To cap off our Getting Along series (see the last four episodes in our feed if you missed them), Amy Gallo offers advice, in front of a live audience, on how to deal with “difficult” colleagues. She talks with Amy Bernstein about the different types of difficult coworkers (from the tormentor to the know-it-all) and then answers questions from several members of the audience about the specific situations they’re facing. If you’re navigating a tough work relationship right now and don’t know how to turn things around, this episode is for you.
- Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People), by Amy Gallo
- “What to Do if You Think Your Boss Is Shutting You Out,” by Liz Kislik
- “How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Colleague,” by Amy Gallo
- “How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on Their Teams,” by Joan C. Williams and Sky Mihaylo
- “How to Deal with the Know-It-All in Your Office,” by Priscilla Claman
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AMY BERNSTEIN: You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Bernstein and I am sitting on a stage at Harvard Business School with Amy Gallo.
AMY GALLO: Hi.
AMY BERNSTEIN: We’re here to celebrate her new book called Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).
AMY GALLO: I so appreciate you leading this celebration, Amy B.
AMY BERNSTEIN: I am so happy to be doing this today with you. We’re going to have an audience who should start arriving in a few minutes.
AMY GALLO: And we’re going to go walk around and chat with some of them and then we’ll start the show.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Amy, are you ready to tell us about different types of difficult people?
AMY GALLO: Sure am.
AMY BERNSTEIN: And why they act the way they do?
AMY GALLO: Yep.
AMY BERNSTEIN: And how we can nudge them into being more civil and collaborative?
AMY GALLO: Totally.
AMY BERNSTEIN: And give on the spot advice to audience members?
AMY GALLO: I’m going to do my best.
AMY BERNSTEIN: All right then, let’s go mingle.
AMY GALLO: We’ll be right back.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here tonight with you guys. We had the opportunity to talk to some of you and I was very interested in what you want to talk about. One of the things I heard about, Amy, that I think maybe we’ll touch on is about distinguishing between big personalities and difficult personalities, and working out power dynamics. I think this is stuff you get into in your book. What did you hear when you were talking to folks?
AMY GALLO: I talked to someone who works as a project manager. They told me that they deal a lot with other people’s conflicts and other people who are dealing with difficult personalities and not their own. So, that’s also an interesting angle we might touch on.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, I want to share a story about someone who had a big personality and a very difficult personality. Someone I worked with very early in my career. I joined a department where she had been the young woman in the room and I became the slightly younger woman in the room. And I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but I bring it up for your analysis later. She never lost the opportunity to belittle my ideas and undermine me. And I don’t think I’m being paranoid because one time I heard that our boss was looking for me and my nemesis.
AMY GALLO: No names here. No names.
AMY BERNSTEIN: No names, but we’ll just call her my nemesis – actually said to our boss, “Oh, you’re looking for Amy. She’s probably out shopping.” I was out on an assignment. So, what in the world was going on there?
AMY GALLO: Well, what did you do?
AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh, okay. I’m not proud to tell you that I did nothing, that this would happen repeatedly in meetings when she would belittle and I’d turn the color of our chairs crimson. I may have gone home and shed a tear or two in frustration. I ground my teeth a lot, but I did not stand up for myself. I didn’t advocate for myself.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. And I’m sure everyone hears that story and it’s like, Oh yeah, I’ve done that. Just the, let’s just grin and bear it. Let’s take the abuse because what can I actually do?
AMY BERNSTEIN: Well, what could I have done?
AMY GALLO: Well, okay, so she sounds like she fits a couple of the archetypes in my book. Number one, the political operator, someone who is dead set on advancing their career even at the detriment of yours. She also sounds a little bit like the tormentor, which I think we’re going to talk about a little bit later.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh, heck yeah.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, I think there’s lots of things you could have done, but I also understand the reaction of, I can’t, what am I supposed to do in this situation? I have so little power. And that’s the situation so many of us find ourselves in. I probably would’ve tried maybe to call her out a little bit on the behavior, but-.
AMY BERNSTEIN: She was scary.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, she sounds really scary.
AMY BERNSTEIN: She was-
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and oftentimes these big personalities or these archetypes have a lot of control over us, either they’re our bosses, they’re someone who wield a lot of power in the organization, and so it can be really scary to call them out. And oftentimes turning someone like that from an enemy into an ally is not really possible, and sometimes you do actually just have to learn to set boundaries so that they don’t continue to hurt your career and damage your reputation.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, how would I have set a boundary with her?
