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4 Approaches to Take When You Need to Deal with a Difficult Co-Worker

Colleagues can be the blessing or the bane of work life. Sometimes you find your best buddies sitting nearby, making life in the office a breeze and enhancing your social life outside of work, too. But like family, you can’t choose your team (unless you’re the boss!)—and sometimes you’re stuck with duds or difficult co-workers.

One variety of co-worker you’d rather not spend extra time with is the overpowering one. You know the kind—pushing to be noticed, treading on toes, even taking credit for other people’s ideas or work. It’s frustrating and infuriating, and if you bring it up, you may look like the bad Ninja. Bummer.

Unfortunately, this is more than just speculation. One of your fellow Ninjas describes her situation like this:

“We have a new assistant—who went from temp to perm—and this person is over ambitious, throwing people under the bus every chance she gets, stepping on toes, and making us want to forego all communications. Of course, her lead manager happens to report to my manager, so I have to deal with her all day long. I’ve tried helping numerous times, guiding, advising, basically playing very nice in the sand—but it’s becoming more and more difficult.”

All offices are different, but when we turned to the Ninja community to handle tricky people issues, we got a few common answers.

Turn Difficult Co-Workers into Comrades

Executive Assistant Carrie M. suggests lightening the mood by approaching your politeness like its a game.

“Treat her like you would treat an executive you don’t report to. When she’s rude to you, be overly polite to her. I would go to the level of obnoxiously nice. Make a game of it!”

If kindness doesn’t kill the bad behavior, Carrie suggests a mental trick. Thinking about how you might treat that colleague who is terminally ill. Would that make you more kind, patient, and forgiving? Probably so.

And hey, who knows what’s going on in a co-worker’s life? If your hard-to-handle colleague is a newbie, she may be a bit short on office friends. By at least appearing to be welcoming and understanding, the tension may subside as you’re viewed more as a teammate than an opposer.

Have a Hard Conversation

If being nice doesn’t work, opt for some tough love. Find a constructive way to provide feedback. It might be tricky—the person could be defensive and may get upset if they feel their character is being criticized.

At the same time, the person may be completely surprised. Perhaps she was trying to be assertive and confident, but it came off as pushy. In the case of the scenario above, temp-mentality could totally be to blame—especially if that Ninja felt she was still trying to prove she belonged on the team.Administrative Assistant Katie N. suggests providing feedback along with examples. Giving someone a specific incident to recall is much more effective than referring to vague occasions.

“Feedback is truly a gift as it allows each of us to get a little bit better as teammates and professionals.”

Loop in Leadership

After taking the high road and opening lines of communication, there aren’t many options left. Secretary Carolyn M. has a very diplomatic suggestion to bring the conflict up with a boss. Best of all, her strategy doesn’t reveal any names.

“Do you have any pointers on dealing with someone who is trying to get ahead at other’s expense?”

This question is powerful for two reasons—it sheds light on the boss’s line of thinking and gives you another strategy to try before officially putting your difficult co-worker in the spotlight.

“If the boss asks who it is, you can say you were just asking in general, about someone outside the company. I’ve had to do this and sometimes it helped get a better perspective on how to be tough but fair… As long as you’re not finger-pointing, most bosses will listen and give you an idea or two.”

If you’d rather not ask your direct manager about something so telling of team relations, you could meet with the person who hired a given colleague. Virtual Assistant Melissa S. recommends this approach to get a better view of the big picture.

“I would go to that person and ask what qualities, skills, and potential they saw. If I know what her strengths are and play to those, maybe we can build rapport and go from there. In my experience, the person was being groomed for another position and needed to have their foot in the door.”

Weighing & Waiting

If you try all of the above—and more—with no success, you need to weigh how heavily this person is affecting the other employees. Quirks and the occasional bad attitude may end up flying—but blatant bad behavior is bound to get noticed. An anonymous Ninja shared that this was the case on her team.

“A person got a slight promotion and all of a sudden began acting without regard for the team. After several coaching conversations, she isolated herself. Eventually, she decided to leave the company. This shook up our tight-knit team and prompted us to re-evaluate job duties and transparency.”

Based on this example, any outcome has the potential to immunize the team against bad hires in the future. Spinning the bad into a benefit is classic Ninja behavior—so use each experience with a difficult co-worker to shape or influence hiring in the future. Hopefully, refining the process and calling on former scenarios with lots of friction will not only improve your life, but your team’s as well.

Ninjas, have you ever had an overpowering co-worker? What happened?


  1. I have a teammate i love dearly it is just she is pushy and bossy about things. doesnt allow me to talk.

  2. What to do about the office bully. The request: set up a series of meetings in outlook using a team calendar through the next 18 months. This team meets twice per day for 3 hrs each 4 days per week across 2 campuses. So naturally Video Conference rooms are in order. She is requesting the same room each week on each campus and a dedicated bridge line. So each week, everyone can come to the same room and /or dial into the same conference bridge line. From her perspective, she is my customer and the request is simple. From my perspective as the Admin, Not so much… let’s break this down mathematically
    4 meetings per week x 77 weeks = 308 meetings This is 1,849 hours of meetings over 77 weeks
    This will take approx 5 minutes each meeting to set up, provided there are meeting rooms available for an extended amount of time.
    But there are no meeting rooms available for this large block time. That’s not OK. You need to figure this out. Finally after twisting arms and calling in favors I found a room for her but it was only available for 2 hours and 45 mins and not the whole 3 hours. This means you have to shorten your meeting by 15 minutes. That’s not OK. That is your option, either shorten your meeting by 15 minutes or let go of the room. This is your responsibility. Your refusing the task.
    Would you like me to request a dedicated project space from our facilities department and also request a dedicated conference bridge line ?
    Yes, please facilitate that request. That costs money that she does not have in her budget. So, no that’s not OK. That is an Error on my part.
    Why are you contacting facilities? Who told you you should do that>>>??? Ummm…. you did
    So she goes back to my boss, tells him I’m unhelpful, I’m giving her attitude, I’m not taking her calls, i’m refusing her requests. So my boss comes back to me and says what’s going on. Rather than going into too much detail I just ate it. I’m sorry to you for having to talk to me on this level and I’m sorry to her for not meeting her needs. OK? Are we done? Can I go back to my desk?

  3. What happens if you have tried all of the above to no effect and the employer seems to be blinded by the individual’s abilities and can’t see the negative impact the individual is having on the rest of the team and won’t accept any negative criticism made against the individual?

    1. We’re sorry to hear that this is happening in your office Sabrina! Perhaps you could suggest a team meeting or training, that focuses on how to improve daily life in the office, team collaboration, appropriate behaviors, and so forth (without specifically targeting the individual in question of course!).

      Unfortunately some people are unaware of the impact they have on others, and could benefit from having basic appropriate behavior explicitly spelled out, even though it might seem blatantly obvious to us.

      Wishing you the best of luck!!

    2. My situation has been the same as Sabrina’s. Management knows about the bad behavior, talks about it, but for some reason never did anything about it. Her bad behavior, unprofessionalism and lack of willingness to assist her customers/staff goes unchecked. It causes my workload to increase because nobody wants to go them for assistance.

      1. Quit. Nothing will change but you may end up ill ( physically too) if you allow negative and outright abuse to keep occurring.

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