Dealing with That Difficult Person at Work


Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

It is a simple fact that just like family, you cannot choose your co-workers. It’s also likely that at some point, you will be forced to deal with a seemingly erratic or mean-spirited individual in the workplace. It’s difficult to prepare for this scenario. However, when it does occur, most of us are shocked, dismayed and at a complete loss for words. But take heart, you are not alone.

One co-worker that really gets the blood pressure going, is the individual who loves to discuss, dwell and highlight your mistakes. “Sorry that presentation wasn’t a total home run…”  they quip. Or after witnessing a bit of a criticism directed your way, they chime in to agree, “Yes, I was thinking that was a weakness of the plan.” Their timing is always perfectly awful. My all-time favorite, after a less than stellar showing — “Wow, are you upset with how that went?” (Take a guess, what do you think?)

Most of us aren’t able to react in the moment, as the interaction catches us completely off guard. (You silently kick yourself later for not responding.) But don’t be too hard on yourself. This is a common reaction to this subtle type of workplace bullying. You have to train yourself to respond effectively, and this takes a good deal of practice.

More than likely, the memory of the interaction will get stuck on replay — as you mull over the interaction and your lack of an effective response. This is completely normal. However, you cannot allow the individual gain access to your stores of self-worth and start a potentially negative internal script. Talk yourself through the situation with a calm clarity and put the interaction where it belongs — completely out of play.

Remember that the intention of the interaction was most likely to rattle you, so take control and starve the feedback loop.

Your first reaction might be to duck around corners to avoid your offender. To the contrary, you must take the attitude that you can handle any situation that comes your way. Remember the goal should be to end the negative behavior and retain your dignity, not to sling another insult in return.

Accept that you cannot change this person, only how you digest and respond to their anti-social behavior.

Above all, you need a method to deal with the madness. Try to take control and master the situation.

Keep these points in mind:

  • Don’t feel the need to defend yourself. These individuals are not the ultimate judge of your work. When all is said and done, only your supervisor’s opinion and your own assessment truly matter.
  • Limit the “payoff” of their negative behavior. Stay calm. Without the anticipated reaction from you (to be thrown off-kilter) the motivation to converse about your work is greatly reduced. As a result, the possibility of a repeat performance is lowered.
  • Role play for the next time around. You’ll likely have another opportunity to set things on a better course. You can alter the dynamic with a new internal script. Re-play the scenario in your mind, but this time respond diplomatically to the comment. If you are armed with some quick responses — you can approach a similar situation with a bit more confidence

Some suggested responses:

  • “I am so glad you’ve pointed that out — I’ll be sure to consider it.”
  • “It wasn’t perfection. But, I’m more than OK with how things went.”
  • “Is that how you saw it? I am actually satisfied with the outcome.”
  • “Live and learn.”
  •  My personal favorite: “Gee, (fill in the blank), I hadn’t looked at things that way. But, thanks so much for your concern.”

The next time a co-worker shows an unhealthy interest in your blunders — take a moment to collect yourself. Then remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Psychologist, coach and speaker. Find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

11 thoughts on “Dealing with That Difficult Person at Work

  1. I was left embarrassed when a colleague abruptly took over a session I was conducting and made me feel redundant. My anger level rose quickly as I felt the behaviour was most unprofessional. As I did want to create a scene at the session, I waited until the end of the session to discuss things with her. I said exactly what I had wanted to say to her and what my expectations were for the future of the working relationship. My colleague backed off, said sorry and asked if we could start afresh. If someone gets on your nerve, tackle it head on. I felt I had to do it although it was not easy. Thanks for the article.


  2. I’m so glad you posted this article. I have been working with a boss like Michael above and it has been so misearble. I’ve tried to walk away and she would not let me, she wanted to keep grilling me. I finally had enough and quit on the spot. There was no way I was ever going to win with her and I had to think about my self worth which was being destroyed daily. Some people are just so unhappy in their own lives that they can’t seperate between the two. Working in a healthy environment is hard to find these days. Thank you for this article, it really put things into perspective for me.


  3. Really enjoyed your article, being quite a positive person I do struggle with negativity in the workplace and constantly replay it over and over in my head. Will most certainly keep your key points in my head at all times and especially the Eleanor Roosevelt quote. Thank you


  4. Thank you for the article – I found the answers at the expense of mistakes and anger I’m still ashamed of when I recall it. Still it was worth to read it and see the problem from more objective perspective.


  5. I am so sorry to hear that – it sounds like a very negative environment. Bad bosses can come in many shapes, but is always very, very difficult to live with them. (I have experienced them, as well) Please try to rise above the situation and retain your self-confidence, while you pursue a better situation.


  6. Trying my best dealing with a very arrogant boss who seems to have done everything and know everything and no matter what has to put in his two cents even when bring new business, never good enough. My stress level has never been so high and will take the advice since I am hoping that I will land the new job I have applied for. Never encountered such behavior in 18 years of management.


  7. Thanks for reading (then and now)! Thought it was a good time to re-post! You are very wise to walk away. At no time – should you encourage the behavior. If that methods works for you, stick with it.


  8. I know u wrote this last year. In my work environment there is no room for error. I don’t response to the negative behavior by co workers. It is better for me is to walk away. from the mess, and do my job.


  9. I loved how you said this: “But, remember the goal should be to end the negative behavior all together and retain your dignity – not to sling an insult in return.” So true. It’s easy to want immediate revenge, or to fire back and “burn them.” In the long run, however, such feelings and reactions do nothing but hurt yourself.


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