AMY GALLO: Well, I think with her, one of my favorite boundaries to set is a mental one. It’s not very nice, but is to tell myself that person has to wake up as their miserable selves every day and I get to wake up as me. And something about the disengaging from, I need to change you or I wish you were different, loosens a little bit of the friction that often happens. I also think that in that case, you might have also found a way to wield a little bit more power. And I’m guessing actually that’s what you ended up doing, which is by being very good at your job, gaining the respect of others in the organization, filling a hole that needs to be filled, for example. That way you start to gain some authority and power and show that person, you don’t have this control over me.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh God, I wish you had been my friend back then. So, one of the things I really love about your book is that you take us from the big category called difficult people, and you give us subcategories, and I found those categories so helpful. Can you take us through some of them?
AMY GALLO: Yes, absolutely. And I will say I don’t believe in labeling people in dismissive ways, in pigeonholing them. Even the archetypes, calling someone passive aggressive or a tormentor is not going to do anything to improve your relationship. These are categories that are really meant to help you find the specific advice you need in a productive way to try to change the relationship, to nudge them toward more productive behavior. But I’m going to actually name the archetypes and I’m curious just by a show of hands, who actually has dealt with some of these people? All right. So, let’s start with the insecure manager. Who’s worked for an insecure – oh, everyone. Okay.
AMY GALLO: All right. Who’s worked with someone, the consummate pessimist has nothing good to say? All right. Has a flavor of the pessimist that someone who plays the victim, anyone worked with people who played the victim? I can see someone who seems to think their arm is getting tired. What about the passive aggressive peer? Yeah. The impetus for the book was around passive aggressive behavior because I got asked a lot of questions, especially when I was talking about my first book around conflict of how do I deal with passive aggressive behavior? All right. How about the biased coworker? Someone who commits microaggressions. All right. The know-it-all, anyone work with the know-it-all? Okay. Bonus question. Anyone act like the know-it-all? Yeah, I identify with that one. All right. Have about the tormentor? And that term is someone… I love that you’re like, yep. Right away, yes, I’ve worked with that person. That’s someone who’s meant to be a mentor, but actually is set on making your life miserable. Anyone work with that person? Yeah. Okay. And then how about the political operator? Yes. All right. Wow, you guys have some great colleagues. Congratulations. All right. We’ll get into more specifics of those in a moment. Yeah.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah. When you’re talking about these archetypes, I also would love to know how to recognize it in yourself. I think we all like to think we don’t do any of this, but-.
AMY GALLO: But we all do.
AMY BERNSTEIN: But we do.
AMY GALLO: We all do. That was the fun part about writing the archetypes, because I was like, Oh yeah, I’ve done this. Yep, done this. Yep. Did this yesterday. And actually, a friend texted me, the book came out last Tuesday and on Wednesday she texted me and said, “I’m halfway through, and I realized that I’m all of these archetypes and I’m gifting your book to help my entire team so they can learn to cope with me.” Which she gets huge props for the self-awareness. And I really try to talk in the book about the times I have exhibited these behaviors. But I hope that in reading them, you recognize that we’re not all our best selves every moment at work. And we do fall into these archetypes. And it’s important to recognize what motivates that behavior, why we do it, and in learning the tactics to deal with someone else, you might often learn how to stem the behavior in yourself.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, I’d love to go deeper on some of the most common archetypes that maybe you could tell by a show of hands where you want to go with that.
AMY GALLO: Well, I want to help this woman here who clearly is dealing with a tormentor. I’ll talk about the tormentor first. So, this is someone who believes they’ve made sacrifices and believes you should too. They might assign you useless work and pointless work just to make you work harder. They might question your commitment to work. They might deny that there’s systemic barriers to succeeding in your organization. So, my friend here is nodding to every single one of those behaviors. I am so sorry. So those are the typical behaviors we see happen. And the attitude is, Well, I made it here, you can do it too, and I’m going to make it just as hard for you. Now, what motivates that behavior? Because they’re actually very rational reasons for behaving this way. We probably want to believe that they’re just an awful person, but usually they’re actually responding to something either within themselves or within the organization. So, there’s a concept called social identity threat, which is when you are part of an underestimated group – let’s say you’re a woman, a person of color – you believe that there are fewer spots in an organization, or fewer spots for success, or to achieve a leadership position in your organization. And you may be righ. That’s often the truth. So, being affiliated or associated with someone who shares that identity can be a threat to your own success. This is also connected to favoritism threat. So oftentimes, senior women for example, who if they’re mentoring or trying to bring up a younger woman, people will accuse them of favoritism. You’re only helping them because they’re a woman. And so that’s, again, a natural response is trying to distance themselves from you in a way that feels awful, but for them actually seems as if it’s protecting their career. There’s also insecurity that might be feeding this archetype as well, and I’m sure you want to know what to do.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yup.
