Dealing with Difficult Co-Workers, Employees, Supervisors and a Toxic Work Environment

The wildly competitive coworker, the super stressed-out supervisor, and the emotional employee: three, of many types of people, who can make an otherwise great working environment extremely unpleasant.

You love your job. Well, you did. Until your co-workers showed their true colors.


You’re actually thinking about quitting the job of a lifetime because the people you work with are imposing their negative energy on you.

I have two distinct approaches to dealing with them:

The Internal Approach and the External Approach

I avoid conflict. I don’t like being criticized or otherwise “told about myself” (rightfully or wrongfully so). I’m hesitant to address my problems with others by slapping them in the face with critical words. So the internal is my preference.

I believe that people are reluctant to change, and I doubt my little complaints about them will make much of a difference.

My solution to difficult people at work is to examine my part in the relationship and focus on some core truths.

The Internal Approach

I’m not under their control. I believe that I (read: God) is my source for good and no matter what they say or do. They have no true bearing on the outcome of my life.

They might think they can control me with words or threats, but the truth is, they cant. (They’d have to physically detain me or beat me into submission. And even using a violent approach, how much control they actually have is debatable.)

I might think they control me, but the reality is, that isn’t true. Even if they got me fired, or fired me, my future solely relies on the actions I take. I let go of the idea that they have power over me.

I’m in charge of my life. I can choose how I’d like to react and respond to them, and I can choose to respond in a way that does not engage on a low vibrational level.

I choose what I say and do.

I can choose to live in the moment and not carry around the emotional crap they dump all over the place.

 I can let go of my assumptions and expectations I have about my coworkers, company, and superiors because my assumptions and expectations are my own.  My assumptions/expectations about them contribute to my frustration/anxiety. Other people aren’t obligated to meet my expectations, nor fall in line with my assumptions about them.

Do I expect them to be honorable or act how would in a given situation? Have I acknowledged that their point of view (agreeable or disagreeable) is a result of their life experiences and values? Am I hoping they will change or act within my belief system?

This is unreasonable. They are different people who bring a different resume to the table.

I get frustrated and angry when expectations don’t match reality. By letting go of expectations and dismissing assumptions, I can see and respond to reality. My vision of the world is clearer.

I can choose to acknowledge their best self, which may be hidden under layers of pain, grief, disappointment, and other emotional wounds. I recognize that while they may not be presenting their best-self (read: God-like self) to me now (or ever), a best-self exists somewhere deep within them.  If I focus on their positive attributes, more of them may become visible.

I accept that this work environment may not be the best for me, (read: divinely appointed), despite what I (read: my ego) may think. I can stop fighting and forcing something to work when it isn’t. I can relax when I’m not fighting to force things to go my way. I can let it go.

I can hold steadfast to my inner peace. The negativity in my work environment, this person, and this situation do not have to latch onto me.

I do not have to dwell on problematic situations, replaying them over and over in my head. I can focus on existing in the moment, and on my peace. If my inner peace muscles are strong enough to hold me up, I won’t be blown over by what happens externally.

External Approach

The sort of self-reflection detailed above isn’t for everyone. My internal approach to dealing with external stimuli may not resonate with you. Some people, prefer to confront their discomfort with other people directly. I’ve seen or personally found the following approaches to be effective:

Set boundaries. Tell your boss or coworker to talk to you with respect- no more screaming, petty or passive aggressive comments and behavior.  Tell them you aren’t interested in hearing complaining all day. Tell them their hovering isn’t helping you be productive. Demand reasonable deadlines. Make an agreement on how you work best as a team. Respectfully, of course.

My husband won’t allow people to disrespect him in the workplace. If there is something someone did he doesn’t like, they are going to hear about it. Holding on to frustration, anger, and resentment because you’re too paralyzed to act will exhaust you in the long run. Address it.

We hear a lot about setting boundaries with your children, parents, spouse, and friends, but not employers.  Many people approach their jobs from a fear of being fired–a completely justifiable fear.

In this economy–from a capitalism standpoint–you are easily replaceable. Question the status quo, demand respect, your boss might just take advantage of that “at-will” clause in your contract and find someone more amenable to their approach.

But who knows? Your problem coworker or supervisor may respect your request, forever changing the dynamic of the relationship. This has worked countless times for my hubby and may work for you, too.

Transfer. If possible, request to work with another team, on another project or in another office. If you tried settling your differences with your stress inducing co-worker to no avail, and neither of you can see past the past, it’s time to for a clean slate in a new environment.

This doesn’t guarantee that you won’t find your new situation comparable to your old one. Sometimes the company culture fosters a stressful or hostile work environment. But not always. Sometimes you need a fresh start with new people. 

I did this, back when I used to work at a bookstore. Same company, but the team at one store was far more cohesive and friendly than the other. I went back to loving my job when I made the switch.

Quit. This option isn’t for everyone. Most people’s current financial situation doesn’t permit dropping their job like a hot potato. But if you can, do it. If you can’t do it right away, work towards quitting. Save money, look for a new job, start a business, whatever you have to do to regain control of your daily time, space and energy. It’s okay to leave your job.

The economic system in this country isn’t set up to protect its citizens’ mental, emotional and spiritual well-being at work. Life (maybe). Liberty (sure). The pursuit of happiness? (Only if we choose our own way instead of riding the rollercoaster of this economy.)

In capitalism, we are barely considered people– we are “human capital.” Chances are, your coworkers are victims of the system too, and their behavior reflects that.

Ever hear the expression, leave your personal life at the door? Honestly, that’s not realistic. People are people and they bring every ounce of their life experiences, attitudes, values, and emotions to work with them every day. What you see is a direct result of that–either consciously or unconsciously.

At the end of the day, you choose the environment where you show up every day. It’s your choice. Whether you stay or leave is up to you, and how you respond to the stimuli intent on bringing you down, is up to you.

Choose wisely.

How do you handle a stressful work environment? Leave your thoughts in the comments below