Even in a world where remote work is becoming increasingly common, many people spend more time interacting with their workmates than with their own families. So, doesn’t it make sense manage those relationships in ways that benefit everyone?
The reality, of course, is that the workplace can be a breeding ground for bad behaviors. And those bad behaviors can spawn consequences far beyond discomfort and withdrawal. For example, a survey of 4,500 doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel found that 71% of respondents linked negative behavior (such as abusive, condescending, or insulting conduct) to medical errors. And 27% tied such behaviors to patient deaths!
The truth is that most people can use all the help they can get in navigating workplace relationships. A helpful gude can be found in GETTING ALONG: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). Author Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review where she specializes in workplace dynamics.
Gallo presents eight archetypes, each representing a common type of “difficult” person—
1. The insecure boss—Overly concerned about what others think of them. Chronically unable (or very slow) to make decisions. Tends to micromanage.
2. The pessimist—Complains about meetings, senior leadership, other colleagues, anything and everything. Adopts a “we’ve already tried that and it failed” mentality.
3. The victim—Adopts a “woe is me” attitude. Avoids responsibility for things that go wrong, places blame on others.
4. The passive–aggressive peer—Deliberately ignores agreed-upon deadlines. Displays body language that projects anger or sullenness, but insists everything is okay. Implies displeasure with your work, but refuses to give direct feedback.
5. The know-it-all—Displays a “my way or the highway” attitude. Monopolizes conversations, refusing to be interrupted. Speaks in a condescending tone. Rarely asks questions or displays curiosity.
6. The tormentor—Sets near-impossible standards. Assigns needless or inappropriate busywork. Claims mistreatment is some sort of exercise in character-building.
7. The biased coworker—Displays prejudice (or at least insensitivity) with statements about gender, race, age, or related issues.
8. The political operator—Brags about their successes. Takes undue credit. Curries favor with people in power. Gossips or spreads rumors, particularly about coworkers why they believe are standing in their way.
Gallo offers a number of principles and practices that can help people with the “relationship stuff” in the workplace. One of my favorites is “Be—and stay—curious.” Adopt a growth mindset. Believe that you have something to learn and that relationship dynamics can change. Focus on what you stand to gain by getting along.
Rodger Dean Duncan: In one study you cite, 94% of people reported working with a toxic person in the last five years, while 87% said their team culture had suffered as a result. Why does such behavior persist in so many workplaces?
Amy Gallo: Like in any environment—work or even with our families—we’re not always our best selves. We show up to work with what relationship expert Esther Perel calls a “relationship resumé,” which guides how we interact with others. And that’s not always in healthy ways. Add in power dynamics, hierarchies, economic insecurity, and the need to feed or defend our egos, and it can result in some pretty negative behaviors.
One important note: we often assume that the problem is other people but there’s interesting research that shows that any of us are capable of being the “toxic” person if put under stressful, competitive conditions. The fact that many managers and leaders don’t have the skills to give constructive feedback on behavioral issues means that these behaviors often go unchecked.
Duncan: What seem to be the consequences of difficult relationships at work?
Gallo: The biggest consequence is stress. Because of our natural negativity bias, even if most of our working relationships are positive, we become consumed with the difficult ones. We ruminate, we lose sleep, and we may act in ways that aren’t aligned with our values.
Research on incivility at work also shows that difficult interactions with coworkers hinders our engagement, creativity, productivity, and performance. Those costs extend beyond you as well. The people in your orbit are subject to what I call the “emotional shrapnel” of your dynamic. This includes the coworkers who directly witness the animosity, of course, but also your friends and family who may offer a sympathetic ear and absorb your stress.
Duncan: Sometimes people tell themselves negative stories about a colleague based on assumptions rather than actual facts. What’s a good way to guard again falling into this inference-observation trap?
Gallo: The stories we tell ourselves are often laden with emotions and critiques and feel truthful even when they’re not. When you find yourself making snap judgments about a colleague or a situation, remind yourself that this is likely your brain’s sense-making attempts and you may be falling into what scientists call premature cognitive commitment. Ask yourself two questions. One, what evidence to I have that this is true? Two, what if I’m wrong?