AMY GALLO: So, one of the things is, as you can tell from the social identity threat, this is often a competitive situation that this person has set up; only one of us can succeed, or only a few of us can succeed. So, you want to try to reduce that competition and make sure that person understands that you are not actually trying to take their position. And this actually might have worked with your nemesis to really try to align yourself with that person – not in a, Hey, we’re buddy-buddy, when actually you have no interest in being friends with this person, but more focusing on a shared goal. What is it we both want in this organization?
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, how does that conversation go? If you are already in this charged relationship, neither of you wants to be talking to the other. How do you make this happen?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, starting sentences with “we”, focusing on, what do we actually both want? S,o for you and your nemesis, what would be something you both would’ve cared about at that time? Is there something?
AMY BERNSTEIN: I, honest to God, I have no idea what we both would’ve cared about rather than not being in the same room together.
AMY GALLO: Fair enough.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Well, in the situation like that, would it have been helpful if I had proposed working together on something?
AMY GALLO: Yes, unfortunately, that is one tactic that works because the last thing you want to do with the tormentor is spend more time with them. But in fact, spending more time with them aligns you better with them. They get to start seeing you as a person, as a human. They have to have some empathy for you. And there’s actually really interesting research, which we’ve published in Harvard Business Review, that shows that we actually have less empathy for people who are going through something difficult that we already went through, which is the complete opposite of what you’d expect. So, if someone’s brand new to the organization and struggling, and that was you one day previously, then you think you’d be kind to that person.
AMY BERNSTEIN: But what’s going on there?
AMY GALLO: Well, the researchers propose that it’s actually, we forget how hard it was. So, when we see someone struggling, we’re like, What’s your problem? That wasn’t that hard. I got through it. And the other piece is that social identity threat. You see them struggling with something, being a new parent for example, or going through a divorce and trying to balance work. And we don’t want to be associated with that, because that was something we worried was going to hurt our career and we want to distance ourselves from it.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, my nemesis was a tormentor, but she was something else, right?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Political operator.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah. So, tell me about that.
AMY GALLO: Yes, the political operator – and I saw a lot of hands up for the political operator. The political operator is someone who is just completely convinced that they have to do everything to further their career and they don’t care who they step on to get there. So, it’s their career or bust. And I do feel like, to comment that you were shopping…
AMY BERNSTEIN: Shopping.
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GALLO: Which if you know Amy B, I’m guessing you were not shopping.
AMY BERNSTEIN: I’d rather saw off my arm. So yeah, I was not shopping.
AMY GALLO: Yes. So, this is someone who, again, will lie, they’ll take credit, they’ll put you down in front of others like she was doing because they care so much about their career.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GALLO: And again, most of us do want to get ahead. We care about success. What motivates this behavior, again, is some sense of competition. Only a few people can succeed here. Insecurity, we like to think these people are just terrible, but oftentimes they’re motivated and driven. And oftentimes they actually have skills that we wish we had, because they are navigating the complex office politics of an office or an organization. So, they’re actually doing things that we wish we could do. And that’s one of the tactics that really I think works with them, which is to ask them for advice. So, “You’re really good at navigating office politics. Could you give me a little bit of advice about how to do that?” Now, what I like about that tactic is that it puts them on notice that you see them playing the game. And chances are they’re not going to tell you, “Oh, you have to be awful to everyone to get ahead.” They’re going to actually think about, wait, what is it I do that’s productive? What’s helpful? Political operating, navigating office politics, as long as you’re not doing it at the expense of others, is not a bad thing. And one of the principles I really believe strongly in is that instead of seeing yourselves on opposite side of the tables, that you’re angry at one another, you’re constantly vying for the same rewards or promotions or raises, instead, see yourselves on the same side of the table trying to solve a problem. You also want to, and this is true for any of the archetypes, is occasionally call them out on the behavior. So, let’s take for example, one of the things that the political operator loves to do is steal credit. They love to take credit for your work. For example, everyone works on a project, they get up in front of the room and they’re like, I did this amazing thing, or they send out the notice to everyone saying, “Here’s the results of the project that I worked on.” And one of the things you can say to them afterwards is, “Hey, I saw you took credit for that and we all worked on it. What was up with that?” Just a very simple question and not saying, “I wish you hadn’t done that,” but just asking, “why did you do that?” And asking in a very neutral tone.
