Difficult co-workers can make even the best job seem frustrating. Read our guide into difficult co-workers, including the types of difficult colleagues, causes, effective tactics, and tips for creating a positive work environment.

Difficult co-workers: the scope

In the modern workplace, conflicts are an unfortunate reality. Current stats according to a study completed by Pollack,

  • 38% of employees in the U.K. experience interpersonal conflict at work in an average year
  • Employees in United States companies spend approximately 2.8 hours each week involved in conflict. This amounts to around $359 billion in hours paid that are filled with – and focused on – conflict instead of on positive productivity. 
  • 60% of employees never received basic conflict management classes or training for conflict resolution in the workplace.

Other stats include:

  • 85% of employees experience some kind of conflict
  • 29% of employees nearly constantly experience conflict
  • 12% of employees say they often see conflict within the senior team
  • 49% of workplace conflict happens as a result of personality clashes and egos
  • 27% of employees have seen personal attacks arise from conflict

Management level most affected

One often-overlooked aspect is the impact of office tensions on senior employees and CEOs themselves. The Harvard Business Review also found that senior managers and executives spend up to 20% of their time dealing with conflict. This is a significant portion of their workweek that could be better spent on strategic tasks.

The causes of difficult co-workers

Dealing with difficult co-workers requires an understanding of the underlying causes behind their behaviour. These causes can be multifaceted and complex, encompassing personal, organisational, and psychosocial factors.

Personal factors

Those hard to work with often exhibit challenging behaviour rooted in personal factors. These factors can include differences in communication styles, personality clashes, or unresolved personal issues. Recognising and addressing these personal factors is crucial for fostering more effective working relationships.

Good phrases to use in this conflict

“I’ve noticed that our communication styles differ, and it’s impacting our collaboration. Can we find a way to work together more effectively?”

“I understand that we have different personalities, but let’s explore how we can find common ground and enhance our working relationship.”

“It seems like our communication may be getting tangled up due to our different styles. How about we sit down and discuss how we can better align our approaches?”

Unhelpful phrases to use in this conflict

“I can’t stand your communication style; it’s terrible.”

“You’re impossible to work with because of your personality.”

Organisational factors

Organisational factors play a pivotal role in shaping workplace dynamics and influencing the behaviour of employees. Issues related to business culture, leadership, and management practices can contribute to the emergence of difficult colleagues. Addressing these factors at the leadership level is critical for creating a healthier work environment.

Good phrases to use in this conflict

“Let’s work collaboratively to cultivate a more inclusive and respectful work culture that benefits everyone.”

“I believe that clearer expectations and communication can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.”

“As leaders, we have the responsibility to shape the company culture positively. Let’s lead by example and set the tone for respectful interactions.”

Unhelpful phrases to use in this conflict

“This company’s culture is terrible, and it’s all management’s fault.”

“I don’t know why they bother with all these culture initiatives; they don’t make a difference.”

“Our leadership is clueless; they should learn how to manage a company properly.

Psychosocial dynamics

Psychosocial dynamics, including competition for resources, recognition, and power, can serve as catalysts for conflicts in the workplace. Recognising these dynamics and addressing them collaboratively is key to fostering more productive interactions.

Good phrases to use in this conflict

“I’ve observed that competition for resources can lead to tensions among team members. How can we address this collaboratively to ensure a more supportive environment?”

“In a competitive environment, it’s crucial to maintain open communication and transparency. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Unhelpful phrases to use in this conflict

“You’re just trying to take all the credit for yourself.”

“Why do you always have to be so competitive? It’s annoying.”

“You’re just in it for yourself; you don’t care about the team.”

8 types of difficult co-workers

The complainer

The complainer is someone who frequently expresses dissatisfaction or negativity about various aspects of work. They may use negativity as a way to seek attention or relieve stress. Complainers tend to focus on problems rather than solutions.

Common situations:

  • The complainer constantly criticises team decisions during meetings.
  • They express frustration about their workload without suggesting ways to improve it.
  • The complainer often complains about office conditions, such as temperature or noise.
  • They frequently vent about perceived favouritism in the workplace.
  • The complainer complains about changes in company policies or procedures without offering alternatives.

