Author Talks: Turn your work enemies into allies

Whether you’re being interrupted in meetings or challenged at every turn, Amy Gallo shares tactics for getting value out of difficult work relationships.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Roberta Fusaro speaks with Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and a speaker on workplace dynamics, about her latest book, Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) (Harvard Business Review Press, September 2022). In the book, Gallo outlines eight archetypes of some of the most difficult people we deal with at work—the insecure boss, the pessimist, the victim, the passive-aggressive peer, the know-it-all, the tormentor, the biased coworker, and the political operator—and suggests ways to turn these potential work enemies into allies. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem were you hoping to solve with this book?

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The simplest way to say it is “sleepless nights.” I tell a story in the book about an email I got from an author that accused me of not caring about human connection. I was up three nights in a row in the middle of the night, thinking and worrying about that email. That was one email from someone who was essentially a stranger.

You can imagine the impact when there’s a negative dynamic with someone you work with day in and day out. It causes a lot of stress. It takes up a lot of energy, whether we’re having the negative interaction or managing a team where those interactions are happening. I wanted to give people some of the interpersonal resilience we all need to navigate negative dynamics with a coworker—and to do it in a way that not only makes those dynamics less stressful but also hopefully helps to create more positive relationships.

What surprised you most in the writing, research, or even in the early response to the book?

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The thing that surprised me most was a shift that I have seen happen in the time since I started writing the book a few years ago and now. The first time I posted on LinkedIn about this idea for a book on archetypes of difficult people, I got over 300 stories, but I also got a lot of pushback about the use of the term “difficult people”—and rightly so.

People act in [certain] ways for particular reasons. Sometimes there are psychological reasons, sometimes there are societal reasons, sometimes there is bias present in the definition of what we call “difficult.” People were really encouraging me—and I’m glad they did—to treat the subjects of these difficult interactions with empathy, compassion, and kindness, which is a big part of the book.

Empathy is important. However, you have to start with empathy for yourself. These are really difficult situations. They cause us immense amounts of stress. They can damage our well-being. They can damage our careers. So focus on what you need.

Fast-forward a bit, and what we have started to see is a shift in the sense of, “Do we have to be kind? Do we have to be thoughtful? Do we have to be generous toward people who are disrespecting or perhaps dehumanizing us?” That has influenced the way I’m starting to talk about the book and the way that the book is being read.

Empathy is important. However, you have to start with empathy for yourself. These are really difficult situations. They cause us immense amounts of stress. They can damage our well-being. They can damage our careers. So focus on what you need, what boundaries you need, and what self-compassion you need.

If you have energy left over, direct some of that toward the other person—not because they deserve it, but because doing so will make it more likely that you can come up with a situation where you can use the tactics I outline in the book and improve your relationship with that person, which will ultimately benefit you. It might feel good to dismiss the person outright, and say, “I’m done,” but that’s just not realistic in most workplaces.

How do we typically process conflicts at work? What’s going on in our brains?

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Our brains do an interesting thing when we’re in a negative dynamic with a coworker. And it’s partly because we perceive that negative interaction, or that snarky email, or that person rolling their eyes as a threat. It might be a threat to a sense of harmony in the workplace. It might be a threat to our career, or to our sense of identity: “I think I’m someone who’s easy to get along with, so why is this person not making it easy for me to live out this identity that I pride myself on?”

Our brain perceives conflict as a threat, and our brain doesn’t do a good job of distinguishing between a small threat, like someone rolling their eyes at us, and a big threat, like being chased down by a bear. We often don’t make good choices in those moments because, in fight or flight mode, there’s really two options: I can shut down, or I can be aggressive. The goal, then, is to try to calm the brain down so that it doesn’t feel threatened.

Our brain perceives conflict as a threat, and our brain doesn’t do a good job of distinguishing between a small threat, like someone rolling their eyes at us, and a big threat, like being chased down by a bear. We often don’t make good choices in those moments because, in fight or flight mode, there’s really two options: I can shut down, or I can be aggressive. The goal, then, is to try to calm the brain down so that it doesn’t feel threatened, so that you can make rational choices about how to handle that relationship.

The other thing I’ll say about our brains is that we are meaning-making creatures. We are quick to tell ourselves stories. And in those stories, we often cast ourselves as the hero and the other person as the villain because it’s an easy shortcut. It’s an easy trope, but it’s often not the full story.

How did you come up with the eight archetypes?

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I wrote a book about dealing with conflict at work, five years ago. I noticed that after I would do talks or workshops, people would come up to me and say, “Oh, thank you so much, this is really helpful, but I have this one coworker … ” They would have a story about someone who seemed to defy expectations, where the advice I had just shared maybe wasn’t as effective or wouldn’t be productive in trying to handle the conflict with that person.

