Difficult Colleagues Series: Introduction

Difficult Colleague?


In this introductory post, I want to help us debunk some ideas we’ve had in the past. We’ll dive more deeply into some of the concepts in upcoming posts.


How often do we see online learning about “How to navigate difficult colleague relationships?” Almost every week an invitation lands in my inbox for these kinds of learning events. But one thing they don’t ever discuss is “What is my role in making this a difficult situation with this colleague?” or even, “Who’s/What’s difficult – my colleague, our culture, my own attitude, or a combination?”

The latest email in my Inbox wanted to teach me how to deal with a difficult colleague by plying me with:

  • An eBook
  • An Assessment Tool
  • Supporting Tools:
    • Event Tracker
    • Decision Manual
    • Last Resort Discussion Guide
  • A series of Coaching Podcasts
  • A Handbook


It’s time for us to look more deeply at the question, especially if you are a team leader, mid-level manager, or part of your leadership team.

It’s never solely one person’s fault that creates difficult relationships. Instead, many factors contribute to it:

  • The organizational culture has made it unfit to discuss the situation.
  • There is only “one mold” that is acceptable. Employees outside the mold are tagged “difficult.”
  • The “difficult” employee’s past experiences on other teams or in their family of origin.
  • Our own past experiences on other teams or in our families of origin.

Frankly, our failure to see ourselves inside this problem may be the largest blind spot inside the problem itself. “What do I contribute to this?” needs to be asked, as well as, “Is this person really difficult?”

Sometimes the “difficult staffer” is really a “paradigm shifter,” but we haven’t understood this angle. These employees are invaluable to our organizations. (We’ll look at this possibility in our next post.)

We’ve also allowed ourselves to fall victim to Fundamental Attribution Errors. (More about this later as well.)

Labeling someone as difficult is the easy way out. Finding the truth in between is the hallmark of a mature team.

We dare not assume “difficulty” in others, when the harsher difficulty may lie within ourselves or our organizations.