How to speak to the complainer:

“I understand your concerns. How can we work together to improve this situation?”
“Let’s focus on finding solutions to the issues you’ve raised.”
“Your feedback is valuable. How would you suggest we address these challenges?”

What not to say to a complainer:

“You’re always complaining; it’s getting old.”
“Stop being so negative all the time.”
“Why can’t you just be more positive?”

The micro-manager

Micro-managers tend to excessively control and scrutinise the work of their colleagues. They may exhibit this behaviour due to a fear of losing control or a lack of trust in their team’s abilities. Micromanagers often struggle to delegate effectively.

Common situations:

  • The micro-manager consistently reviews and revises team members’ work before it’s complete.
  • They frequently request status updates on tasks, even when the project is on track.
  • The micro-manager insists on being copied on all emails and included in every meeting.
  • They often provide overly detailed instructions on how to complete a task.
  • The micro-manager tends to redo work that team members have already completed.

How to speak to a micro-manager:

“I value your input and attention to detail. Let’s discuss the best way to manage this project together.”
“How can we ensure a productive working relationship?”
“Let’s collaborate to ensure the project’s success while maintaining autonomy in our roles.”

Learn more about how to deal with a micro-manager.

What not to say to a micro-manager:

“You need to stop micromanaging me.”
“Why can’t you trust me to handle this?”
“You’re making my job harder with all your instructions.”

The slacker

Slackers may exhibit a lack of motivation or engagement, leading to reduced productivity and frustration among their colleagues. They often fail to meet deadlines or fulfil their responsibilities adequately.

Common situations:

  • The slacker frequently misses project deadlines, causing delays for the entire team.
  • They often leave early or arrive late without valid reasons.
  • The slacker is frequently absent or takes excessive breaks during work hours.
  • They fail to contribute to group projects or meet their assigned quotas.
  • The slacker consistently underperforms on individual tasks.

How to speak to a slacker:

“I’m here to support your success. What can I do to help you meet your goals?”
“Can we discuss strategies to ensure your work aligns with our team’s objectives?”
“I want to ensure that you have all the resources necessary to excel in your role.”

What not to say to a slacker:

“You need to start pulling your weight.”
“You’re dragging the team down.”
“I can’t believe how little effort you put into your work.”

The gossip

Gossips are individuals who frequently spread rumours or engage in negative discussions about colleagues. Their behaviour can undermine trust, damage reputations, and create a toxic work environment.

Common situations:

  • The Gossip frequently discusses the personal lives of colleagues.
  • They spread rumours about possible layoffs or changes in management.
  • The Gossip often comments on the appearance or behaviour of team members.
  • They share sensitive information without consent, leading to mistrust.
  • The Gossip frequently compares colleagues and speculates about their motivations.

How to speak to a gossip:

“I heard there might be some misunderstandings. Let’s clarify things together.”
“Can we discuss how we can avoid misunderstandings in the future?”
“Let’s focus on work-related matters and avoid discussing personal topics.”

What not to say to a gossip:

“Stop spreading rumours; it’s unprofessional.”
“I can’t believe you’re talking about that again.”
“You’re always causing drama in the office.”

The credit-stealer

Credit-stealers are individuals who tend to take credit for others’ ideas, contributions, or work, potentially causing resentment and undermining teamwork.

Common situations:

  • The Credit-stealer presents a team idea as their own during meetings.
  • They fail to acknowledge colleagues’ contributions to successful projects.
  • The Credit-stealer uses “I” instead of “we” when discussing team accomplishments.
  • They neglect to give credit to colleagues who assisted with their tasks.
  • The Credit-stealer claims ownership of a project’s success without mentioning team efforts.

How to speak to a credit-stealer:

“Let’s ensure that everyone receives the recognition they deserve.”
“I want to ensure our team’s hard work is recognised appropriately.”
“Let’s collectively celebrate our achievements and give credit where it’s due.”

What not to say to a credit-stealer:

“You’re always stealing my ideas.”
“Why do you have to take credit for everything?”
“I can’t believe you’re trying to steal the spotlight again.”

