Winning With The Impossible Colleague: You can’t shoot difficult colleagues, but you can manage the relationship to reduce aggravation and disruption

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The Challenge

For the past few years I have had to work fairly extensively with a colleague who is just impossible. He is arrogant, stubborn, sometimes abusive, and acts like he is right about almost everything. At first I tried to ignore it, but it has just gotten worse. It’s so bad, I feel like every night when I go home, all I think about is how miserable this person is. It is also affecting people around us, since we all spend so much time talking about this person.

How do I deal with this situation?


Most people use the term personality conflict to describe this situation. I don’t like that term because it implies that the problem is largely unfixable since it is unlikely that either you or the other person is going to change their personalities. To get anything constructive out of this you are going to have to get down to specific behaviors, not personalities.

Some background things to consider. These situations tend to occur over time. Small annoying behaviors left unattended move to bigger more annoying behaviors. You indicate that you tried to ignore these things at the beginning, and that probably contributed to the problem. Consider these basic principles:

In any relationship, both people influence the other’s behavior. In almost every conflict situation, both parties bear some responsibility for where “things are at”.

Focusing on blame will just drive you crazy. The key to these situations is to focus on what YOU can do to make things better. It doesn’t matter who is at fault, if your concern is to make things better.

You have little control over the personality, and even behavior of another person. Your best bet is to focus on your own behavior change. Ask yourself: What am I doing that contributes to this unpleasant situation, and What can I do to change what I am doing. It sounds like what you are doing now isn’t working so you have to look for another approach.

Here are some ideas:

1. At a time when both you and the other person or calm, ask if you can talk to them (do it privately-this is between the two of you). Approach the situation in a non-accusatory manner (not easy if you are frustrated). Try something like this:

John, I’ve noticed that you and I seem to have our differences. I have some ideas about how we might be able to work more effectively together, but I would like to know from you what I can do to help. Can you think of anything I could be doing so we could get along better?

Follow his up with proper listening, so John knows you are truly concerned and interested.

When possible find things to agree on, and offer something. If the conversation is going well, you might want to make a request (one is good). Like the following:

John, what would help me is that when we are at meetings and I am talking, that you wait until I am finished to make your comments, since it really distracts me if you talk before I am finished, and I can’t listen properly to you when I am distracted.

2. Since you are clearly frustrated, it is likely that you are doing things that convey your frustration to the other person. You shouldn’t have to take abuse and smile, but neither should you be attacking or reacting in kind. It is important that you deal with things firmly, but nicely, and without dramatics.

No eye-rolling, no heavy sighing, no guerrilla activities. If the other person is rude or nasty to you, you can respond with quiet dignity and set limits regarding the specific behaviors, but if you react angrily, you will almost always make the situation worse.

3. Immediately stop making the situation one for public discussion or discussion with other staff members. This is disruptive to the organization, but worse, it will make it more difficult to fix the situation. When you gossip about someone else, you tend to focus on the worst parts, and paint that person in a negative way. That affects your thinking and actually shortens your patience, particularly when you get covert support from others. Do you want to win or do you want to fix the problem (Note: you usually can’t “win”.

4. The time to have dealt with this situation was early on, with a combination of politeness, firmness, and limit setting. In some situations, the conflict has become so polarized that you may need help in dealing with it, both practically, and personally, to change your way of looking at it. One possibility is to talk to your manager and explain the situation as objectively as possible. That means saying something like: John and I seem to be having some trouble getting along, and it seems to be affecting everyone. Please don’t go in trying to convince the “boss” how bad the other person is…it just makes you look like the problem.

Request help or suggestions, and focus on fixing the problem, and taking some responsibility for it. The outcome may be that the manager may bring you both together to talk about the situation and work out a plan, or even that you and the other person might get involved in mediation, or some other form of intervention.

5. Please keep in mind that you have both rights and responsibilities in these situations.

Your responsibilities include:

  • approaching the other person in a polite, problem-solving way to work things out.
  • avoiding actions (like gossip) that make the situation worse.
  • a willingness to recognize that you have probably contributed to the problem.
  • listening to the other person rather than trying to convince or bully them.
  • seeking help from others in a dignified, open and constructive way.

Your rights include:

  • setting behavioral limits and consequences when nasty, abusive behaviour is directed at you.
  • the expectation that the other person will work in an open problem solving and courteous way.
  • an expectation that management will help, but may not be able to solve the problem without your cooperation and that of the other person.

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