AMY GALLO: And they may have a zillion reasons why they did it. They may say, I did all the work. But again, you’ve put them on notice that you’re actually paying attention, and you can preempt some of these political operating behaviors by actually agreeing ahead of time about how credit’s going to be shared, in your initial meeting with everyone, how are we actually going to share credit? How are we going to make sure people know who worked on what? And sometimes you do have to steal back the credit by asking a smart question in a meeting that shows that you worked on it, or raising your hand and saying, “Thank you so much for talking about what the team worked on. I also want to acknowledge the other people who worked on it.” Sometimes you just have to step in and take that credit back.
AMY BERNSTEIN: But it also sounds as if it’s helpful if you know who you’re dealing with, preempt the behavior with rules of engagement-
AMY GALLO: Yes.
AMY BERNSTEIN: … that you agree on together.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. And that’s actually one of the reasons I started with the archetypes, is that if you know what you’re dealing with, you can find the tactics that work and to your point, you can preempt some of the behavior. So, can we talk about the know-it-all? Because that’s-
AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh please. I knew you were going to go there.
AMY GALLO: Yes. So, because the know-it-all, and we can also call that the mansplainer, the person who tells you everything they think you should know, even though you already know it, who really proclaims things so confidently and believes they absolutely can dominate the conversation because they have so much to say. And the know-it-all really brokers in overconfidence. One of the most popular articles we’ve ever published on hbr.org is called “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” And Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic who wrote that article talks about how much we value as a society – and I don’t just mean US society, but many societies value overconfidence. Now we are all prone to overconfidence. We overestimate how much we’re going to earn, how successful we’re going to be in our career. Most of us do that.
AMY GALLO: The problem is we reward it. So, the know-it-all is actually brokery in something they know often works, especially when it comes to things that are difficult to measure, like leadership. There’s no objective measure of how good a leader you are. So, we often rely on people to tell us how good they are. And that leads to the know-it-all, the overconfidence, to people actually saying things that they firmly believe that they actually don’t.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, you say we reward that. What are those rewards? Is it just that we’re too dumbstruck by their arrogance or what is it?
AMY GALLO: A little bit, yeah. We are dumbstruck by their arrogance. And we believe that because they say they can do something that they can, we forget to actually test whether they can. So, they say, “this is never going to work,” or, “I’m confident our customers are going to love this new feature.” And instead of asking for the data or the facts or underlying assumptions because they’re so confident, we believe them.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Okay, so how should we deal with that?
AMY GALLO: Okay, so facts and data are your friends here.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yes.
AMY GALLO: When someone proclaims something that they’re absolutely certain about, if someone starts mansplaining something to you… and I have to say we use that term mansplaining so flippantly now, but we have to understand that the costs of that behavior are incredibly detrimental. We undermine others when we demean them or talk down to them or are condescending to them in front of others. So, there are real costs to these behaviors we have to keep in mind. Okay. But back to facts and data. So, when someone actually proclaimed something and they’re so certain about it, one of the questions you can say is, “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t think we have the same understanding. What are you basing that opinion on?” That puts them on notice that they just can’t proclaim things. They have to actually have facts and data. And if they say, “Well, I know it because of this and this and this.” Say, “That’s awesome. Can we look at the data? And if you don’t have data, okay, can we actually run some experiments to make sure that’s correct? That may be correct. I just would like to know whether it really is.”
AMY BERNSTEIN: I was once in a little bit of a debate in a meeting with someone who tried to shut me down by saying, “I guess I’m just burdened with too much knowledge about this topic.”
AMY GALLO: Wow. Okay.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GALLO: And that might’ve been my response. Wow.
AMY BERNSTEIN: I did “wow” a bit, and I may have guffawed. But what would’ve been a constructive way of engaging?
AMY GALLO: I think saying, “Oh wow, okay.” And even saying, “That’s interesting. I think we all have a ton of knowledge on this topic,” or, “Oh, that’s interesting. What kind of knowledge are you bringing to bear here? What’s the basis for that?” Because then you start poking holes in that overconfidence. One thing I will say about any of these archetypes is oftentimes the way we interpret difficult behavior is through our own biased lens. So, sometimes women in particular get blamed for being a know-it-all when they actually have knowledge. We just are uncomfortable with a woman asserting herself as an expert. So, you have to also be careful that you’re not labeling people with these archetypes or with these labels just because you’re not comfortable with that type of person exhibiting that type of behavior.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Okay. Let me just ask you about that. What if you are a woman and you are picking up that someone is labeling you a know-it-all?
