Difficult colleagues? We all know they exist, and mostly we work around them. But this general epithet ‘difficult person’ hides deep roots that are sometimes difficult to deal with. Everybody has to rub along together at work, right? After all, most of us work in teams and being a team-player is understood to be a standard requirement…right? Well, of course not.

Difficult colleagues can mess up your working day. If you are lucky, the stress and negative impact might be short-lived. Sadly though, in many cases, handling or working around a colleague who is persistently challenging forces some people to leave the job altogether.

What does it mean?

‘Difficult Colleagues’ is a term that covers a host of different meanings, none of them very positive. Of course, what it really means is that someone’s difficult behaviour which is inconvenient or upsetting. Difficult People at work are an avoidable cost to the business, and failure by managers to tackle their pernicious behaviour can be a failure of corporate responsibility.

There is plenty of advice out there on how to deal with Difficult People. Much of it is presented in a jokey, give-them-as-good-as-they-deserve type of way, often accompanied by light hearted cartoons showing stereotypical situations complete with quips and captions.

But, as anyone who has had to put up with difficult behaviour knows, it is not funny when a colleague causes problems at work, and the effects can ripple out, having a negative effect on relationships, productivity, and staff welfare generally. Whether we call them difficult people or something else doesn’t matter. What matters is the disruption that can be caused to individuals and the business by behaviour which is unacceptable in the workplace.

Little or no training

Many managers are at a loss with how to deal with some of the less desirable behaviour that happens at work. This is not surprising, because few of us are trained in dealing constructively with work-related problems that are not part of the normal work routine. Take for example some of the cases I have heard about recently:

  • Shouting matches between colleagues who used to be ‘friends’
  • A middle manager having an affair with one of her direct reports, so losing the respect of her team
  • A dispute between two senior members of a medical team, so they never talk to each other
  • Sullen silence from a key team member since a former colleague became her manager
  • Everyone pussyfooting around the most temperamental person in the office because of his temper tantrums.

Common problems

Every company has disagreements and disputes between employees. Often people will say that they are not hurting anyone except themselves. But this is not true. Disagreements upset everyone. On a day-to-day basis minor upsets are generally managed by the people concerned, and nothing worse happens. But when a dispute becomes repetitive, or even descends into a feud, the stress gets everyone within range, and the consequences can be serious and far-reaching.

Let’s take a look at just three areas where the impact is most felt; relationship difficulties at work, stress and emotion, and workplace productivity.

Relationship difficulties at work

Problems with difficult colleagues at work invariably cause more hardship for those caught up in them than is apparent to an outsider. In cases where there is a long standing disagreement or ‘personality clash’ the effects on an individual can become extreme, going beyond irritation or stress and actually causing health problems.

A normal reaction is to avoid the source of the problem – the other person – to communicate less with them or not at all, and even to stay away from work. Common behavioural effects of an enduring difficulty with a workplace relationship are:

  • Avoidance of the (problem) person
  • Absenteeism
  • Lack of motivation
  • Gossip and back-biting
  • Refusal to communicate
  • Misunderstandings
  • Refusal to follow instructions
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Accusations of bullying
  • Excessive drinking/smoking
  • Arguments
  • Controlling or disrespectful behaviour.

Stress and emotion

The stress brought about by difficult people at work is too serious to laugh off. Many people lead pressured lives anyway, without the unnecessary stress of having to cope with the behaviour of someone who should know better. The catalogue of effects is long, here are the main ones:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Depression and other mental health problems
  • Poor physical health
  • Fatigue and sleep problems
  • Drinking excessively
  • Smoking and recreational drug use
  • Allergies
  • Headaches, backaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Disturbed eating patterns
  • Poor concentration
  • Loss of motivation.

Workplace productivity

At work our energy and enthusiasm are sapped by people who persistently use difficult behaviour. I have regularly seen entire projects jeopardised because of the behaviour of one person. I have met staff who have changed jobs because they felt unable to improve a relationship with one colleague and I have known many effective and competent managers who have found themselves powerless in the face of the disruptive actions of one or two employees.

In some of the worst cases the ‘difficult person’ simply gets shuffled from department to department. The impact of an ongoing dispute at work can be catastrophic to the those in the dispute, but also to their colleagues and the business as a whole.

The cost of a difficult colleague

The cost of disputes at work goes far beyond the direct impact on those involved. The trouble isn’t necessarily the fact that conflict exists. It’s the damage that it causes when conflicts aren’t resolved. The known effects include:

  • Frustration and non-compliance
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Grievances and complaints
  • Absenteeism
  • Employee turnover
  • Loss of productivity
  • Project delays
  • Client complaints
  • Sabotage and ‘foot-dragging’
  • Injury and accidents
  • Long term absence.

It goes without saying that no company should ignore a single instance of behaviour that could impact on staff welfare and productivity in these ways. The cumulative effect of Difficult People at work can be toxic, seriously damaging one, or both, parties’ health and welfare.

Next time you hear the term difficult person, remember that the stress and unhappiness caused by difficult people at work, and the costs to the business, are avoidable consequences if handled responsibly. Difficult People are often unhappy people and, at the very least, they cause unhappiness in those around them, but as we’ve seen the cost can be much higher.

Four empowering ideas

But all is not lost. Tackle it in the right way, and as early as possible,  and you’ll help keep these negative side effects to a minimum. These ideas may not solve the problem (it may be up to your employer to do that), but they can lessen your sense of helplessness by giving you a sense of control.

Here are FOUR IDEAS for things you can do if a difficult person is causing you grief:

  • Subscribe to my newsletter; you’ll receive regular updates and ideas absolutely free.
  • Learn how to handle the difficult behaviour. Buy the book, the CD ROM, or both. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and both contain tips and hints you can use right away.
  • Get help or advice on how to handle difficult people at work; many employers offer an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme). Other possibilities are getting support from HR, or a mentoring programme if your organisation has one. I know that many people don’t feel safe or confident talking about their work relationship difficulties to someone withing the organisation, which is why the EAP might be a useful option, but if that’s not for you then tray an external consultant. Many – including me – offer a free initial conversation.
  • If no help is available through work, contact me and we can talk about Personal Consulting. As I say above, the first meeting, usually by Skype of ‘phone, is free. Quite often this is all people need because they find our conversation helps then clarify their thinking and decide on a way forward. I work with people from around the world this way.

A rock and a hard place

If you are the unfortunate manager who has to tackle someone’s difficult manner you might feel that you are caught between a rock and a hard place. The temptation can be to avoid tackling the behaviour which others find difficult for fear of being accused of bullying. On the other hand, ignore the behaviour and you risk lowering morale and even some people jumping ship.

If you are caught in such a dilemma, I offer a free Skype or telephone chat to talk it through. You might also consider personal consulting, and check out my training days to see how my online training can help you and develop your skills specifically aimed at challenging situations like the ones I’ve dicussed. For example, How to Handle Difficult People, or How to Manage Conflict.

Find out about Personal Consulting

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.