3 Tips To Outsmart Difficult People At Work

October 27, 2015

It’s a fact; there will be difficult people at work. But the question is how can we outsmart difficult people at work?

I’m referring to that co-worker who delights in being nasty and believes they have superior levels of both power and intelligence. But is, in fact, so insecure about themselves they cover it up by treating everyone like dirt under her Jimmy Choos.

Keep reading for three tips to outsmart difficult people at work.

3 Tips to Outsmart Difficult People at Work

Every office has difficult people.

They are difficult – usually – because they feel threatened and the only way they can deal with their emotions is to lash out and be horrible to those around them. Unfortunately, it’s the poor assistant or intern who just trying to survive their first job that ends up being the victim.

I’m sad to say…. that has been me on more than one occasion.

A many numbers of years ago I worked in an office where one of the senior female staff took delight in making me feel as unwelcome as possible. She delighted at hurling snarky comments across the office hall at me then stomping back into her office swinging her ponytail.

Such unneeded drama that sent me home crying.

This went on for about a year and I avoided her in the corridors, hid at my desk and went home each day a ball of anger and hurt.

Eventually, we have to deal with difficult people at work whose words or actions we can’t stand for our own sanity.

One day, it was just too much. I couldn’t take the abuse any longer.

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She yelled at me across the office hall demanding to know why I was creating a drama and I should just do my job, not hers. I turned around and put my Wonder Woman pose on and firmly said:

If you had done your job and helped Phillip in the first place he wouldn’t have needed me to help. It’s not my fault that he knows I will support him and help to get your job done. By the way, you’re welcome. Let me know if there is anything else I can support you with.

I immediately turned around and went back to work. My heart was pounding, did I just stand up to the office witch?

This was huge step forward in dealing with the office witch; I was able to take the high road, stay calm and hide my raging anger. All I really wanted to do was grab her swinging ponytail and slam her head into the table Charlie’s Angels style.

She never bothered me again after I stood my ground and I could walk through the corridors without fearing for my life. 


Something occurred to me a few weeks after that incident.

I heard from a colleague that she was going through a difficult time in her marriage which can’t have been easy.  Instead of seeing her as the office witch, I saw her as someone’s mother and wife who was going through a difficult time. From that moment, I decided to show some empathy and kindness instead of secretly referring to her as the office witch.

We were never besties after that, yet she never treated me like dirt under her stilettos. We even started to speak to each other at the coffee machine in the mornings. Never thought that would happen.

In difficult times, it’s really hard to hold your head high and take the high ground.

It’s terrifying and took me at least a year of being bullied to gain the courage to stand up for myself.

If this happens to you, is there a way to outsmart difficult people at work?

Responding to verbal attacks validates them and gives them exactly what they want. If someone is sniping at you, never engage in crossfire or demean yourself by yelling back. If you do that, you’re just lowering yourself to their standards.

In my case, I dealt with difficult people at work with kindness and laid down the facts. There are other ways you can deal with difficult people whilst still holding your head high and being professional:

1 | MAINTAIN A FRIENDLY DEMEANOUR instead of adopting a defensive stance when someone is horrible to you. Not fake friendly, real friendly. If you’re always professional to someone in the face of immaturity, it can be hard for the other party to continue their attacks.

2 | DON’T RETALIATE Take steps to turn the situation around. Make sure you approach any incident with more intellect and sophistication than a thirteen-year-old scrapping in the playground. They won’t expect you to keep calm while confronting them, keep your tone steady; avoid raising your voice – that’s what they expect you to do.

3 | BE EMPATHIC. Instead of getting angry back, show some empathy. everyone’s story in life is different, you never know what they are dealing with outside of work.

If the problem persists and it’s really affecting you, start to keep a journal of each incident and report it to your Human Resources Manager. They will be able to support you and help you outsmart difficult people at work.

Standing up for yourself is hard and downright terrifying. It will be hard, yet empowering and you will be stronger for standing up for what you believe in.

IMPORTANT: We have all faced difficult people, so how have you tackled a tricky situation where someone was horrible to you at work? You never know who you may help, so comment below on the three things that helped you.

I hope you find a tactic from the above that can help you.
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  • Paula Brown

    Yes! I agree that standing up is best. Yesterday, my supervisor failed to email me with the location of a meeting. I had to constantly reach out for guidance. The meeting was only from 8 – 11. I was notified 2 hours into the meeting which was also 15 minutes away! To add insult he has the audacity to text me at 10:45 asking where was I. I emailed him immediately requesting that I be sent future emails. This morning I was sent a text saying “since you didn’t know what to do, you should have found out.” Really??

  • AJMoneyMatters

    Yes! Good on you for standing up to her! You definitely should not have to put up with someone like that, especially in the work place. Great tips on how to deal with these situations!

    • Thank you! It was very hard to take the initial step, but I haven’t looked back since.

  • Eve Needham

    I was a FE College Principal’s Secretary for 26 years and got on well with all my colleagues. However, there were a few phone calls that I had to deal with – one from an irate College Governor who was quite abusive until I turned his anger around by being apologetic and asked him what the problem was. He proceeded to tell me, in a much calmer manner, what the problem was. I said I would talk to the Principal and phone him right back. When I phoned him back he actually apologised to me. Another occasion was a student’s mother who was angry about not being able to get through to the Head of Department in which her daughter was taking a course. Once again, I apologised and asked her what the problem was. I then contacted the Head of Department concerned and told him the situation. I had taken her phone number so he promised to call her right away. I had a phone call from the lady about an hour later She apologised to me and said it was so nice to find someone who could sort things out for her. As you have said, If one is calm and apologetic to start with, it is difficult for the angry and/or difficult person to stay angry. I have always dealt with situations by being apologetic in the first place – it has always worked for me.

  • You have to be firm with these types of people. Great advise.

  • Great advice Lisa. I love how you turned the approach around positively and stood firmly. Sometimes being firm is best with kind words. I will remember your “Wonder Woman Pose” next time. Thank you for sharing!