Want to know how to handle 3 types of difficult workers?

Woman working by herself on her laptop away from other teammates

Three of the most difficult types of coworkers are the pessimist, the passive-aggressive peer, and the know- it-all. When you think of conflict, conflict resolution, conflict management, disputes, dispute resolution, or dispute management, what can you do? From the Harvard Business Review article by Amy Gallo entitled 3 Types of Difficult Coworkers and How to Work with Them, she offers additional commentary beyond what is presented here.  The commentary that follows is a summary of key points from Gallo’s article with some personal observations and 10 additional sources to help you when you have to work with one of these individuals.


The pessimist


You know the type that continually complains, can’t find anything nice to say, and sees the worst of a situation continuously. Who knows why. What is going on in their lives? The reasons could be legitimate with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, something going on in their lives at work or outside of work, health issues, or something else.

It is important to address these issues, or this negative attitude could spread.

So, what can you do? First, listen. Listen with empathy. Try to understand and relate to them. Reflect back on what you heard them say. Acknowledge what they have to say. Look for an alternative commentary to reframe what they said and to present the commentary in a neutral, positive, or simply an alternative perspective. Point out that there may be other things going on that we simply don’t see or know.

Can you relate to their commentary with your own experiences? Can you share some insights, a story, or something to offer such as an alternative way of looking at the situation? Focus on we and looking forward from today. What can we do together to make the situation better? Focusing on the situation, here are some questions to ask if you think they may be helpful to your situation:

  • What can we do to help improve the situation? Do you have any ideas?
  • What are some alternatives that we might want to consider?
  • I appreciate the issues you have raised. What might we be missing going forward?

Consider these ideas and check out these articles on How to Handle the Pessimist on Your Team, How to coach a problem employee: The pessimist, and 5 Ways to Deal with a  Pessimistic Co-Worker.


The passive-aggressive peer


What do you do with someone that shares they will carry out some tasks and then they don’t? How about someone that indicates they are on board with a decision and then they  undermine the process? What do you do when someone shares that everything is fine, when clearly it is not? These are all examples of a passive-aggressive peer. So, what do you do?

Gabrielle Adams, a professor at the University of Virginia who studies interpersonal conflict indicates that the person “may be using indirect methods to express thoughts and feelings.

Often, this behavior is driven by the fear of failure or rejection, a desire to avoid conflict, or a drive to gain power.”

 In this case it is recommended not to call out the behavior, but rather seek to understand where they are coming from and what they would like to see happen? What are their underlying concerns?

In this instance is important to allow the party to feel safe and to allow the person to have an honest conversation. Avoid being judgmental. Avoid initiating advice or what you think. Take the time to listen actively and ask open ended questions to dig deeper. Consider asking the person to “tell me more.” Check for understanding to see if what you heard was what they were saying. This will allow the other person to share their emotions and why they behaved as they did. You are trying to understand underlying interests.

Consider diplomatic ways of asking questions to various scenarios like:

  • You have not responded to my recent emails, is everything all right?
  • Your body language suggests that you are not onboard with this, please share with us what you are thinking.
  • I noticed you are having a sidebar with Jim, do you want to share any concerns with us?

Consider these ideas and check out these articles on 8 Ways to Deal with Passive-Aggressive Coworkers, How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Colleague, and The 5 best Ways to Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior At Work.  You will find conflicting ideas in some instances. This is to be expected, depending on the facts of your situation.


The know-it-all


This person may also be known as the person who thinks he is the smartest person in the room. Humility and patience are not his strengths. This person often speaks over others, and believes he is right. He thinks he knows how to handle any situation without help or listening to others. Although confidence is good, not having humility and patience can lead to bad results. What can you do?

Set aside time to allow everyone to speak.

“Hold off questions until the presentation is completed.” “Please let me speak until I am done.” If interrupted consider something like, “when I am through, I would love to hear from you.” No matter what remain, calm, confident, and competent. Do not raise your voice. Stay cool.

Avoid generalization terms like “always” or “never” and be respectful.

Do not be confrontational. Take it down a notch to ensure you both understand the facts of the situation. Maybe you need to gather more facts. Be humble. Humble people treat everyone with respect, are thankful, are genuine, want to learn, want to become better. Practice patience, serenity, and inner strength.

Consider phrases like:

  • May I please finish?
  • I will be happy to address your question when I am finished.
  • I value your thoughts, but please wait until I am done.

Consider these ideas and check out these articles on 8 Tips For Dealing With A Know-It-All Coworker, How to Deal with a Know-It-All in the Workplace, How to Deal with Your Workplace’s Mr. or Ms. Know-It-All, and How to Deal with a Know-It-All in Your Office.




Keep in mind you have to also accept what you cannot change. Staying above the line will help, but some people simply don’t get it. You can change how you work with this person. Hopefully, this commentary gave you some additional ideas. Good luck. I would love to hear from you if you have other ideas too.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]