Dealing with terrible coworkers is an unfortunate reality many will face during their careers. While everyone doesn’t work the same way you do, negative behavior and toxic workplace relationships can poison your experience at a company, and in terrible cases, an entire career trajectory.

The challenge of difficult office relationships will always be identifying if it’s an actual issue, or if it’s just conducting business differently. When we see problems with others, we’re often identifying issues with ourselves.

That being said, you need to trust your gut when it comes to bad coworkers. If something feels unhealthy or intentional, take the issue to HR. Don’t reason away abusive or manipulative workplace relationships.

Bad Bosses

Dynamics with a boss will vary from relationship to relationship, which can make identifying problematic behavior challenging. A negative relationship with a boss could be tied to power dynamics, your personal work history or even the sentiment you have of your workplace.

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As with any relationship in the workplace, first try to take a step back and evaluate the problem from an outsider’s perspective. Are you leaving any room for understanding, or being too harsh on your boss?

If the answer is “No,” and your boss is indeed “bad”, make sure you’re taking steps to make the relationship work for you. Try to anticipate his or her needs and identify when projects or tasks might be particularly stressful. It’s easier said than done, but the less you can have your boss’s lousy attitude affect your workplace performance, the better.

Give yourself permission to be your own boss. Many of us have been stuck in positions working for ineffective bosses. Understand that your boss doesn’t know everything, and it’s okay to disagree with his or her perspective. Don’t feel as though their opinions or ideas are gospel.

Of course, if things devolve or become unworkable, or if you find a boss’s behavior to go beyond poor management and into unhealthy workplace behavior, take the issue to HR. There’s no clear metric for crossing a line into an unhealthy relationship, so this is a matter best trusted with your gut.

Terrible Teammates

There’s nothing more draining at the workplace than being stuck on a project with a less than helpful teammate. When you’re invested in a project, working with someone you have a conflict with can lead to high stress and clashing attitudes. It’s natural for you to want things done well, which for many of us translates to things being done our way.

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If you’re seconds away from blowing up at a teammate, first take a deep breath and understand that people have different ways of doing things; could this perhaps be a misunderstanding of the way you approach a project? Try your best is identify if this is indeed problematic behavior or just a misreading of the situation.

No matter the outcome, patience will be your best tool. At the end of the day, you can only change your behavior, and focusing on your coworker’s issues will not make your project any stronger. Practice active listening and pick up on repeated behaviors or patterns. Are there specific tasks or meetings that leave you with more conflict? Is there a way to flat out avoid these altercations, or at least adjust your behavior in those moments?

If patience and listening aren’t paying off, understand that minimizing time together can make for a much more pleasant experience and project. Maybe you and your coworker communicate best by email, or things escalate more when you’re together on client calls. Avoidance, to a certain extent, can make your working relationship easier.

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Of course, this advice applies to run of the mill conflicts or garden variety bad behavior. If a coworker is exhibiting emotionally unstable or professionally abusive behavior, you need to loop HR in. There will never a perfect time to file a complaint or report, but in these moments you have to trust your instinct. Are you having a miscommunication or a full-blown conflict?

Hindsight being 20/20, most of us wish we’d called HR sooner. If something in your gut feels wrong, it likely is wrong - don’t delay in talking to HR about it.

Irrational Employees

Being a manager is stressful as it is, but factor in a lackluster employee and the task becomes, well, unmanageable.

First things first, talk to an employee with an open mind and listen to what he or she has to say. Sometimes misunderstandings, or getting a better perspective on their point of view can patch things up. You might have wildly varying communication skills, or maybe things haven’t been spelled out in terms he or she understands.

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If you’re running into the same problems again and again, focus on giving consistent feedback. Part of managing involves some hand-holding, and if you don’t identify a mistake as a problem, it’s likely to be repeated again. Remember, with senior experience, you have a wealth of knowledge to share with a teammate - they are not mind readers, so be willing to share what you’ve learned to help their performance.

Although most of us want to avoid having difficult conversations with employees, it's actually benefitial to both parties and can help clear mounting tension. Don't sell yourself or your employee short by avoiding difficult conversations just because it's uncomfortable.

In the case that issues continue, make sure to document the transgressions. This provides a road map of growth, but also provides a timeline if you need to let an employee go. In the worst case scenario, you could be unable to let an employee go because there was no documentation of problems. This creates a recipe for disaster and a toxic relationship.

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If things have escalated to the point where you’ve begun documentation of transgressions, understand you have to clue the employee in at some level. Outline the stakes and set consequences for misdoings. Too often, we don’t express our problems with employees at all, until it’s too late and they’re taken by surprise.

At the end of the day, don’t let this negative relationship ruin your relationship with the company. When we’re frustrated, the first instinct can be to complain to other team members. Resist this urge. It will make you look irresponsible and potentially ruin an employee’s redeemable issue at the company. A manager-employee conflict needs to stay between HR and the involved parties.

No one actively seeks out conflict in the workplace, but we’re all bound to encounter it during our careers. Being able to listen, as well as trusting our guts are the two essential tools to weathering the experience.


Want some additional help with dealing with conflicts in the workplace? Talk to Ace-up's expert Executive Coaches, who specialize in conflict management and team dynamics. Connect with Ace-up Executive Coaches