I work with clients with many different career challenges. However, a frequent pattern is that other people are involved. In most roles, we cannot operate in isolation. This means that positive professional relationships are key to organisational and individual success, which is why it’s important to have this crucial skill of being able to navigate difficult work relationships.

There are common themes

Whether it is your clients, peers, those people you manage or more senior people in the organisation, they all play a role in our working lives. There can be some specific challenges according to the type of relationship and the individual, but whatever work relationship challenge my clients face, there are three common themes.

If you are facing any of these challenges, please know you are not alone and read on for some tips on specific behaviours you can employ to help to move things forward.  After all you can’t change others’ behaviour except by changing your own and even then that is no guarantee. Read more about the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy here.

An overview of the top challenges I see my clients experience are:

  1. Your senior (s)

An aggressive or overly critical boss who shuts you out happens more than it should. Unless they are very unhappy with your performance, this is often a sign that that person feels threatened by you. This Forbes article, Ten signs your boss sees you as a threat has helped many of my clients recognize what is going on.

  1. Team members

It’s the team members who continually challenge or question you that can cause difficult work relationships. Whilst this may mean they have a poor perception of you and don’t respect you, it can also mean they are a Questioner. Gretchen Rubin’s ‘Four Tendencies’ are useful to help you understand who you are and who other people are.

  1. Communication differences

This can be due to a multitude of reasons so it’s important to distill it properly. However, a common reason for the challenge is the difference between introverts and extroverts. Extroverts commonly process out loud, whilst introverts process inwardly.

Some simple yet powerful approaches for navigating difficult relationships

While each situation will be different and needs slightly different resolutions, I can offer you some simple but good solutions to get you started.

Do note that I work with my clients to understand the specifics of their difficult work relationships and help them develop lifelong professional skills they can use for that and other situations. However, to help you move along the path of resolving these issues, here are some deceptively simple yet powerful approaches for you to try.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

When we are assessing someone’s behaviour we’re seeing them in the light of how we behave and what we know, believe or assume. The key is to think about what could have made them behave in that way and look at it from their position of knowledge, beliefs and assumptions. A key question here is: why might it make sense to them? This will help you understand them better and hopefully relate better to them too.


So few people really listen to others. It’s essential to hear what people are saying and what they are not (which can be just as important!). Also, give people space to talk, especially if they are an introvert and you’re not. People who feel hurried or crowded out will not reveal important things to you. When you listen, you will better understand the other person’s attitudes, motivations and beliefs, which will help you understand why they are acting the way they are.

Their working style

Take notice of others’ working style. Consider when you approach or interrupt someone. Are they a morning person? If so, 8am is might be the best time to have a difficult conversation rather than 3pm when their energy and concentration is waning.  Consider how you might need to adapt to each key person you work with.


Take action – four things to do now

Ignoring challenges and making no change rarely helps relationships improve. Most of us are conflict averse but in the long run that often leads to greater problems. Time spent considering your work relationships is a worthwhile investment.

To get started on navigating difficult work relationships:

  1. Consider your most important work relationships.
  2. Focus on the two which are most challenging.
  3. Summarise the top 3 challenges in each relationship, considering them in the light of what has actually happened.
  4. Consider how you could have behaved differently in those situations, how that could have changed the outcome and what you might do differently in your interactions from now on (caution – don’t set yourself too many things to try at once!).

Good luck as you work on navigating these difficult relationships and hone this essential professional skill.

If, once you’ve done all of the above and are still struggling or, you have a specific challenge you’d like to talk through, then get in touch. The best thing to do is to book a complimentary, no obligation 30 minute Career Booster call with me.