type, but the great resignation type). Sadly, this may not be an option for many. Also, the difficulties may not be quit-worthy because it is with just that one person. So how does one manage to survive, and then thrive when they have difficult coworkers or supervisors? To answer that, let us see what may cause this difficult feeling. At times it is because there is a mismatch in terms of values, belief systems, or purposes. It may also be due to differences in communication styles or personality conflicts. And the worst part is the one being difficult does not know they are being so.

Let us consider some specific examples. Once again my collaborator ChatCPT has some examples of ways that people can be difficult to their coworkers:

1. Not respecting boundaries: This can involve things like consistently interrupting others, invading their personal space, or not respecting their right to privacy.

2. Being unreliable: This can involve things like not showing up to work on time, not completing tasks as assigned, or not following through on commitments.

3. Being negative or pessimistic: This can involve things like constantly complaining, bringing down the morale of the team, or refusing to see the positive side of things.

4. Being aggressive or confrontational: This can involve things like raising one’s voice, using threatening language, or physically intimidating others.

5. Being uncooperative or resistant to change: This can involve things like refusing to work with others, rejecting new ideas or approaches, or being inflexible in the face of changing circumstances.

6. Being dishonest or untrustworthy: This can involve things like lying, stealing, or engaging in other dishonest or unethical behaviors.

There are ways to address issues like being interrupted (words like “let me finish” and continue after being interrupted does work), needing screen privacy in a cubicle (for that, a privacy filter is a good investment), and getting rejected for ideas (spend some extra time to make a stronger case for the idea like running a pilot study may work). Here are some thoughts on how to manage such difficult coworkers or supervisors, especially when they are obviously oblivious of their being difficult:

Have a conversation

Sometimes it may be possible to have a conversation to figure things out. A few things to keep in mind while having the conversation. It would be best to say how you felt and not blame them for being difficult. For example, if they do not respect your right to privacy, you can say how you felt when that happened. Tell them what you would like. But, try not to stereotype (avoid saying things like ‘in the US we do not show up late’ or ‘while this may be okay in your culture to use loud voice …’). Generally humor helps and relieves tension, and boosts morale especially if that is an issue. But we want to be careful to be sensitive while displaying humor.

Do your research

Many times we do not know the difficult person’s values, belief systems, or purposes. So it would not hurt to find out somehow. One way is to pay careful attention to the conversations in the meetings. It would be extremely useful to understand where the difficult person is coming from. If you can put yourselves in their shoes and understand their behavior using your interpretation of their values, believes, or purpose, then you can find ways to encourage them to be cooperate, be flexible, motivate them to follow through their commitments, and complete assigned tasks. Getting a pulse from others without gossiping or getting into office politics greatly helps in navigating difficult people.

Find mentors

Some of the harder issues are best dealt with by discussing with mentors. When coworkers are aggressive, pessimistic, uncooperative, or dishonest, they need to be addressed in a nuanced manner. The hard part is if we are the only ones experiencing the behavior. Talking to multiple mentors will give the perspectives and approaches needed. These have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. There isn’t an easy solution and mentors may differ in views. We must make sure we understand our biases in taking the comments from the mentors. We typically fall prey to confirmation bias. Finally, understanding what really matters to us, compromising a little bit, and making peace with the situation can be immensely helpful.