“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

Getting Along — How to Navigate Difficult Coworkers

Getting Along — How to Navigate Difficult Coworkers

Written by Hillary Kirtland


We’ve all encountered someone who has made interactions at work harder than necessary. From clients to bosses, there’s always that person in the office we’d rather avoid.  But if you’re avoiding difficult people, you’re missing out on professional opportunities. Here are some examples of difficult people I run into all the time, why they’re a blessing in disguise—and how to make them your biggest allies.

The ones who are intimidated by you

There will always be that person who, while cordial when you speak, actively competes against you behind your back, promotes themselves at your expense, intentionally keeps you out of the loop for new projects and ignores you when no one else is around. For whatever reason, something about you triggers their insecurities. Every successful woman has come across someone like this at some point in their career. The trick with these people is to find a way to identify their insecurities, address their concerns in a safe and productive manner, and then—this is challenging, but important—genuinely nurture that relationship. This person is a blessing in disguise because once you establish you’re not there to make them look bad, you can build a professional relationship where you both help each other.

People who feel that deeply about anything are also fiercely loyal to the people they consider themselves close to. Empathize with their situation and be their ally, so they can return the favor later. If you can do this they will begin to collaborate with you, compliment you when you’re not around and make sure you are always included.

The ones who try to manipulate you

I once had a colleague deliberately try to encourage another coworker and I to hate each other. She manipulated the situation by lying to us about things we “did” or “said” about each other. Later, the other coworker and I—both fed up with what we thought was going on—met face-to-face to talk about everything we had heard. As it turned out, our inclinations were correct.

Once someone has been maliciously deceitful, there’s no way you could—or should—trust them again. In work and in life, your integrity is everything. However, this person is a blessing in disguise because of what they will teach you about yourself and the opportunity they will give you to prove your values.

That manipulative colleague brought me one of my closest friends. The coworker she kept trying to get me to hate is still someone I keep up with, visit and consider a confidant. If you can rise above the back-handed manipulation, you can learn something about your own strength of character. Business is founded in relationships, and people only want to work with people they can trust. This person allows everyone around you to see how rooted you are in your values and how willing you are to live by them. When you meet these people, stay strong and take the high road. You will be better (and happier) for it.

The ones who think less of you

You know the type—the person who doesn’t think you know what you’re doing. Whether due to your age, gender, race, socioeconomic background, prior work experience or anything else; they’ve decided they know better. I once had a coworker, whose desk was directly in front of mine, turn around and try to micromanage my workflow. They would tell me my desk wasn’t organized correctly, that I should move papers from one place to another, what sticky notes I should use, or even what I should put in my drawers. This person is a blessing in disguise because they help you “up” your game.

I gave myself a goal and challenged myself to make the aforementioned coworker (micromanager) consider me an equal by the end of the year—and it worked. It will be frustrating to continuously swallow your pride, do the extra research ahead of time and try to find ways to actually learn from someone who drives you crazy. Stay strong and keep your eye on the prize. This person will be your ally because, once the person no one else can work with comes around to trusting you, relying on you and believing in your work, you’ll be regarded as more than an equal.

When they don’t know their own bias

A fairly common difficult person for professional women, people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ is the person who doesn’t recognize their own bias. I have a laundry list of examples of male coworkers who have “mansplained” my job to me, discredited my work because “a woman just wouldn’t understand” or told me that the office temperature should be set to accommodate the average man’s body temperature because “women should learn to put on more clothing.” This person is a blessing in disguise because they give us the opportunity to create dialogue about bias and how it works.

The hard part with these people is that sometimes, they truly have no idea what they’re saying or doing. However, you can show them gender (or race, or sexual orientation) does not define work ethic, deliverable quality, ambition or personality. By engaging others who think differently than we do, we allow ourselves to grow and learn. Maybe it helps us confirm our points of view. Maybe it changes some of what we think. Either way, we open the door for both sides to be heard. And when people feel heard, they will become your strongest allies.

At the end of the day, you will always come across difficult people in the office. The trick is to challenge yourself to find the opportunity amidst all the frustrations. Some may compete with you. Some may try to lead you astray. Some may talk down to you. Some may be ignorant. And some may just be plain difficult. But you always have the power to turn those situations around and come out the other side even stronger for it. Don’t let fear, anxiety, past experiences or stress stop you from creating allies of the difficult people you meet. Approach each new difficult person with empathy and sincere curiosity. Search for common ground and take action like the hustlin’ babe you are, and you’ll find all kinds of allies in even the most unlikely of places.  

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Hillary works as a Senior Strategy Consultant at IBM. She found her passion for her new job in the two years she took off work to pursue a full-time, Global MBA degree at George Washington University in Washington DC. She is driven by her constant curiosity and her truest love is for travel and adventure. Outside work you can find her playing in a local DC kickball league, taking spin, barre, and yoga classes at her gym, reading a book, or binge watching a new show (current faves include: Queer Eye, Outlander, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid's Tale).

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