The Scientifically Proven Way To Deal With Difficult Coworkers

Believe it or not, egomaniacs and naysaysers have good intentions, too.

The Scientifically Proven Way To Deal With Difficult Coworkers
[Photo: Flickr user Eddi]

We’ve grown up hearing how one bad apple spoils the bunch, and now research is proving that adage to be true. All it takes is one individual to erode a team’s effectiveness. There are many kinds of toxic coworkers, but two that can do the most damage are those who won’t listen to others (egomaniacs) and those who suck the energy from a team (naysayers).


When you can’t either get rid of them or find a new team for yourself, it’s worth having a trick in your back pocket to make things more manageable.

Good Intentions, But A Crappy Way Of Showing It

While not all difficult people are difficult in the same way, an important principle for dealing with them holds true across the board. It’s to recognize that there’s something positive that these difficult people intend to do, and that they are acting the best they know how.

That’s probably hard to hear. Still, it’s likely that buried beneath your difficult coworker’s bad attitude is at least some measure of good intention, and believe it or not, your life will be made easier by recognizing them.

But it often takes a conscious effort to do so, and one reason why is because we tend to view these people as outsiders or even enemies–certainly not those who play for the same team. And it’s especially hard to think of your biggest antagonists as having positive intentions. Watch the next U.S. presidential primary debate of the party you like less, and try to envision its candidates as well-meaning folks. You may find that’s a challenge.


Our brains operate differently when dealing with someone we see as an outsider versus someone we see as an insider. For one thing, we tend to attribute perceived outsiders’ bad behavior to a personality problem and dismiss the good things they do. We do just the opposite for our friends, excusing their less savory moments as a momentary lapse or the result of a bad day, and see their good deeds as evidence of inherent good qualities.

So unless we actively look for difficult people’s positive intentions, we’re unlikely to see them.

Enter The Egomaniac

You know that VP who won’t listen to anyone and thinks only he has good ideas? Working on a project with him is like spitting into the wind. He seems incapable of liking anything he didn’t come up with, and it feels like you’re better off keeping your mouth shut and not contributing.

It’s natural to want to show that VP how stupid his ideas are, and that yours are better. But that’s exactly the opposite of what you should do. Your best course of action is to tell the egomaniac he’s right or find things you like about his input. The fact is that he’s desperate for that kind of approval and almost never gets it.

Chances are if you look, you’ll find there’s still something good about what anyone has to say, even if it’s packaged horribly. Picking it out will be the fastest way to shut him up and get him open to listening to you.


Of course, no one likes to suck up to a jerk colleague or boss. But you don’t have to. Sucking up implies falsely praising someone. The key difference is that you should only show you appreciate an egomaniac’s ideas when you actually do see the good in them.

Egomaniacs (also called narcissists) want to be liked and feel valued–not inherently bad things to want. Typically, those types of people are just doing what they know how to do to get those things. Of course, they usually do, but that’s the intention. Help your egomaniac coworker satisfy those desires, and he’ll stop fighting for them. It’s like scratching an itch. Once he feels his status is in good standing, he’ll be more capable of listening to you.

Now you can enjoy being the only one who that jerk of a VP seems to listen to.

Getting “Yes” From A Naysayer

There’s always one buzzkill in any group who always says there aren’t enough resources and explaining why something or other can’t be done. For them, too, the same principle holds true. Address the positive intention behind their naysaying, and you can get them to invest their energy into execution rather than complaining.

Research shows that people tend to either care deeply about “locomotion”–making things happen and moving forward–or “assessment,” analyzing options and being deliberative. (One person can care about both, but usually people care more about one or the other.) Your naysayer’s reason for pointing out why something won’t work may be because they’re carefully assessing whether it can be executed under current constraints. That’s actually a very positive intention. Seen that way, the naysayer just wants the team to succeed.


Asking someone who cares about assessment to just table their objections and trust is like asking them to jump out of an airplane without knowing if their parachute is packed. Chances are it will only intensify their need to call attention to why things won’t work.

But when you know their positive intention, you can address their needs for assessment and bring them on board faster. For example, help them do a thought experiment with you about what would happen if you had the resources, and let them help you identify just what resources you really would need.

Egomaniacs and naysayers have pretty different intentions. But beneath all their frustrating behaviors, they both want to succeed. And unless your coworker is hard to work with because they’re actively trying to sabotage your job and push you out of a team–an important caveat (and an issue for another day)–that’s still something you can work with.

So the next time you find yourself upset about a difficult colleague, do the counterintuitive thing: Take a moment to consider what their positive intentions might be. Then you can put them to good use.