How to build better working relationships with difficult colleagues

Bruce Tulgan
May 12, 2021

Bruce Tulgan

Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace
Teamwork Future of Work Future of Work Top 10 Network Marketing Culture/Work Environment Professional Keynote Corporate Personal Development

There are plenty of good reasons to want better relationships with your colleagues at work. Pleasant interactions with coworkers generally make your workdays more enjoyable. Trust and respect among team members opens everyone up to contribute their best ideas. And you never know which connections will lead to new and amazing opportunities for you in the future.

But even if you are doing your best to build real influence at work--by serving others and adding real value--the same cannot always be said of the people with whom you work. This doesn't necessarily mean your colleagues are ill-intentioned jerks. Well-meaning people fall into the trap of false influence or the quid pro quo all the time.

But if you're someone committed to establishing a sterling reputation, sometimes you might feel in a bit of a bind. How do you address someone else's bad behavior without damaging your working relationship?

Here are some tips for handling six common types of difficult colleague behavior, from real go-to people in the real world.

The subtle bribe

If you are ever offered an outright bribe, don't hesitate to call it out and formally report the person offering the bribe. If you want everyone to know high ethical standards are part of your MO, you cannot do anything less.

But much more often the bribes we encounter at work are of a subtler variety. Take the following example from Andrew, a shipping and receiving specialist.

"Connie would bake brownies for my crew," says Andrew, who is a true go-to person in a large product distribution center. "That was our cue that she had a big shipment coming in. Was that a signal that she was hoping to get her shipments through our inspections without any problems? Maybe. Nobody on my team is going to let quality issues slide for any reason. But for brownies? Obviously not. She said she was just 'expressing gratitude for our work, in advance,' but still, it was just awkward."

If you are playing the long game in every short-term interaction, what do you do? The brownies feel like sort of a bribe, but you don't want to blow things out of proportion.

For Andrew, the response came easily. "Instead of rolling my eyes, I chose to look at those brownies as a cry for help," Andrew says. "Connie shouldn't have to be worried that the incoming shipment is going to run into inspection problems. So, I went out of my way to work with her on all the things she could do--aside from baking brownies--to help all of us meet our shared goals of getting her big shipments through our incoming quality inspections. I made her a checklist corresponding to our checklist. Then I would walk her through the steps in advance every time she had a big shipment coming in. Pretty soon she had a rock-solid predelivery process, and her shipments had the highest incoming quality yields ever after."

That's what real influence looks like. By truly serving Connie, Andrew was making everything better for everybody, including making Connie a much more effective customer of the quality inspection services and ultimately serving the mission by helping get Connie's shipments through with less delay and trouble.

The freeze-out

There are people who will take every workplace decision personally, no matter what you do (or how correct the decision proves to be). Disagreements lead to the freeze-out: the slighted colleague makes it clear, one way or another, they are unhappy with you. Of course, they usually take a more passive-aggressive approach.

How does Gayle successfully handle the freeze-out? With real-influence thinking. "You have to meet their meanness with service," says Gayle. "If someone is trying to coerce me or punish me, I'm just going to show them that I'm here to do my job for them and everyone else, as best as I possibly can. It has nothing to do with their willingness to help me. I'm still going to do my job."

She continues, "If someone is really holding out on me, then I'm going to go to somebody else, of course. But I'll still be right there for the holdouts when they need me, if and only if what they need from me is the right business decision at that time. In which case, I might even try harder to deliver for them, just to show them what professionalism looks like."

Charm or flattery

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who will, rather than push you away, try to reel you in. These people, often with the best intentions, try to ingratiate themselves with others through charm, flattery, or some other form of ego fluffing.

It can be easy to get wrapped up in someone else's effusive attention, especially if we consider that person a true friend. But if you become known, or even suspected, of making judgment calls based on personal bias, your judgment loses a lot of respect. The simple solution is to make your decisions based only on the work itself, and to be prepared to explain that rationale to others.

Charles, a business process consultant, says, "This one engineering manager, from the moment I arrived, started telling me how impressed he was with my work and insisting that I was becoming his 'favorite consultant of all time.' It didn't take long for me to realize that he was just trying to manipulate me, trying to make it personally more difficult for me to recommend cuts to his budget. It was so transparent."

He continues, "But the reason people trust me to make those decisions is exactly because I don't need you to like me and it doesn't matter if I like you. I'm going to recommend cuts to your budget, if that's the right thing to do, even if you are my best friend. If it's not the right thing to do, then I'm not going to recommend those cuts, even if I hate your guts."

Going over your head

Having a colleague go over our heads to the boss has happened to all of us (and we've certainly done it ourselves). The best advice is not to treat it as a sign of disrespect. Don't get angry. Instead, take it as an opportunity to check in with how aligned you are with your boss.

"If you go over my head to my boss, that's just fine with me," says Alfredo, a material-planning manager in a mining company. "You will find that I am pretty much in lockstep with my boss. If I've got it wrong, then my boss probably has it wrong too. If not, if I am not in lockstep, then you are doing me a favor. And if my boss and I both have it wrong, then you are doing us both a favor by escalating the matter and getting it cleared up at that higher level."


Most of the time, a coworker who badgers ends up ignored. The lack of attention makes the badgering worse, maybe even more unpleasant in tone. Both sides feel they're being treated unfairly. But the cycle continues.

So, break the cycle! Take that badgering colleague aside and get to the bottom of their badgering: "You must be worried that your project is not going to get the attention from me that it deserves. What can I do to reassure you?" Sit down together and figure out a solution that will make both parties feel trusted and respected. Establishing timelines and setting up structured weekly check-ins can go a long way.

Finger-pointing and complaining

If you are ever on the receiving end of abusive behavior at work--insults, yelling, invasion of personal space--don't tolerate it. Exit that situation as soon as you can and get HR involved.

Being on the receiving end of someone's blame is trickier to navigate. Their harsh delivery may contain legitimate criticisms you would be wise not to miss. But you don't want to send the message that being spoken down to is acceptable. Threading that needle requires a little discipline.

Kamal, a true go-to person in a chain-restaurant company, recalls speaking in a meeting and being way too harsh about a colleague. "And there she was just taking notes and asking questions the whole time," Kamal says. "She didn't get defensive or angry. She said she regarded everything I was saying as 'customer complaint data' and insisted she was determined to use that data to improve. You could just see the nods of approval and appreciation as she won everyone over around the table. Then she came to talk with me one-on-one, later. She took corrective action based on my feedback too."

He continues, "I was so impressed. We worked together for years after that and she became a role model for me. She totally changed my approach to providing critical feedback. If you think of critical feedback as a valuable service, it changes how you present it. Instead of being a relationship killer, it can really improve the working relationship."

The post How to build better working relationships with difficult colleagues appeared first on RainmakerThinking.

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