3 Difficult People to Work With (And How to Deal With Them)

October 4, 2017

Much like you can’t pick your family, you can’t pick your colleagues.

Most of the time, that’s fine – many of us meet some of our closest friends at work. And, even if it doesn’t extend that far, it’s easy enough to form a professional working relationship with most people.

But, of course, there are exceptions. And the reality is, no matter what job you take or what you do, there will always be people you have a difficult time dealing with.

We are here to help. In his LinkedIn Learning course Dealing with Difficult People, Instructor Chris Croft gives strategies for dealing with difficult people in general, and then specific strategies for dealing with specific types of difficult people.

We won’t cover all of those strategies here, but we handpicked three of the most common types of difficult people to work with – and provided Croft’s strategies for dealing with them.

1. The Procrastinator

Working with the procrastinator can be frustrating, as they generally are nice people. But often you are ready to move onto the next step, and their constant delays or indecision keep that from happening.

So you stew in anger, silently.

How to deal with them: Croft gave five tactics that inspire procrastinators into action. They are:

  • Remind them time is scarce. Tell them you need a decision by the end of the week to hit your deadline, for example.
  • Set a time limit. Similar to the last point, tell the procrastinator they need to make a decision in a set amount of time or else it can no longer happen. For example, say you need their approval on a time-sensitive campaign within three days – or else the campaign can’t happen.
  • Make it affect them. This works with customers or third-parties, in particular. Say you need an agency to get back to you in two days, tell them you’ll withhold payment if they don’t come through. Or, with a customer, tell them you can give them a lower price, but only if they decide by the end of the week.
  • Offer to help them. Give the procrastinator help, at least at the start to get them going. Say you need them to execute a campaign you are running – help them in the beginning set the scope of the campaign or set targeting criteria.
  • Agree on a plan. When giving the procrastinator an assignment, agree to a deadline with them at the start. Then, as that deadline approaches, it’s fair to check in to see how progress is going. This usually compels them into action.

Another option? Tell the procrastinator they indeed procrastinate. What’s key here is to have specific examples of the times they missed deadlines and how that’s affected both the organization and yourself. Often, just raising the awareness of the issue will correct it, so long as it’s done respectfully.

2. The Negative Colleague

There’s always one of these in the office. Your company could have a record quarter, and they point out how this will just mean higher forecasts. Or, you throw a birthday party for a colleague, and they remind everyone they are on a diet and can’t eat the cake.

Not exactly a ray of sunshine.

How to deal with them: The first question you need to ask yourself when dealing with a negative person is – does it matter? Sure, they are negative and that can be irritating, but does that really have to affect you?

Hopefully, it doesn’t; you can know that’s how they are, accept them and move on. Or, if you truly find it too irritating to be around, you can avoid them. A third option – use their negativity as a virtue, as they sometimes can be useful playing the role of devil’s advocate, pointing out flaws others would miss.

But say that’s not possible and their negativity is causing your work to suffer. One thing you can do is bring their negativity to their attention.

Say they are trashing a new initiative by the company, for example. Tell them – that’s a negative view, do you see any benefits to it?

Or, inspire them to think of solutions, instead of complaints. Tell them the objective and have them create a plan to achieve it. This requires more productive thinking and gets them in a more can-do frame of mind.

3. The Aggressive Colleague

These people can be exhausting – they want things their way, on their timeline and seemingly nothing is ever good enough. Unfortunately, these people tend to gravitate to positions of power as well, which only exasperates the problem.

How to deal with them: There are two options: one is learning to deal with them (which is often necessary if they are your boss or a customer), and one is trying to change them. Croft gave tips for each.

Start with learning to deal with them. Croft suggested using these three techniques:

  • Detach. Realize an aggressive person is aggressive because that’s their nature, it’s got nothing to do with you. So, if they yell at you or try to belittle you, remember: their aggression is a reflection on them, not you.
  • Resist either caving in or being aggressive back. When someone is aggressive toward you, the natural reaction is either to placate them and give them what they want or to aggressively resist. Neither is great. Instead, Croft recommends staying calm, acknowledging their comment (“I understand why you feel that way”) but then calmly restating what you want (“I still need another five days to finish this project due to unexpected circumstances”).
  • Take a time out. The worst time to reason with someone is when they are being really aggressive. Instead, say a non-committal statement like “maybe you’re right, let’s revisit this” and then take a break. Often, when you pick the conversation back up at a later time, the person is apologetic for the way they acted or, at the very least, thinking more clearly.

The following three tips are good if you have to deal with an aggressive person. But, what if you want to change an aggressive person?

Croft suggests confronting them, using this four-step formula:

  • I understand. Start the conversation wtih a statement of empathy. The next time they are aggressive to you or someone else, talk to them after they cool down. Tell them you understand why they felt that way.
  • I feel. Next, tell them how it makes you feel. For example, maybe their actions made you feel marginalized or uncomfortable.
  • I want. Then, tell them what you want. Either, to approach conversations more calmly, or to be more open to the ideas of others.
  • Ask – is that okay? Here’s where the discussion happens. You want to confirm they understand what you mean by asking them if they do and also allow them to make their points as well. Here’s a good time to listen and understand their perspective better.

The takeaway

Whenever you are dealing with someone difficult at work, there are two options: either you learn to live with them or you try to change them.

Learning to live with them is the easier route most of the time. So long as you have a strategy for dealing with them, you’ll be okay.

Occasionally though, and particularly if it’s an employee who works for you, you should make an effort to change them. While it requires more work upfront, if you are successful, you ensure this problem no longer persists.

And everyone will owe you a debt a gratitude for that.

*Image from Mark Coleman, Flickr

Want to learn more about how to deal with or change difficult people at work? Watch Croft’s full LinkedIn Learning course, Dealing with Difficult People, today.

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