The know-it-all

The know-it-all is someone who often behaves as if they have superior knowledge or expertise on various topics. They may frequently interrupt others, dismiss alternative viewpoints, and resist collaboration.

Common situations:

  • The know-it-all dominates meetings, often talking over colleagues.
  • They are resistant to considering new ideas or alternative approaches.
  • The know-it-all frequently corrects others, even on minor details.
  • They may undermine team dynamics by insisting on their expertise.
  • The know-it-all tends to take credit for successful projects, even when their role was minimal.

How to speak to a know-it-all:

“Your expertise is valuable. Let’s combine our knowledge for the best outcome.”
“It’s important to consider different perspectives. Can we find a way to collaborate effectively?”
“Let’s ensure that everyone’s input is acknowledged and respected.”

What not to say to a know-it-all:

“You don’t know everything.”
“Why can’t you listen for once?”
“Nobody likes a know-it-all.”

The passive-aggressive

Passive-Aggressive individuals have difficulty expressing their anger or frustration directly. Instead, they may resort to subtle, indirect behaviours or comments that convey their displeasure.

Common situations:

  • The passive-aggressive colleague may agree to a task but intentionally delay its completion.
  • They often use sarcasm or humor to mask their annoyance or criticism.
  • The passive-aggressive individual may give backhanded compliments or make snide remarks.
  • They might conveniently “forget” to share important information with the team.
  • The passive-aggressive co-worker may resist direct feedback and instead respond with defensiveness.

How to speak to a passive-aggressive:

“I sense there might be some underlying tension. Can we discuss it?”
“I believe in clear and honest communication. How can we improve our interactions?”
“Our team’s success relies on open dialogue. Can we address any concerns openly?”

What not to say to a passive-aggressive:

“You’re always so passive-aggressive; it’s frustrating.”
“You’re impossible to work with when you act like this.”
“I can’t stand your passive-aggressive comments.”

The bully

The bully is an individual who uses intimidation, coercion, or aggressive behaviour to exert power and control over colleagues. They may target specific individuals or engage in general aggressive conduct.

Common situations:

  • The bully may engage in name-calling, insults, or humiliation of colleagues.
  • They may sabotage the work of others, such as deleting files or spreading false information.
  • The bully often threatens or intimidates co-workers to gain compliance.
  • They may isolate or exclude certain individuals from group activities or discussions.
  • The bully may use their influence to damage colleagues’ reputations within the business.

How to speak to a bully:

“I won’t tolerate disrespectful behaviour. Let’s work together professionally.”
“Our success depends on mutual respect and collaboration. How can we achieve that?”
“We should address any conflicts directly and respectfully to maintain a healthy work atmosphere.”

What not to say to a bully:

“You’re a bully, and I won’t put up with it.”
“You’re a toxic presence in this workplace.”
“Why do you have to be so aggressive all the time?”

Read our guide called ‘Bullying at work‘.

Tips on dealing with difficult co-workers

Navigating workplace challenges posed by difficult co-workers requires a combination of resilience, effective communication, and strategic thinking. Here are ten tips for employees on dealing with challenging colleagues.

Maintain professionalism

Regardless of the situation, upholding professionalism is essential. It sets the tone for respectful interactions and helps maintain a positive work environment. Maintain a calm demeanour, avoid personal attacks, and focus on addressing issues constructively.

Communicate openly

Transparent and honest communication is the cornerstone of conflict resolution. It fosters understanding and facilitates the timely resolution of issues. Initiate open discussions with the person in question, actively listen to their perspective, and express your concerns honestly.

Set boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries is crucial to protect your emotional well-being and productivity. It defines what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Communicate your boundaries firmly but respectfully, and be consistent in enforcing them.

Document incidents

Keeping a record of problematic interactions is essential for future reference. It provides a factual account of incidents, which can be invaluable in addressing ongoing issues. Maintain a detailed log of incidents, including dates, times, locations, involved parties, and descriptions of what transpired.

Seek mediation If necessary

In cases where direct communication fails to resolve the conflict, involving a neutral third party or HR can facilitate constructive discussions and conflict resolution. Approach HR or a trusted mediator to help mediate discussions between you and the difficult co-worker.