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
AMY BERNSTEIN: How do you handle that?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Well, this is again, facts and data are your friends. So, you can talk about why you believe you have this knowledge. Now that doesn’t mean you hand out your resume at the beginning of the meeting and say, “I’m going to be the expert here because of all of my qualifications.” Instead, you might find ways to talk about, well, when I’ve spent five years doing X, I learned this. Find ways to make clear that you have the credentials that you’re claiming to have and that allow you to speak knowledgeably about the topic.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Wow. That is going to be so difficult for so many of us.
AMY GALLO: Yes. And so I have a work around.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Okay.
AMY GALLO: If you are uncomfortable doing that, you can also find an ally who can help verify your credentials in front of others. So, actually find someone who can say, “I’d love to hear from Amy on this, because she’s been in editing for 20 plus years.”
AMY BERNSTEIN: “She’s burdened with so much knowledge.”
AMY GALLO: That’s right. Let’s unload some of Amy’s burden and hear her knowledge. Yes, that’s exactly right. And this is true for many of our responses, either whether it’s to being labeled a difficult person, or it’s in response to a difficult person. We do have a narrower range of acceptable behavior for women. And so, oftentimes we have to rely on others to help us gain that credibility, to assert ourselves to actually counteract some of the bias that we might be experiencing.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, that seems like a really good strategy. How do you bring that to life? Do I say to Maureen sitting over there, “So, Maureen, I’m a little bit afraid of what Mr. Burden of Knowledge is going to say to me. Would you please stand up and say that Amy has four PhDs in this topic?” Or how do I do this?
Yes, that’s exactly it. And it can be helpful to find someone who you suspect is also suffering the same bias. So, if you get interrupted, instead of you having to say, “I’m speaking,” have Maureen – who would do this on your behalf, I know. She’s a kind person – say, “Amy was talking, I’d love to hear what she has to say.”
AMY BERNSTEIN: And that turns out to be a really easy thing to do.
AMY GALLO: Yes. And you just agree with Maureen before the meeting, Hey, we’re getting silenced. Let’s stick up for each other.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GALLO: Or, “I get the sense they’re doubting my expertise, could you say something about my credibility in this area?”
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah. You write a lot about how important it’s to have that pal in the office. And I think this is where it comes into play.
AMY GALLO: That’s right.
AMY BERNSTEIN: It’s important for a lot of reasons.
AMY GALLO: Yes, I do want to say something about that, because all of you raised your hand a lot in thinking about these difficult people. Show of hands, how many people actually have at least one great relationship with a coworker? Yes. All of you. Exactly. These people are hugging. That makes me so happy. So, remember that when you’re dealing with that difficult person, it is incredibly stressful. It can ruin a day, it can ruin an entire stint at an organization like your nemesis did. But you probably have many more positive relationships, and those people can be your allies either counteracting that difficult behavior or in just helping bolster your confidence, bolstering your mood. Those are the relationships we want to turn to in these moments of stress, even though our negativity bias really makes us focus on the bad behaviors that we’re seeing.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, we’re going to go to questions from you guys. Don’t be afraid to ask about difficult people in your life, and Amy will handle them.
SPEAKER 1: Hi, thank you so much for the advice. So, I wanted to ask you how to deal with the insecure boss who might take credit of your work and they’re trying to control your workflow, limiting your interaction with other people in other departments, basically isolating you in one little corner and just do your thing and just keep you in a need-to-know basis.
AMY GALLO: So, do you have a boss who does this? Can I ask?
SPEAKER 1: Yes, please. He’s not here.
AMY GALLO: So, there’s a couple things with an insecure manager. Number one, unfortunately research shows that genuine flattery helps to calm their ego. So, if you can find something they’re actually really good at, point that out and they have to truly be good at it. Sometimes that calms what we think of as ego defensiveness in the sense that they have to really protect themselves or protect their territory, that can calm that down a little bit. It’s not fun to do, and it’s a tall order to ask someone to do that, but that can help put them in a better frame of mind so that you can do some more of the aggressive calling out. I will say anytime you’re dealing with someone who has more authority than you, maybe has control over your salary, your work opportunities, you do want to do a risk assessment of, what are the risks of me calling out this behavior? Or do I risk damaging the relationship? What will happen? At the same time, you want to also do a risk assessment of, what happens if I don’t speak up about this? So, in your case, you’re not getting exposure, you’re not getting visibility, you’re not getting credit. Those are really big risks and that might counterbalance the risk of maybe possibly damaging the relationship. So, what does that actually sound like? You might say to your boss, “I want to make sure we have a conversation about how we get credit for the work we’ve done.” You’re not saying, “I want the credit.” You don’t want to set up a tug of war, but how do we get credit for what we’ve done? You might even do something as simple as next time you present to leadership, “Can I create a slide that has the list of everyone who worked on the project?” Make a simple suggestion, offer to do it for them, or, “Next time you present about the project, I’d love to join. Can I come sit in on the meeting?” Just gentle questions. Do you think you could do that?
