Every workplace is full of interesting personalities, including frustrating ones.
Difficult co-workers can manipulate your emotions. They can trigger something in you that makes you act or think irrationally, which is not a healthy situation in which you can be successful.
Unfortunately, in the case of annoying co-workers, you can’t just cut them out of your life. Avoiding them in the office or skipping one-on-one meetings probably won’t work either.
Enter: Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review podcast host and author of new book, Getting Along: How to Work With Anyone (Even Difficult People). In this interview, Gallo discusses how to get on the right track and change relationships, without yelling or pulling your hair out.
wild melody: What inspired you to write this book?
Amy Gallo: All of us, at some point, have worked with someone who put a lot of pressure on us. Who made us ask ourselves, “can I really work with this person?”
I wanted to help people learn how to navigate conflict with these difficult personality types in the office. In particular, I wanted to provide people with research-backed advice to help them maintain their professionalism and even improve their productivity as a byproduct of the process.
Wild: Is there a personal story behind the book?
Rooster: Yes, I actually open the book with one of my own experiences. At one point, I was introduced to this organization where people had told me how difficult it was to work with a particular superior. But they gave me the opportunity to work there and I thought, no problem, I get along with most people. This should not be a challenge.
Fast forward just a few months and I was already thinking, this is too much! She was insecure, she was a micromanager, she fit a lot of the archetypes in my upcoming book. This experience really opened my eyes to how exhausting this situation can be. No matter how good you think you are at social skills or getting along with others, dealing with conflict at work can be extremely challenging.
Wild: Why is it more important than ever to get along with difficult people in the workplace?
Rooster: If you look at the way workplaces have evolved, and even adding the pandemic to that evolution, little by little we have realized how work has become immensely more collaborative and interdependent. It is no longer just a place you go to sign in and out. We are now finally accepting that we show up at work with the same emotional baggage and expectations that we have in the other relationships in our lives. And how we manage our expectations in work relationships has a huge impact on our overall well-being.
Passive aggressive behavior, chronic breaks, and generally unpleasant people. To some extent, we hope that we know how to deal with these problems. But we don’t always know and no one is teaching a class on how to deal with this guy. That is one important reason why this book is important.
Another is the pandemic. It highlighted both good and bad things about the job. Even working within a friendly organization like mine, there were fractures that deepened with the stress imposed by the pandemic. When you work with people you don’t know well, or don’t forever get along, being in a remote environment only makes everything that much worse. Remote environments are plagued by communication problems, misunderstandings and misunderstandings. All of which makes those difficult dynamics that we have with some that much harder to deal with.
Wild: How has remote work influenced the way we handle conflict?
Rooster: Right now, I think we have less empathy for each other, we care less about someone as a human being. We interact in the world of Zoom and then we close our computer screen and you walk away. There’s not much of a lingering feeling because we didn’t have that human connection physiologically. The shock of looking someone in the eye, hearing their voice, reading their body language, we’re missing all that information. This makes true connection incredibly difficult to forge, especially amidst all the miscommunication.
For example, in my book I write about being on a Zoom call where you notice someone roll their eyes, it happens multiple times. In the end, when you disconnect, you feel unappreciated and angry. But, what you didn’t know, was that every time their eyes moved, they were looking at the clock on the wall to make sure they wouldn’t be late to pick up their son from school. Had he been physically in the same room, he would have seen what they were looking at and probably wouldn’t have interpreted it the same way. This simple illustration shows how much we really need context to maintain a proper connection with those around us.
Wild: What happens in our heads when a conflict occurs?
Rooster: The first thing that happens when a conflict arises is that we interpret it as a threat. A threat to our sense of identity, resources, relationships and harmony. Our bodies and brains are highly attuned to threats, they are built to protect us from any perceived threat. This sense of threat becomes what emotional intelligence experts call amygdala hijack. This is where our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thought, becomes subservient to the amygdala. Simply put, we are not in the right frame of mind to make rational decisions when we are experiencing conflict.