Focus on solutions, not blame

Shifting the focus from blame to finding solutions benefits both parties. It encourages a problem-solving mindset rather than perpetuating hostility. During discussions, emphasise finding mutually beneficial solutions and avoid dwelling on past grievances.

Find allies within the workplace

Building supportive relationships with colleagues who understand the situation can provide guidance, emotional support, and potential assistance when dealing with difficult co-worker. Foster relationships with trusted colleagues who can offer advice and share their experiences in handling similar challenges.

Self-care and stress management

Prioritising self-care is crucial for managing the stress that may arise from dealing with a difficult co-worker. Maintaining emotional well-being is essential for overall job satisfaction. Engage in stress-relief activities, such as exercise, meditation, or seeking support from friends and family, to help manage workplace stress.

Consider a transfer or role change

If the situation with the difficult co-worker becomes untenable and affects your well-being, it may be necessary to explore internal transfer options or consider a role change within or outside the company. Consult with HR or management about potential transfers or role changes that align with your career goals and provide relief from the challenging situation.

Know when to involve HR

As a last resort, involving HR ensures that the conflict is addressed fairly and appropriately. HR can provide guidance, enforce policies, and oversee resolution processes. Consult with HR when all other efforts fail to resolve the issue, and the difficult co-workers behaviour continues to negatively impact your work environment.

The business impact of difficult co-workers

Decreased productivity

Difficult co-workers can significantly impact productivity, leading to missed deadlines and subpar work quality. A study by the Harvard Business Review indicates that workplace conflicts cost an estimated 385 million working days annually in the United States alone.

Increased turnover

High-performing employees may leave a business due to conflicts with difficult colleagues, resulting in increased turnover rates. The cost of replacing an employee can be substantial, with estimates ranging from 50% to 150% of their annual salary.

Negative company culture

A toxic work environment, often fostered by difficult co-workers, can erode company culture and morale. This, in turn, can hinder recruitment efforts and the ability to attract top talent.

Discover what company culture is right for you?

Legal and financial consequences

Protracted conflicts and bullying behaviour can expose companies to legal liabilities, including lawsuits for harassment or discrimination. These legal battles can be both financially and reputationally damaging.

Difficult co-workers and your wellbeing

While promoting a positive work environment is often seen as a collective effort, there are steps you, as an individual employee, can take to contribute to a better workplace. By fostering a culture of respect and inclusivity on a personal level, you not only enhance your well-being but also influence the overall atmosphere positively. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Embrace open communication: Encourage open and honest communication by actively listening to your colleagues, showing empathy, and being approachable. Create an environment where others feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns with you.
  2. Model conflict resolution skills: Lead by example when it comes to conflict resolution. Approach disagreements with a problem-solving mindset, seek compromise, and avoid escalating conflicts. Demonstrate your commitment to resolving issues constructively.
  3. Promote a culture of respect: Treat your colleagues with respect, regardless of their position or background. Be mindful of your language and actions, avoiding any behaviour that may be perceived as disrespectful or discriminatory.
  4. Foster inclusivity: Actively support diversity and inclusivity in your workplace. Encourage diverse perspectives, embrace different cultures, and stand up against discrimination. Create an environment where everyone feels valued and included.
  5. Recognise and encourage positive behaviour: Acknowledge and appreciate your colleagues’ positive behaviours and contributions. Celebrate their achievements and efforts to maintain a harmonious work environment. Your recognition can motivate others to do the same.
  6. Lead by example: Be a role model for the behaviour you want to see in your workplace. Demonstrate effective conflict resolution skills, teamwork, and respect for your colleagues. Your actions can inspire others to follow suit and contribute to a more positive atmosphere.


Dealing with a difficult co-worker is something that leaders at all levels must face. By understanding the causes, recognising the types, and implementing effective strategies, you can manage these challenges but also create a positive and productive work environment that benefits the entire organisation. Addressing difficult co-workers is not just a matter of personal comfort; it’s a strategic imperative for any successful business.

For more advice like this, look at our candidate advice blog. Also read our ‘Office Politics: How to handle it’ blog.

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