SPEAKER 1: Yeah, I actually tried some of them and I think it helps him to be a little less guarded. But at the same time, the positive change that I’ve seen in him is very small and I’m trying to have that positive conversation with him, call out some of the things that he’s done really great, but it’s been months and I’m getting to the point where I’m a little bit anxious about this and less patient. So, I wonder how can we keep having these one-on-one conversations with him? Or should we somehow strategically call out once in a while in a bigger group? I don’t know. Just to see how he responds to it.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. One of the things I strongly believe in putting any of these tactics in place is that it has to be an experiment. You have to put it on your scientist mindset and say, okay, I’m going to try this tactic. Let’s see what works. So, you’re seeing incremental minor improvements with the tactics you’ve tried. Maybe calling them out in front of the group will have a different result. Now there’s risks to doing that, and you have to be prepared for those risks, but you might learn a lot from that situation. And so, certainly I don’t think there’s anything that would hold you back from trying that and seeing what you learn along the way. I will also say that incremental improvement is actually a huge success when it comes to difficult people. I think we think we’re going to put these tactics in place. I think about your nemesis, if you had called her out, would she have just been like, Oh my gosh, I’ve been horrible to Amy B.
AMY BERNSTEIN: No.
AMY GALLO: Right. No, she would not. And is your boss going to say, “You know what? I’ve been mistreating this team member because I feel insecure.” No, we’re not going to get that level of self-awareness. So, you’re really looking for small improvements, at the same time, you have to also set limits of, I’m going to try this for six months. If I don’t see these three things change, then I’m going to start looking for another job in a different department, or I’m going to find a way to talk to that person’s boss and make sure that they understand the work I’m doing. And that’s the other thing with an insecure manager who’s putting you in that corner – try to make connections in other departments on your own, of your own initiative. I would inform your boss. So say, “Hey, I’m meeting with so and so in this other department. I want to hear about their work. I’m going to share what we’re doing.” Let them know so they don’t think you’re maneuvering behind their back. But make sure you make those connections so people know about the good work you do.
SPEAKER 1: Thank you.
AMY GALLO: You’re welcome.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, let’s go to this side now.
SPEAKER 2: I’m hoping to get a little bit of advice when you’re dealing with a certain individual that I think difficult is an understatement… where they are passive aggressive, they are a know-it-all and all of that to the point where almost bullying in the office and setting a toxic culture, which unfortunately is what I have at my work now that I’ve been at for almost 10 years, and I’ve just seen it turn completely dark where this individual is in a different department, the top of their department. I’m in a completely other world. But now the people who report up to him are coming to meet vent and I don’t know how to deal with it and navigate that. Do you have any advice you can give on that front by any chance?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, we call this on the podcast team, the hot mess. The person who’s all of the archetypes, and you read those behaviors and you’re like, check, check, check. So, one quick question, do you have to deal directly with this person, or are you just dealing with the venting that’s coming?
SPEAKER 2: I deal with the venting and I deal with the person sometimes.
AMY GALLO: Okay. And when you say bullying, can you just give me one example?
SPEAKER 2: Of course. So texts our CEO to say that somebody is watching Seinfeld at their desk when they’re not watching Seinfeld or-
AMY GALLO: Oh, or shopping.
SPEAKER 2: … making fun of my name, or I’m also Canadian so he mocks my accent. So, things like that.
AMY GALLO: Okay. Yep. You’re dealing with a toxic hot mess. So, there are a couple things. Research shows those people are very unlikely to reform their behavior. So, I’ll talk in a minute about how to protect yourself from that behavior. But in some cases those people do respond to authority. So, you might consider escalating the issue and highlighting it to someone who can do something about it. Now the key phrase there is, someone who can do something about it. So, we often think, I’m going to escalate to their boss, or I’m going to escalate to HR. But do they have the skills and the motivation to actually address the behavior? And usually the answer is no. So, do not escalate to someone who you know is going to be inept in actually handling it. If you do have someone, and is there someone you could escalate to?
SPEAKER 2: Unfortunately, I think it would just have to be our CEO.