You can also use a tool that psychologists call reappraisal—reassessing an emotional situation in a more positive or neutral light, or as a challenge instead of a threat. So you might ask yourself what you have to learn from this situation with your colleague. This will help you make more considered decisions about how to proceed.
Duncan: In what ways are good workplace relationships important to a person’s overall sense of wellbeing?
Gallo: Study after study has shown that we benefit from close connections with others, including coworkers. Our relationships are a predictor of cognitive functioning, resilience, and engagement. Teams of friends perform better, people with supportive coworkers report less stress, and being close with colleagues increases information- and idea-sharing, self-confidence, and learning. In one of my favorite studies, a research team at Rutgers found that groups of colleagues who thought of one another as friends got higher scores on their performance reviews!
Duncan: What are some of the faulty assumptions behind failed attempts to correct bad behavior in the workplace?
Gallo: One assumption is that we will know how to instinctively deal with these situations. After all, we’ve been interacting with humans our whole lives! But, these are skills that we need to acquire and build.
Another assumption is that if the other person only knew how they were being perceived, they would change. But behavioral change is hard and it often takes time and isn’t always successful.
A last assumption I’ll share is that we believe the way we’re perceiving the situation is “correct.” But your perspective is just one perspective. Chances are that your colleague has their own—likely valid—view on what’s going on.
Duncan: What have you found to be best practices in soliciting and receiving honest, unvarnished feedback on your own workplace behavior, especially if you’re in a leadership role?
Gallo: In many, many workplaces, there’s an expectation that we be polite and kind, which unfortunately holds people back from giving direct and honest feedback, especially to people in power. The key is to make clear—over and over—that you want feedback, to express gratitude when you get it, and to act on the feedback you receive. This will lay the groundwork.
It’s also a good idea to ask for specific feedback. So you might tell the person that you’re working on getting better at X (maybe it’s facilitating productive meetings or creating an inclusive work culture) and then ask, “What’s one thing I can do differently in that area?”
Duncan: Rather than just “pick up your toys and go home,” what’s a good approach to dealing with a boss who exhibits one or more of the toxic behaviors you identify?
Gallo: Bosses are tricky because they wield a lot of power and often they behave badly because they feel insecure. You can start by helping them achieve their goals. Framing your work as a joint effort. Start sentences with “we” as much as possible. You want your boss to think of you as an ally, not a rival. It’s best if you can do this from the start with your manager but it’s never too late to reset the tone of your relationship.
And when you succeed, be sure to share the credit. At the same time, don’t downplay your talents or let them walk all over you. The goal is for your boss to see you as a trustworthy partner without hiding your achievements.
Duncan: Mental health in the workplace has become an increasingly common concern in recent years. What can people do to ensure they’re taking appropriate care of themselves?
Gallo: Too often people feel like they have to endure unhealthy dynamics at work, and that takes a toll on your mental health. One of the best ways to guard against this is to build a microculture with like-minded people who are interested in positive interactions. Rather than allowing toxic relationships to dominate your work experience, determine what you need to be effective and happy in your job and then build a coalition of people who are committed to similar goals and values.
Also, focus on resilience. You won’t be able to avoid difficult people completely so when you’re in a tough situation, think about your past. There have likely been times in your life when you failed, faced setbacks, or worried that you didn’t have what it takes to succeed. What did you do to get through? What steps did you follow? Who supported you? Remind yourself that you have overcome challenges, even when it felt like the odds were against you.
Duncan: How does bias show up when navigating tricky relationships at work?
Gallo: Even our definition of “difficult” behavior can be shaped by the prejudices that we carry into the workplace. Take for example, affinity bias, the unconscious tendency to get along with people who are like us in terms of appearance, beliefs, and background. When colleagues aren’t like us—perhaps in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, education, physical abilities, position at work—we are less likely to want to work with them. That’s why it’s critical when we’re struggling with a coworker to ask ourselves: “What role could bias be playing here? Is it possible I’m not seeing the situation clearly because we’re different in certain ways?”