A Guide To Handling Cutthroat Co-workers

by Feb 9, 2017

Industry life can be tough, personalities can clash and actively disagreeable co-workers can rear their ugly heads. Here Holly Ashby gives some tips on dealing with difficult colleagues and how to overcome the problems that they may bring.

Part of being a grown up in the working world is having to work with varied personalities, and usually this is part of the fun. It would be unrealistic to expect to get on with everyone, of course, but in general even those we don’t quite click with are perfectly pleasant. However, every now and then we come across someone who isn’t just not our cup of tea, but actively disagreeable. Even worse, they may be willing to break social convention to get what they want, and you find yourself having to handle a cutthroat co-worker.

So what do you do when presented with kind of person who seems to have based their business tactics on the most cringe-worthy episodes of The Apprentice? The first thing to remember is the all-important truth that…

… ‘You Need to be Ruthless to Succeed” is a Myth
One of the problems with this misconception is that it can put shyer people off the idea of being too ambitious, worried that their voice will be drowned out by more dominant personalities. However, if you meet a successful person who is bullish, uncompromising and generally difficult to work with, you can pretty much guarantee that it wasn’t these traits which got them into that position.

Their confidence and belief in themselves may have been a contributing factor, but the likelihood is that in their journey to the top they knew when to be accommodating and acquiescent, and certainly wouldn’t have annoyed anyone in authority with an attitude and obvious backstabbing behaviour.

So How Do You Deal with a Cutthroat Person?

You need to be confident and sure of yourself
Machiavellian and self-interested people actively look for those who seem under-confident, insecure and eager to please, knowing they are unlikely to speak up for themselves and can be easily influenced. Being a little shyer and unsure of yourself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you have someone in the office who you find dominating and unfair, working on your confidence is the first step to dealing with them.

This is easier said than done, of course, but meditation is a good place to start. Reducing stress, easing anxiety and improving your performance, it’s a great way to build your self esteem – allowing you to look people in the eye and assert your preference politely and with grace. Deferring to others and putting yourself second is usually a habit you can unlearn rather than something key to your personality.

Power dressing is another good tip, as looking together and professional will reflect in your state of mind, while making lists of your achievements will remind you of your skills.

Utilise Your Emotional Intelligence
When faced with someone who’s willing to break social rules, completely happy to take credit for other people’s work or brazenly steal ideas, you need to understand them and their motivations. It may just be that they have little social nous, are very insecure, or simply need to be reminded that this isn’t on. There’s no need to assume someone is a bad person after a few missteps, so being open and honest is the best way to respond initially.

For example, you could say “I thought [another colleague] did an awful lot of work on that project” for something they are taking the credit for, or ask them to return the favour if you’ve helped them out a few times – always watching how they respond. Keep an eye out for patterns of behaviour, and see how they are with other people. If it transpires that they may well be actively devious,  having a handle on why they behave this way and what their goals are is a good idea.

If you’ve become the unlucky target of this kind of person, the first thing to recognise is that the only reason they are behaving this way towards you is because they consider you a threat. This alone makes it clear that you are capable of dealing with them. Make allies at work and strengthen the good relationships you have, and if the co-worker has done something outrageous (such as spread playground rumours) keep your cool.

Rise above it
Keeping your cool may well be your most powerful move in this situation. Not responding to someone who is deliberately provoking you is an act of defiance, and it’s important not to join in with someone who’s having a toxic influence on the workplace.

This means you shouldn’t badmouth them to other colleagues (you can let off steam when you get home). Even if you aren’t the direct target of a bad co-worker, it’s important not to join in with any gossip – if you say something amiss it could be used against you later. Someone with this kind of personality is likely to switch allegiances regularly. Instead, keep a clear professional distance.

If things become too ridiculous to live with, express your opinions neutrally. Go above their head (even if they happen to be your superior) and let your boss know that you are concerned a person’s behaviour is affecting the morale and performance of the office as a whole – and maybe even be costing the company money. If the person in question is in a higher position, you can mention that bad management is a big cause of employee turnover and lost profits.

Cover your back
If experience has taught you that a particular person is slippery and dishonest, there are things you can do to cover your back. If they ask you for your ideas but have been known claim them as their own, make sure you subtly hold back until you have other people around to witness the exchange.

Even better, put your ideas in an email and make sure others (particularly superiors) are cc’d in – perhaps asking the added participants for their thoughts so it looks more natural. Furthermore, if an email conversation is getting tense or they are being clearly rude, bringing other people into the conversation is a good option.

This also works if a colleague is deliberately withholding information from you, making you look unprofessional or unprepared at key moments. By emailing then with a request for information with someone else tagged (perhaps “is there anything we all need to know for the upcoming meeting?”) they are much less likely to keep anything back as it would reflect badly on them.

Be vocal about your successes and keep people in the loop as projects progress so they can see your input. Keep a written record of your work, praise the work of other colleagues, and most of all be very good at your job. In the end skill and dedication always shines through, and the best way to deal with someone who wants to trick their way to the top is show them up with genuine talent and hard working honesty.


Words by Holly Ashby. Give her a shout out over on Twitter here.

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About Holly Ashby

Holly is a writer and illustrator who graduated from Liverpool John Moores University with a Graphic Arts degree. She has a passion for social media and content creation, and is part of a creative collective ShellsuitZombie, who aim to help young people nationwide in the creative industry.