Tricky colleagues and how to handle them

Written by Ian Wylie Monday 24 February 2020
First, you need to know that your own behaviour may be the first step in solving the problem...
two women at work

Ensuring clear communicationYou shouldn’t expect to click with everyone at work — and most of the time, it won’t be much of a problem. But, it’s not uncommon for voices to raise or anger to boil over. There may be all kinds of reasons you find it difficult to get along with another colleague, but you must keep it professional and courteous at all times.

In one study in the US, a survey of 2,000 people showed that 100% of respondents get annoyed at work – with 49% of these respondents finding “loudness and complaining” the most annoying traits of their colleagues. A further 32% said the most annoying habit was gossip and bullying, followed by 12% choosing bathroom or eating habits. The majority (73%) of respondents were annoyed specifically by around 2-5 colleagues at work – but the most popular ways of tackling the problem was to ask another colleague to confront them.

Here are some ways you can work around the colleagues in question and turn negative relationships into positive ones – sometimes, you have to rise above and be the bigger person.

Communication Accommodation

One strategy to consider is mirroring or “communication accommodation” — there is a theory, first identified by the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Professor Howard Giles, that when people interact they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures to accommodate others. The researchers who developed the theory argue that people show “convergence” in accent or method of speech to establish rapport with others.

Remember that communication isn’t just about words, so use not just your ears, but your eyes too. Subtle mirroring — from gestures, vocal pitch and tone to posture, distance, eye contact and body orientation — can help build positivity and liking between two people. Most people do this kind of thing unconsciously. But intentional mirroring can help you create powerful, influential connections with others, sometimes called “the chameleon effect”.

In Bruce Daisley’s book, The Joy of Work, which was shortlisted for CMI’s Management Book of the Year 2020, he talks about the multiple benefits of open teams who communicate with, query, and solve problems together. If you and your colleagues feel unable to speak openly with one another, try and think about the reasons why this is the case instead of just chalking it up to a bad attitude or personality mismatch.

“At work,” Daisley writes, “worried that we’re being constantly assessed by others, we keenly manage the image that we project of ourselves. The last thing any of us wants to do is to appear ignorant, incompetent, or excessively negative – and we take steps to protect ourselves accordingly. If we don’t want to look ignorant, we simply don’t ask questions or suggest ideas that might reveal our ignorance. If we don’t want to look incompetent, we don’t admit to weaknesses or making mistakes. If we don't want to look negative, we don't crtice or question decisions made by others.”

What Daisley is saying is there are usually hidden factors driving the way we communicate and interact. Instead of just categorising someone as ‘unmanageable’, try to see if there are any reasons they feel uncomfortable at work, and maybe even try to make them feel more included. This may just open up a channel of communication they didn’t know was available to them.

Mirroring Body Language

Studies of salespeople in France have shown that those who mirror the non-verbal and verbal behaviour of customers sell more products and leave customers with a more positive opinion of their stores. Researchers using brain-imaging technology at Princeton University found that listeners and speakers are “dynamically coupled” with speakers’ and listeners’ brains, reacting and adapting to signals from each other.

But we need to issue a health warning here. Be careful not to make your mirroring obvious. Even Oprah Winfrey has been criticised for copying the accents of her studio guests, adopting previously unheard southern vowels; deliberately trying to mirror another person’s behaviour without being truly engaged can backfire, as others are likely to notice and see it as an attempt at manipulation.

It may be more fruitful to practise your empathy and active listening skills to build genuine rapport and relationship. Some of your most difficult colleagues might be having a most difficult time, or struggling with mental health issues that they’re trying to hide. There’s often much more to how people act than what we can see. Empathy and active listening can help get us past the judgment and condemnation to genuine understanding and problem-solving.

For more tips and techniques, download and read CMI’s Clear Communication Checklist.

You can also find lots more insight into communication skills and how to improve them on CMI’s resources ManagementDirect, which is free for members. Try searching for “Working with 'prickly' people,” an article penned by Katherine Mannering for CMI’s Magazine.


Join CMI’s Future Leaders community to network with like-minded individuals, share experiences and get advice:

For any questions or queries please contact: or

 Ian Wylie

Ian Wylie

Journalist, editor and podcaster for the Financial Times, Guardian, Monocle and others. For 16 years he was a staff writer, feature writer and section editor at The Guardian newspaper. He has a degree in economics from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and lectures on Newcastle University’s postgraduate journalism programme. Ian has three children, and a labradoodle called Jesse James.