A common issue that we all have to deal with from time to time is confrontational co-workers. How do you deal with this type of individual? This article provides helpful tips to help you work through this difficult scenario.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that a leader leads PEOPLE, not organizations. While we may serve as leaders in organizations, it is ultimately people that we are leading. I mention this because many consultants talk about changing organizations. Truthfully, if you are “rebuilding an organization,” you must change those individuals who represent the organization.

The problem of confrontation exists because historically our business culture rewarded workplace competition among employees. Those who traditionally moved up were the ones involved in office “politics” who sought to make those around them look inferior, giving the impression that they were more valuable or loyal to the company. Confrontation was often seen as a sign of strength, a positive trait that showed others that you could take charge. These types of employees were considered management material.

In this type of workplace culture, employees focus their efforts on “gotcha” games to one-up others and present themselves as superior. This problem has existed for hundreds of years in businesses, government, and even many religious organizations.

While change is never easy, with patience, persistence, and energy, you can tackle this toxic environment. Here are some things you can do to change the culture of your organization:

  1. Be an example of good leadership. Don’t get involved in the game playing. When you witness others engaging in bad behavior, use non-verbal communication (i.e. gestures, looks) to make it clear that you are not impressed. NEVER laugh at put-downs or do anything else to encourage the behavior.  If the behavior continues… 

  2.  When someone exhibits this behavior in a group setting or to you personally, smile and say “Joe, this kind of attitude isn’t relevant or important. We should be focusing on attacking the problem, not other people.” If the behavior continues… 

  3.  Try reminding the individual of the inappropriate nature of their comments. For example, say “Making things personal is harmful to the team. I would appreciate it if we focused on the actual problem rather than the people you disagree with.” If the behavior continues… 

  4.  Address the behavior privately with the individual. Being a leader isn’t always easy, and this is one of those situations that are uncomfortable but necessary for the good of your team. In this conversation, you should be honest and concise. Tell the individual that their behavior in the workplace is neither professional nor productive. If the behavior still continues… 

  5.  At this point, there are several options to consider. Is there another person in a leadership role who can talk to the individual to reinforce your message? Is this person’s contribution to the organization so important that others should endure the behavior? Is this person’s behavior having enough of a negative impact on the team that they should seek employment elsewhere? At this point, you have some serious decisions to make. One thing to remember: NEVER promote a person who exhibits this kind of behavior. A promotion would clearly convey a message to others in the organization that being a weapons-grade jerk who confronts and criticizes others is the way to move up the ladder. Doing this would reinforce a culture of negativity and destructiveness. If the person in question is incredibly valuable or talented, let them know that the behavior they are exhibiting is holding them back. Document it on their periodic review as well.


By skillfully addressing the problem with patience, firmness, and dignity, you may be able to get the individual in question to see how harmful their behavior is to themselves and others. Most people with this type of behavior are quite insecure and lack self-worth. While you can’t change behavior, you can tactfully point out the harm confrontational behavior causes and call on individuals to make changes.

Are you interested in management development or staff development training for your organization? We can help you move beyond management to true leadership. Contact us today to find out more about our results-driven management training program. We provide leadership development training in Medina, greater Cleveland, and Northern Ohio focused on addressing the unique needs of your organization.