ABSTRACT: We rarely get the chance to choose with whom we work and an idle or bossy colleague can make your working day unbearable. People with problem behaviour affect not only their co-workers but also can have long-term negative effects on the whole practice. Your approach to the difficult person will have an impact on the way they he or she reacts, so it is important to plan your strategy. The way to deal successfully with a difficult colleague is to decide what you want from your encounter and how to change your behaviour to elicit the most out of it.

We have all worked with colleagues who can be irritating and who seem to cause nothing but stressful situations. However, before labelling others, it’s important to ask yourself ‘Whose actions are causing the problem?’ Remember that no one is perfect and we can all have a bad day.

Start with yourself – are you a difficult person? Maybe you are out of step with colleagues in certain situations. Do you tend to be bossy or to overreact?

We are all very different in personality and nature, and how we treat others depends largely on how we feel about them. Those we term ‘difficult’, tend to think primarily about themselves rather than others and will behave in a similar manner with everyone around them.

If someone is an egomaniac, start your conversation by reinforcing how good they are, ‘I wanted to get your opinion because you are so knowledgeable about reptiles…’

Don’t get personal

If you have a difference of opinion, don’t let it deteriorate into an argument. Disputes can be settled by referral to a neutral authority, such as practice protocol or an equipment service manual, to provide the answer; or ask for unbiased advice from a more senior member of staff who can confirm practice policy.

It is easy to overreact to – or feel personally intimidated by – a minor disagreement. To stay in control, you need to understand your own motivations, stick to your plan and practise keeping a cool head when situations get heated (Figure 1).

Certain behaviours define the individuals who are causing disruption in the working environment. They may be rude, manipulative or constandy critical and the effect will be that they cause those around them to feel confused, anxious or filled with self-doubt. It goes without saying that this sort of atmosphere within your practice makes it very difficult to build teamwork and a happy working environment.

Let’s take a look at some of the personality types you may come across and how to deal with them.

Aggressive colleagues

These are often the most difficult with which to deal and can cause the most stress in the workplace. Belligerent and hostile, these individuals are control freaks who use aggression in situations where they feel physically or psychologically threatened.

People who use bullying tactics can be abrupt and intimidating and often argue and criticise. They are also very good at picking their victims as they quickly recognise individuals who are susceptible to their abuse.

If you are on the receiving end of this behaviour, it can be upsetting and a cause of significant stress; but remember there are ways to deal with aggressive types.

Avoiding conflict by doing nothing is not an option as it will make you a constant target. Complaining to your manager or head nurse may bring temporary relief, but the situation can relapse and can be exacerbated as the perpetrator may retaliate.

The only long-lasting way to deal with a bully is to stand up for yourself and act in an assertive manner. If the bully is prone to tantrums, give them time to get over their outburst before starting a dialogue. Show them you take them seriously, but state your own opinions forcefully – and maintain eye contact.

Don’t focus on their point of view, involve other people and widen the discussion without rushing to a decision. You must believe in yourself. Bullies respect those who stand up to them because they value assertiveness and confidence and undervalue people who they believe do not possess these qualities.

The 'helpless' colleague

It is fine to spend a reasonable amount of time learning a job, but some people adopt a deliberate facade of helplessness in order to persuade other people to do their work for them. These individuals often prefer to avoid learning skills well and rely on others to ‘help’ them.

They can be clever manipulators, knowing which buttons to press to steer a teammate into doing the difficult, dull or unpleasant stuff they simply do not want to do.

This situation demands firmness, as with the bully, and you need to send a clear message. Try, “Listen carefully, I will tell you/show you once more, for the last time.” The next time they come to you with the same problem, remind them what you said before. Better still, introduce a training sheet and ask them to sign off each aspect of their learning.


These people whine and moan about everything; yet are not prepared to take action to change things.

Constant moans and complaints can cause those around to feel defensive and on edge. You may feel tempted to move out of earshot; but as veterinary practices are generally small working areas, it is impossible to avoid colleagues for ever.

Bear in mind that the complainer will have inflexible views and will believe that their way is the only way. Because they also consider themselves powerless, complaining is a way to assert that they are not responsible for faults or mistakes in the system. Not listening to – or supporting – the complainers yourself may persuade them to move on to a different audience. Suggest ways in which they can tackle the problem or let them know you’ve had enough by announcing, “Well, we can’t do anything about that.” To get the best out of a complainer, you must harness their energy for identifying problems and empower them to create solutions and achieve change.


If working with a colleague is proving difficult, try to look beyond their actions for a reason – it may be work-related or something outside work that is affecting their behaviour. It may even be something with which you can help.

Finally, don’t forget the wonderful people who make you happy – the ones you look forward to seeing every day. Being at work is about being with people; and people are, after all, what makes it all so interesting!

If you are worried about being a target for bullies or that you may be suffering from work-related stress, and before taking any appropriate action would like to contact someone to discuss your fears, concerns and experiences, the BVNA can offer confidential support. Call 01279 608644 or e-mail bvna@bvna.co.uk


Gill Gadd RVN AMInstLM

Gill is an experienced veterinary nurse with a passion for client support and a special interest in th
e human-animal bond. She gained an OCN qualification in pet bereavement in 2006, having also trained and worked in the field of human bereavement counselling. Currently Gill works full time as a small animal practice administrator in Reading and is studying for the ILM Diploma in Leadership and Management.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00235.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp424-425

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 27 • November 2012 •