These people would ask, “What should I do?” I started to collect the stories of the types of people who were defying the standard advice I was sharing about how to handle conflict. That was the origin of the archetypes. Over the next several years, I did surveys, asking people, “Who are you dealing with? Who are your most difficult coworkers?” And what I would hear over and over are the same categories of people.

There are eight categories in the book. There’s the insecure manager, the pessimist, the victim, the passive-aggressive peer, the know-it-all, the tormentor—the person who you expect to be your mentor but is actually making your life miserable—the biased colleague, and then the political operator.

What can you tell us about one of the most common archetypes: The pessimist?

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The pessimist is someone who typically exhibits behaviors that are probably familiar to all of us. They complain about meetings or senior leadership—basically anything and everything. They might proclaim that a new project is doomed to fail, saying, “We’ve tried that” or “It’ll never happen here.” Or they’ll immediately point out the risks of a tactic or a strategy that you think will work.

People who are pessimists tend to have a desire for some sort of power. Some pessimists exhibit these behaviors because of anxiety or even resentment. Perhaps they’re in an organization where they feel like they’ve been mistreated, so they use pessimism as a defense tactic to guard against being further mistreated. Dealing with a pessimistic colleague can take a real toll on you, in terms of having to hear that negativity over and over or being told over and over again that something will never work, especially when you’re trying to do new things, when you’re trying to innovate.

It’s very easy to get quickly polarized, where you think, “Well, I’m positive. They’re negative. I’m an optimist. They’re a pessimist.” But pessimistic colleagues have some upsides. They tend to point out risks. They tend to make us rethink our assumptions. They help to make sure we’re not wearing rose-colored glasses when we go into new initiatives or projects, or when we try things out.

It’s very easy to get quickly polarized, where you think, ‘Well, I’m positive. They’re negative. I’m an optimist. They’re a pessimist.’ But pessimistic colleagues have some upsides. They tend to point out risks. They tend to make us rethink our assumptions. They help to make sure we’re not wearing rose-colored glasses.

You can also give them a role to play. We’ve all heard of the devil’s advocate—you might actually assign them that role to play in your meetings. They’re going to be the ones who get to point out where there might be risks others are not seeing. When people are starting to coalesce around an idea, you might turn to them and say, “What aren’t we thinking of?” Really make that a clear role that they’re playing, so that rather than being an annoyance, they’re actually serving a function in those meetings.

You don’t want to treat pessimists as if they’re completely wrong because the more you say, “There aren’t risks,” the more they’re going to think that you’re naive rather than realistic. You do want to validate part of their perspective—maybe there’s part that you agree with—and then try to get them to contribute in a more constructive way.

Do your communication tactics need to change if you’re speaking to a boss versus a peer?

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Whether you’re dealing with someone who is a peer or someone who is higher up than you in the hierarchy, the tactics are pretty much the same. However, how you use them, when you use them, and if you use them will be different. You have to do a different risk assessment when you are dealing with someone who has control over, say, whether you’re promoted or not, whether you get assigned to projects, or whether you get that raise.

You have to think carefully—especially with someone who’s higher up than you—that you’re not just focused on what the risks are. A lot of people will immediately say, “I will never speak up to my boss. That’s just too risky.” You also have to think, “What are the risks of not speaking up?” If you don’t say something about this, what behaviors are you allowing to continue? How will that impact the work you do? How will that impact your stress level and your well-being?

A lot of people will immediately say, ‘I will never speak up to my boss. That’s just too risky.’ You also have to think, ‘What are the risks of not speaking up?’ If you don’t say something about this, what behaviors are you allowing to continue? How will that impact the work you do? How will that impact your stress level and your well-being?

Those are important things to consider when deciding if it’s safe to speak up. The truth is, it may not be. There are lots of bosses who feel insecure, who are not willing to be challenged, who have no interest in hearing from people below them, and you have to know that. You have to read that person and make a decision.

That said, I think any of the tactics can be useful if you know that the risks are not that great, and if you know this is someone who might be open to hearing feedback. A lot of the tactics also don’t require direct confrontation. They’re often about setting norms. They’re often about nudging people in the right direction or modeling the behavior you want to see, all of which you can do with someone who is more senior than you.

How has the shift to remote work affected our ability to have difficult conversations?

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The proliferation of virtual work has definitely impacted the way we interact with our colleagues and certainly the way we interact with difficult colleagues. There are two things I’ll point out that have really made it more challenging to deal with people exhibiting these difficult behaviors.

First—and I’ll speak for myself, but I think a lot of people feel this way—I just feel less human when I’m a little face in this tiny square on the screen and when everyone I’m dealing with are little faces, on tiny boxes, on a screen. That really hinders our ability to feel empathy for not only ourselves but also for other folks. That is one aspect that has made it more difficult to deal with negative dynamics; we don’t tend to feel positive emotion toward people when [interactions are] moderated through these technologies.

