How to deal with difficult colleagues

By John Allison 

We all encounter difficult people from time to time. Dealing with a difficult person is particularly challenging when the person is a colleague with whom you need to have an ongoing relationship. 

If you are having difficulty dealing with a colleague, first notice whether the colleague’s behavior is causing you to become defensive or reactive.  Remember that you can only control your response to the colleague’s behavior. You cannot control your colleague and you cannot change his or her behavior.

Also notice whether you had a role in creating the difficulty. If your colleague is reacting to something you said or did, try to clear up the situation promptly. For example, if you inadvertently said something that your colleague found offensive, apologize and try to reestablish rapport. As another example, if your colleague is a supervisor who becomes visibly annoyed with people who arrive late for meetings, make a point of being on time. 

While you need to take responsibility for your own behavior, it is a mistake to accept responsibility for your colleague’s difficult behavior.  A person can be difficult to deal with for many different reasons. The person may need to be “right” and will have difficulty hearing another person’s point of view. 

A person might be a micromanager due to a deep feeling of insecurity and fear of losing control.  Some people are impossible to please. People with a narcissistic personality need to be at the center of attention and usually lack empathy for others.  Some people have deep psychological wounds that make it virtually impossible for them to trust other people.

When dealing with a difficult colleague, try to understand the behaviors that make him or her difficult to deal with.  Remain calm and centered, and avoid letting your colleague throw you off balance. Promptly clear up miscommunications and misunderstandings. Try to make sure you understand your colleague’s expectations and objectives. Finally, never tolerate abusive behavior.

At some point it may become necessary to have a frank discussion with your colleague about the difficulty you are having in the relationship. In that discussion it will be important to avoid criticizing your colleague, which is likely to put him or her on the defensive and make the situation worse.  Instead, talk about your experience and the impact the colleague’s behavior has on you.        

John Allison is a professional career coach backed by years of experience as a successful lawyer. He is the founder of The Coach for Lawyers and author of "The Art of Practicing Law: A Practical Guide for Lawyers."