negative colleague

5 Clues to Understanding Irritable People at Work

While we all have “good days” and “bad days,” some people seem to be characterologically more difficult on a regular basis than others.  Sometimes this seems to be “who they are” from a personality point of view—they have a rather negative mindset, they’re grumpy, they don’t smile much and just have a “dark cloud” that follows them around.  There are others who recently seem more “touchy” and easily offended than they usually are.  Their moodiness can be confusing to others (and offensive as well!). As a psychologist, I’ve become aware that many people tend to attribute others’ behavior and reactions (or even general life events) to their own actions.  That is, we, in general, tend to attribute our actions as the cause for other events or reactions happening.  Often, this is not the case.  In fact, there is fairly good research showing that people tend to over attribute their influence on the world around them (and even their own lives).  (By the way, this is the basis of superstitions—developing a habit of wearing the same shirt, jeans and sitting in the same place that you did when your team won a big game, hoping it will bring “luck” and they’ll win again.)

While I am usually an advocate for individuals taking a look at their own behavior and accepting responsibility for their actions, in this case, I actually believe it’s best to put ourselves and our actions at the “back of the line” with regards to the potential reasons why our co-workers may seem prickly and easily offended.

Here are some alternative reasons to explore why your colleague may seem rather testy and annoyed.

  • They don’t feel well. Often people become surlier when they don’t feel well physically.  This can come from lack of sleep, a medical issue they’re dealing with or chronic pain.  It may be that they have started to struggle with migraines, lower back pain, or some other issue.  Many employees don’t talk about how they feel physically and so those of us around them don’t really know that they don’t feel well.


  • Personal issues. When we are dealing with stressful issues in our life, the emotional resources demanded to deal with these issues is significant and essentially we get “worn out.”  Again, many people won’t share about personal issues (especially if they are not asked) and so there can be something going on “in the background” of your colleague’s life that you don’t know about.  This could include marital or relationship difficulties, struggles with their children or adolescents, financial pressures, extended family issues (parents-in-laws, etc.).  When we feel pressed in our personal life, many of us become more annoyed at work in response to what would otherwise be a normal demand.


  • When we feel anxious or fearful. Irritability (a mild form of being angry or upset) can be a “cover” for other underlying thoughts and emotions.  In our culture, many people have been taught (either directly or indirectly) that it’s not appropriate to express negative feelings—either at all, or in the workplace.  Therefore, they try to keep those feelings inside.  One common feeling that’s “kept in” is anxiety and fear. Our culture has shaped most of us to believe that it’s not acceptable to be anxious or fearful. Therefore, we tend to suppress our feelings and the anxiety is expressed through being prickly and grouchy in response to other people.


  • When we are frustrated. Sometimes people become crabby when they’re frustrated either with their life, their job or some specific issue going on at work.  “Frustrated” is an interesting word because it is used in two different ways in our culture.  In many settings when someone is “frustrated” it is a nice way of saying they are a little bit angry.  The other meaning of “frustrated” is to feel blocked—that you can’t get to the goal you are trying to achieve. Frustration can lead us to react negatively to any situation, regardless of whether it’s directly related to the issue about which we are frustrated. (That is, we react in a quick-tempered manner to a situation that’s not directly related to what we are frustrated about.)


  • Not feeling valued. When employees don’t feel valued either by their supervisor, the management, or their colleagues, then a common response is for them to become increasingly irritable, moody, and easily offended.  One type of “frustration” is when we believe our colleagues should value what we do and contribute, but we don’t seem to hear much positive feedback.  In our work with the 5 Languages of Appreciation, we help individuals identify their primary language of appreciation; that is, the way in which they prefer to receive appreciation. Interestingly, we also found that employees are most easily offended when a message is sent (unintentionally!) via their primary language that hurts them in some way.  For example, people for whom verbal praise is valued are also quite sensitive to any critique or criticism.  Or, those who value quality time are easily offended when they feel left out.

How should you respond?

While it is helpful to know possible reasons for the surliness of your colleagues, the question remains:  “What should I do?” 

A helpful response could be:

“I notice that you seem somewhat more easily annoyed recently.  Are you okay?  Is there anything going on that would be helpful for me to know about?”

Conversely, it is not helpful to be accusatory or speak in a “factual” tone of voice saying:  “You have been incredibly grouchy lately!  What’s up?”

Rather, frame your response in the sense of:  “It seems…” or “I’ve noticed…” which makes your comment a bit softer.  Then asking a question that communicates concern for them (“Are you okay?”) is helpful.

Be forewarned, you may or may not get a positive response (especially immediately).  Try not to react in a defensive or antagonistic way.  In fact, often a colleague may come back to you later and explain what’s going on after they have thought about your inquiry and concern for them.