Office Etiquette: 5 Keys to Maintaining Professionalism with Difficult Coworkers


Whether you’re a customer service rep or a business lawyer, it can be challenging to navigate the diverse personalities and dynamics in your workplace. However, this soft skill is essential for fostering a harmonious and productive environment.

Difficult coworkers will be one of the biggest tests of your professionalism. Whether you’re dealing with conflicting personalities while working on a social procurement project or communication barriers while operating a remote team, mastering office etiquette is key to maintaining professionalism amidst challenging situations.

To ensure you’re going in fully prepared, here are five strategies you can use to effectively manage difficult coworkers while upholding a professional demeanor:

1. Actively work on your empathy

Understanding the perspective of your challenging coworkers is fundamental to managing your interactions with them positively. Thankfully, empathy is a learnable skill, and you can develop it for even the most frustrating colleagues. You just may need to get a bit creative.

Take the time to think about the opinions or behaviors that trouble you. Put your emotions aside and ask yourself why they might be displaying such behaviors. Perhaps they’re under stress at work or in their home life. Maybe they’ve been through traumatic experiences that have caused them to develop coping mechanisms that are rubbing you up the wrong way.

By using your imagination to place yourself in their proverbial shoes, you can foster a sense of empathy that eases tensions and enables more constructive communication. To further develop this empathy, engage in active listening and seek to comprehend their motivations. This will lay the groundwork for the next steps.

2. Balance assertiveness with respect

Clear and assertive communication is pivotal when dealing with difficult coworkers. However, you must maintain a respectful tone and choose your words carefully to express your thoughts and concerns without escalating conflicts. Use “I” statements to convey your feelings or observations without attributing blame.

For instance, saying, “I feel concerned when deadlines are missed” is more accurate and productive than saying, “You’re stressing me out by missing deadlines.”

3. Set boundaries and remind your colleague of them when needed

Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and expectations to avoid misunderstandings or conflicts arising from blurred lines. When working collaboratively, ensure everyone is aware of their tasks and timelines, minimizing potential clashes due to differing work styles or priorities.

Setting boundaries also involves respectfully asserting yourself and reminding people of your boundaries when necessary. This ensures your personal limits and professional standards are upheld.

4. Focus on solutions, not drama

Shift the focus from drama to solutions when addressing issues with difficult coworkers. Rather than dwelling on differences or past disagreements, redirect your conversations toward finding common ground and resolving the current conflict.

Collaboratively brainstorm solutions and seek compromises to foster a more productive environment. Emphasizing your shared goals, values, and objectives can help in redirecting attention away from personal conflicts toward collective success.

5. Tactfully seek support

When efforts to manage difficult coworkers independently prove too challenging, seek mediation or support from a supervisor, HR department, or other neutral third party. Mediation sessions can facilitate constructive dialogue, allowing both of you to express concerns and work towards a mutually agreeable solution.

Involving a mediator or a higher authority can provide an objective perspective. This person can also help establish guidelines for improved interactions, ensuring a more amicable and professional work environment for everyone involved.

While challenges may still arise, approaching these situations with tact, respect, and a focus on collaboration can contribute to a more positive and productive work environment for all.