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Coworker conflict? 5 ways to deal with a difficult colleague

When you don't see eye to eye with someone at work, here's what you can do.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

Working with people can be a challenge. You'll sometimes have to deal with a colleague you find difficult to interact with. Failing to manage this situation could mean you, your colleagues, and the business all suffer.

So, how can you solve a challenging workplace relationship? Five business leaders gave us their tips for dealing with difficult colleagues.

1. Take an open approach

Clementine Whitcomb, data engineer at energy company EDF, said the best way to deal with a difficult colleague is to speak frankly with the individual.

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"I'm quite an open person," she said. "If someone were doing something that made me feel upset or uncomfortable, I would probably chat with them about the situation in a non-confrontational way."

Whitcomb said this open approach is crucial to success because the person you perceive to be difficult might be unaware of your issues.

"People aren't mind readers," she said. "It's unlikely that somebody is doing something intentionally to upset you. They might not see things from your perspective. They might not realize they're being difficult and unhelpful."

Whitcomb told ZDNET the best starting point is to get talking: "I think that would normally be my first way of dealing with it -- to have that conversation."

2. Find some common ground

Toby Alcock, CTO at Logicalis, said he's worked with people across many different countries, industries, backgrounds, and nationalities -- and the key to success is finding common ground.

"If you look at people from a genuinely optimistic light, and say they're not trying to ruin your day, that helps," he said.

Alcock told ZDNET there's always likely to be a percentage of co-workers who appear difficult. However, don't be downhearted because there's usually an explanation for their attitude.

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"A good mentor of mine years ago said there's always a reason for that behavior," he said. "So, just take your time and consider what's happening in their world. It's all about asking that extra question of, 'Hey, why are you so aggressive? What's happening in your world?'"

Alcock said that taking time to understand your colleague's issues will enable you to build empathy and work towards fresh objectives.

"It's moving from the argument and trying to find common ground," he said. "I think people want community. People want to work together on outcomes. And if you can find that common ground and see the best in people, I think that'll stand you in good stead."

3. Help people to embrace change

Richard Wazacz, CEO of foreign exchange specialist Travelex, said it's important to take a constructive approach to what appears to be a difficult situation.

He talked to ZDNET about negative and positive energy, suggesting people with negative energy are drains and positive people are radiators.

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"Being difficult often means being a drain -- someone who takes more energy out of a situation than puts energy in. And the trouble with drains is they're powerful."

Wazacz said one drain can dissipate the value of 10 radiators: "Negative energy is powerful. It's horrible, but it's powerful. However, I don't think anyone comes to work wanting to be a drain and wanting to be negative."

He said the best way to deal with a difficult colleague is to ask questions and help them understand why they're giving off negative energy. "What do I need to do to make you a radiator? You don't like the job you're doing? You don't like this company? Is it time to do something else? Is there something going on in your personal life?"

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Wazacz said effective people management is about helping others understand the issues in their working life and embrace a change in approach.

"There's usually an underlying issue and good leaders are great at helping people work that out, so they make the choice that makes them positive. Sometimes that means leaving the business, changing your job, or embracing something different," he said.

"It's helping people understand what they might need to change to make them a radiator again. Success is about helping people to open their eyes to that situation."

4. Focus on the root cause

Sophie Gallay, global data and client IT director at French retailer Etam, said there's no magic solution to dealing with a difficult colleague.

However, she told ZDNET that successful professionals meet the challenge head-on rather than circumnavigating the situation.

"Instead of trying to control a colleague, try and understand the root cause," she said. "If someone is difficult to work with, there's a reason. And most of the time, you can work around those difficulties to find the cause and solve the problem."

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Of course, there will be times when someone is obstinate. Gallay said there are two approaches you can take.

"You can communicate because sometimes people don't realize what they're doing and then they might make a change," she said.

When that approach fails, it might be time to turn to a second tactic -- an honest appraisal of the situation and a clean break.

"If you've tried everything, you've tried looking for the root cause and using communication, then -- at some stage -- it might be best that the person moves elsewhere," she said. "If it's that difficult to work with an individual, then the person probably isn't happy. So, maybe the person will be happier somewhere else in an environment that suits them better."

5. Think about destinations

Debra Bonomi, head of learning and development at Rakuten, said her many years of experience have taught her it's important to be realistic.

She told ZDNET that professionals should use a joint approach of communication and discovery if they want to deal with the challenge of a difficult colleague.

"Listen to them to try and find out where they're coming from and why they're acting the way they are," she said. "If I can't find the answer that way, I'll say something like, 'What's going on? I feel your hesitation.'"

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Bonomi said you might sometimes discover the person you perceive to be difficult has a different personality and working style. Then it's important to adapt to the situation.

"Think about what you want to achieve. It would be great if they wanted to be on the same page as you. But sometimes you need to recognize that they won't," she said.

"Then you need to ask yourself, 'Can I still get to my desired destination with them?' And if not, maybe you need to find somebody else."

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