AMY GALLO: Yes. Okay. That is an option. If I were the CEO of your company, I would like to know that someone is accusing people of watching Seinfeld at their desk or mocking someone’s accent. I personally would want to know that. And you might go with a few people so that you don’t look like one disgruntled employee, but there are several people. When you do escalate, you want to make sure you’re clear the impact to the business that this isn’t a personal vendetta, that you’re not just hurt feelings. Although I think hurt feelings are important and should be valued, but oftentimes people in charge want to know that there’s an impact to the business. So, that’s one thing I would make sure. And I would also, starting now, I would have you and the people who are venting to you document as quickly as you can these behaviors – day, time, what happened, how you responded, what the response was. Because that documentation’s going to help you if things go south or sideways. The other thing I think you really need to do is start protecting yourself. So, listening to your colleagues venting is kind of you, but you might also figure out ways to not focus your time and energy thinking and talking about this person, and create what some experts call a micro culture. So, if this person is creating a toxic culture, can you create a team of people? Maybe it’s you and one other person. Maybe it’s five people where you actually agree, that’s not the culture we’re going to adhere to. We’re going to treat one another with compassion, kindness, respect. Then you’ve got that protective bubble that you can go to when you need a reprieve from the toxicity. And ultimately, I think… you said you’re at this organization for 10 years. Has he also been at the organization for 10 years?
SPEAKER 2: No, half that.
AMY GALLO: Half that time. That’s five years of a long time with a hot mess. So, I also think you ask yourself, is the behavior becoming so detrimental to my ability to do my job, to my sense of self-worth, to my wellbeing that I want to look elsewhere? I will never advise someone to quit their job if they love their job, but I also don’t think you should stick it out in a situation that’s toxic and is not going to change. Does that help?
SPEAKER 2: Absolutely. Thank you very much.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, thank you.
AMY BERNSTEIN: So, we’ll take the question over here.
SPEAKER 3: Yeah. So, I think this is going to add on to the last question as well as, and I want to thank you for describing the torturer because I think for those of us who have had to deal with those personalities, just having that name is helpful. So I’ve had the experience-.
AMY GALLO: By the way, I just have to pause for a second. You called them the torturer, not the tormentor. And I like that.
SPEAKER 3: Maybe that’s what’s in mind. Okay. The tormentor.
AMY GALLO: The torture and torment. This is-.
SPEAKER 3: That’s true. You feel tortured.
AMY GALLO: Yes.
SPEAKER 3: The tormentor for the past 15 years – and that mentor to tormentor relationship. And what she does is that she doesn’t like to meet with us as a group, and she’s gone into a leadership position. And recently her best friend is now our leader above that. But she plays the political game very, very well and manages up very well, and then also doesn’t like to have meetings with everyone present. She likes to have individual meetings. It’ll keep close, we’re going to fly in close formation. So, it’s very much like you’re in that inner circle or you’re out. And so, it really pits people against each other an it creates this very hostile work environment where people just do not feel psychologically safe to say anything because you never know what anyone else is thinking. We’re trying to demonstrate for younger people in the organization the right way and the right culture. And I love that idea of setting your microculture, but are there mechanisms that you can go to with… the right way to go to more senior leadership who are very well aware of a lot of these issues, but yet have allowed it to persist for a decade or more?
AMY GALLO: A decade or more. So, what makes you believe that senior leaders are aware of this?
SPEAKER 3: Because there’s been direct conversations about that behavior and I think there may not be knowing to the extent and what that does to people’s wellbeing and their work efficiency and just their lives. But they definitely are aware. It’s like how do, as you’re getting into a more senior position yourself, or you really want to set the stage for your colleagues and those who are coming up so that you can really change that culture.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Can I ask why do you think the senior leaders haven’t done anything about it?
SPEAKER 3: I think it’s a great question. I think they don’t know the extent potentially of the damage that it’s causing. I also think if you have someone who’s very charismatic and manages up really well, they’re obviously benefiting in some way by that individual being there. But it’s a little unclear. But I think most likely just that they are benefiting in some way and for them the risk benefit is better for that individual to stay.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, a couple things I’ll say. One, you may be doing them a favor by actually – or, not just you, but you and others together might be doing them a favor by raising the awareness of the impact it’s having and making clear this is not necessarily about her, this is about the business and the impact to the business and this is what we’re seeing and we want to make you aware of it. That is incredibly hard to do. And I do want to point out that there’s the risk of you becoming labeled the difficult person in doing that. So, that is something you have to consider in the context that you work in – the culture. By calling out the behavior or escalating in it, will you get labeled as the difficult person. So, that’s something to keep in mind. I do think the concept of microculture would be important. And you talked about trying to set the tone for the people coming up below you. And I think really trying to be clear, explicit about what norms you want to operate with. “On this team we work towards psychological safety. We trust one another. We have open descent and debate. We are kind and polite to each other, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have conflict.” Laying out what are those norms and writing them down, making them clear, asking the people coming up the younger folks to actually contribute to those so that it’s clear you are going to operate differently. One of the benefits of these microcultures is sometimes they gain the attention of the senior leaders and they see, Oh, that team over there actually is doing really well. People are wanting to work with that team. They’re hitting their targets, they’re exceeding their targets. And they might think, Okay, how do we get more of that and less of what I’m hearing over here? So, I do think that can help to really set the stage of, this is how we want to interact. I would love to tell you that going and reporting this to someone in authority’s actually going to do something. But I’m getting the sense from just the nodding and shaking of your head that you don’t feel that will work. Is that right?
