Work Relationships

How to handle aggressive people at work

Written by Michael Hoon

Competition at work isn’t the worst thing in the world—an atmosphere where everyone strives for success can encourage personal and professional growth and make a company thrive. But when the motivation to excel gets out of hand, people can go from competitive to aggressive and alienate coworkers who are just trying to come in, do a good job, and get along with everyone.

If you have a particularly aggressive or competitive coworker, here are a few strategies for neutralizing their intensity.

Stand up for yourself.

If your competitive coworker does something particularly egregious—like taking sole credit for a group effort or stealing choice projects out from under you—consider going to your boss or to HR and explaining the situation. You don’t want to do this often, or too early, or with weak evidence. But if the situation has escalated such that your reputation and opportunities are taking a hit? Make sure you cover your own back—in a calm and professional manner, of course.

Build and keep relationships.

Sometimes, aggressive coworkers aren’t content simply to talk over you in meetings and undercut you in professional setting—they’ll try to ice you out socially, as well. Your job is to rise above and be the best colleague and officemate you can be. Cultivate real relationships among your colleagues. Gain respect as a well-regarded and valuable team player. Rise above negativity. Help people out. Deliver and be true to your word. Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself because you’re avoiding this one person—that’s what he or she wants.

Stay focused on doing your job well.

Keep your eyes on your own work and making it as stellar as possible. Don’t succumb to playing the competition game—you’ll never “win” against a particularly competitive colleague, and there is no battle anyway. Compete only against yourself—do great work that people can depend on and aim to continually improve.

Double check your read of the situation.

If you’re always getting crazy toxic competition vibes from this person, make sure that maybe you haven’t misread or misunderstood the situation. If reaching out to this coworker for a private one-on-one over a cup of coffee is an option, give it a shot. Talk about how you don’t want to compete or diminish their accomplishments, and let them know you’re not trying to one-up them. Maybe it’s all a misunderstanding. Before you make an enemy of a coworker—even in your head—make sure they’re truly adversarial and not just awkward.

Take a look around.

Maybe you’ve entered a culture of aggression. Is it really just that one person who’s making you feel uneasy, or is your work atmosphere highly competitive as a whole? If you assess the situation and notice that the majority of your coworkers are just as cutthroat, then the problem might be the job. If you can accept and deal with it, great. If not, you might want to consider working for a different company where there’s more of a collaborative culture.

About the author

Michael Hoon