People often know this as fight or flight. Either you freeze or you start to get aggressive. It is a physiological response that is so automatic that it usually occurs before we are aware of it. As this happens, our minds begin to try to make connections, we begin to build a story. Often our story ends up being completely skewed, we are the innocent victim and they are the villains. So this usually feeds into the negative dynamic, we get stuck in this mode where we’re just not equipped to genuinely address problem behavior. We are likely to make things worse instead of working to find a way to get along.
Wild: How do we deal with inner turmoil?
Rooster: First, we have to take care of the basics. Get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated, eat nutritious meals, and exercise. We have to take care of our basic needs. But of course, even when we’re feeling our best, we can still be easy to trigger. One key thing that will help you is being able to recognize the first sign that you feel threatened. For me, I know it’s sweaty palms. That’s the first thing that tells me how threatened I feel. Once you can recognize that it’s being activated, then it’s time to do something about it.
I like to encourage reassessment. When I say this, I am referring to the practice of looking at things from a different angle. Use the power of empathy to put yourself in their shoes. That person you think is rolling their eyes at you, maybe they are, but what other possibility is there? Wondering about the interpretations that give you more room to navigate your own reaction. Explore different narratives that open doors to connect with the other person.
Another important tool to ground yourself is the concept of naive realism. We often think that our perception of reality is very clear. Then when someone doesn’t see a situation the same way, we just assume they’re wrong or wrong. We like to think we’re seeing all angles, but often we’re not. This is another area where bias can creep in. For example, if we’re late for a meeting and we’re thinking of all the reasons we’re late, we naturally validate our circumstances. But then our co-worker shows up late and we conclude it’s disrespectful or disorganized. Sure he may be a flawed person, but what else is going on that we’re not seeing? So practice recognizing that your perspective is just a perspective.
Wild: You share eight different archetypes in the book. Can you highlight two or three?
Rooster: The most common archetype is in Chapter Six, the passive-aggressive partner. This one is so common that I almost started writing a book on how to deal with them on my own. You know the type, someone who says one thing and then does another. They deny wrongdoing when called. In reality, though, all of us have been passive-aggressive at some point, so let’s be careful how we handle them.
However, a quick tip is to use positive peer pressure. Instead of just assigning tasks in a meeting, have the team themselves come up with tasks to complete a project. The passive-aggressive person is likely to feel much more accountable to a team than to one person. It’s harder for them to use that slippery with a group.
Another is the political operator. This archetype isn’t just looking for his own career, he’s looking to climb the ladder at the expense of others. They blow out your candle to make theirs appear brighter. Now, we all have to play politics if we want to keep moving forward, but unlike these characters, we want to collaborate and build each other up along the way.
The number one recommendation I have with these people is to see what works for them. We may be disgusted with most of what they do, but many times it’s because it really works! For example, they may love to keep talking about their work and how good they are. Ask yourself how you can adapt that to work for you. This does not mean that you have to start imitating them exactly. Could you find a way to talk about the good work of our team or teammate? Could you find a way to give others airspace to talk about your achievements? In this way, you are not only building your team, but also gaining visibility.
Another option is to ask them for advice. These guys are often great at managing, but have terrible relationships with peers because people tend to keep them at arm’s length. Asking them for advice will do two things, it will increase their self-awareness of their habits, and they will start to feel invested in your success. They will want to see if your advice really works, and as part of that buy-in, they will hopefully want to support you more.
Wild: You share nine principles to get along with anyone. Which one or two are your favourites?
Rooster: There’s a principle I use all the time, which is to think of your interactions with people as experiments. Looking at things realistically, people are not going to change their problem behavior after a conversation. Even if you achieve a healthier dynamic with them, they may one day misbehave again. So go in knowing that you may have to try a variety of tactics. Consider using these tactics as a series of experiments. This will help you have a solution-oriented mindset instead of always focusing on stress.
Wild: Anything else?
Rooster: Going back to the beginning of our conversation, I just want to say that my hope is that these tactics help build resilience in people. When you practice these tactics regularly, when you keep experimenting, your confidence should grow. Then, as new managers or teammates are added to the mix, it won’t be as stressful anymore.