SPEAKER 3: I think you’re exactly right. And I think you try and you’re scared to do so, and others want to support you, but they’re also scared and you do run the absolute risk of retaliation and also of you being labeled the difficult personality. And I think that’s been a really the challenge of navigating this environment for a long time.
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
SPEAKER 3: Thank you so much.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Take a question over here.
SPEAKER 4: Hi. Thank you for being here. For those of us who had arm fatigue at the start, and as we advanced in our careers, there’s often a tension between having experienced so many of these behaviors from managers and transitioning into management and leadership yourself, and how to be effective and still give direct feedback and achieve your goals with this constant voice in your head of fearing that you’re becoming one of these archetypes. And I was wondering if you could share some strategies for how to either maintain your confidence so you don’t err into that category of the unconfident emerging supervisor, or how to give yourself a gut check. And is it really that I am a – for those of us here who identify as female or other identities that have often been made to think that they’re less than, is that what’s operating, or am I really veering into territory where I may be out of line? And how do you navigate that?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, you’re talking about how do you navigate what often people call imposter syndrome, of, Oh, I’m not cut out for this, maybe I’m really horrible at this, versus natural insecurity, which we all feel by the way. And if you don’t, you’re part of that lovely group we call psychopaths. So, you do feel some insecurity, is that healthy insecurity that’s going to help you reflect on how you want to do better? I’m not sure you’re ever going to know the difference. So, I would instead focus on what actions you can take. A couple things: One, write down your values. Think about those managers that really were difficult for you, the things they did and what you want to do instead. I would even fold a piece of paper in half and just write on one side, these are the things they did. These are the things I want to do instead. And that can help you hold yourself accountable. Maybe once a month, once a quarter, you look through, am I doing these things? The other key piece is to find trusted advisors that can give you frank feedback. A lot of times we’ll go to someone and say, how am I doing? And they’ll say, you’re doing great. And we love those friends who are like, You’re such a good manager. It’d be a gift to be on your team. But you want the friend who’s going to say, you’re really good, but you know what you do? Here’s this one thing. You’re a know-it-all. You interrupt people, or you tend to veer toward negativity as opposed to positivity. You could inspire your team more. You want to find those people who will tell you like it is. Do you have those people in your life?
AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah. And I’m very lucky to. And those conversations can be painful.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Yes.
AMY BERNSTEIN: But you definitely straighten up after that.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Here’s the other thing about imposter syndrome. Everyone feels it. If they don’t, they’re the know-it-all. But everyone is always thinking, I’m really not sure I’m cut out for this. So, remember those feelings are normal. Use that to inspire you to get better as opposed to question yourself and surround yourself with both people who will tell you what you’re great at and bolster your confidence, and also will tell you the frank feedback that you need to get better. One tip, and actually it’s a tip in the book when you’re dealing with an insecure manager, but I think it works really well if you’re also not sure of yourself, which is to keep a – and I have one of these in my email – a compliments folder. So, anytime someone sends you, even if it’s, “great job on that project,” or, “I loved how you presented that,” file that away in a folder, and when you’re having a day where you’re like, am I really cut out for this management thing? Look at that folder and remember, you are doing many things well, you’re probably not doing everything perfectly, but guess what? You’re human.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Well, I’m afraid we’ve come to the end of our conversation. I think now everyone understands why you, Amy Gallo, are everyone’s first advisor, and I hope everyone goes out and buys this book and reads it. I learned so much from it. So, thank you.
AMY GALLO: Thank you. This has been so fun. If you’d like to learn more about how to work with anyone, check out the four other episodes that are part of Women at Work’s Getting Along series. They’re in our podcast feed. You can also order my book through HBR’s online store, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates. Robin Moore composed this theme music.