Second—this has been said over and over, but it’s worth saying in the context of difficult relationships—we are missing so much information when we are interacting with people in a virtual environment. I’m missing the context in which they’re sitting. They don’t see the context in which I’m sitting. We’re missing a lot of emotional cues, nonverbal cues that we would pick up if we were in the room with someone.

We are missing so much information when we are interacting with people in a virtual environment.

I shared this story in my book of someone who was interacting with someone over Zoom. She kept thinking that her colleague was rolling his eyes at her, and she was getting frustrated. It kept happening, and it kept happening, and it blew up into this whole incident between them. He finally figured out that she thought he was rolling his eyes when he was actually looking at a clock above his screen, and he was doing it quickly because he wanted to demonstrate to her that he was paying attention. Again, we think, “Oh, I’m seeing the person. I’m seeing their facial expressions. I get it.” But you don’t have the context. And that just makes our interactions ripe for misunderstanding.

There has been some upside to Zoom interactions, which is that—especially for people who are dealing with a difficult colleague who they don’t think is going to change their behavior, or they’ve tried many things and there’s been no progress in that relationship—it gives you a little distance. You don’t have to see that person every day. You don’t have to sit in a meeting room, watching them interrupt people left and right. You can close the screen and be done with them for the day. That really helps us to protect ourselves, especially from people when we’ve tried and haven’t succeeded in changing the dynamic.

How does identity inform which tactics you might use to manage relationships with difficult colleagues?

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As a White woman, the tactics I can use, and that will be effective, are going to be very different from those that, say, a Black male colleague of mine may use, because of the way people perceive gender and because of the expectations around how a woman or a Black man will behave. I’ve tried to pay special attention in the archetypes themselves to the way that gender plays a role—specifically in the tormentor archetype, for example.

In the case of a lot of the folks I spoke with who worked with someone they perceived as a tormentor, it was often a woman mistreating other women in the organization, similar to the “queen bee” trope that we’ve heard about and that there’s been some research on.

When you are labeling a ‘difficult’ behavior, consider how your perception of that person and who they are—in terms of gender, race, ability, and other factors—is playing into your perception. And ask yourself, if this person was of a different race or gender, would I have the same perception?

I tried to layer identity factors into the archetypes themselves and watch how they played out, but I also tried to keep in mind that the tactics we use to address “bad” behaviors are not going to work the same for everyone. When I make the suggestion to address a know-it-all directly and to confront the behavior, I recognize that as a woman, if you’re confronting a man, that interruption or confrontation may not be as effective, and you may be perceived more negatively than if that know-it-all was interrupted or confronted by a man.

It’s also something I tried to take into account in thinking about what we label as “difficult” behavior. When you are labeling a “difficult” behavior, consider how your perception of that person and who they are—in terms of gender, race, ability, and other factors—is playing into your perception. And ask yourself, if this person was of a different race or gender, would I have the same perception? It’s important that we challenge ourselves to make sure that we’re not interpreting behavior in a way that brings our bias to the forefront.

Any parting words of advice?

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Number one, try to keep in mind what your goal is. Because we often think, “I want revenge. I want them to know how horrible they are. I want them to know how much stress they’re causing me and the entire team.” But ultimately, what is it you actually want?

Is it that you want a more productive relationship? Is it that you just want to get the project you’re working on done so you don’t have to interact with them anymore? Think about what your primary goal is, and focus on it. And choose tactics to improve the relationship or to reach that goal. That can be very clarifying, in terms of what I choose to do, what I choose to respond to, and what I choose to let go.

The second piece of advice is, remember that this is not going to be perfect. You are a flawed human. They are a flawed human. There are going to be interactions where things don’t go well. You’re going to try some of the tactics, and they’re going to fail miserably, so treat this as a series of experiments. Rather than, “I tried that one thing. This is a lost cause,” think about, “Okay. Can I try this one thing for a week?”

For passive-aggressive colleagues, can I focus on their underlying message, rather than on their snarky tone for a week? Does that help improve things in any way? Do I feel better? Do I feel worse? Does it improve the way our team interacts? Get what you can from that experiment, and then try another one. Again, some of these experiments will fail miserably. But some of them will teach you valuable things about how to improve that relationship. You’re collecting lessons along the way.

I didn’t talk to anyone in my research for the book whose difficult coworker changed overnight or who felt like, “Oh, my gosh. We are now best friends.” We’re talking about incremental improvements, so treat it as an experiment where you’re learning things along the way, incorporating what you learned, and dismissing things that just don’t work after trying them out.

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Amy Gallo on how to turn potential work enemies into allies

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