Dealing with difficult colleagues: how do you do it? Amy Gallo is a global expert on conflict and work dynamics. I’ve already written an entire guide for it for Harvard Business Review.
Now I just released a new book: Matchmaking: How to Work With Anyone (Even Difficult People).
I mentioned eight types that can make your business a real hell:
- The insecure boss
- the pessimist
- the victim
- passive aggressive
- knows everything
- fellow with prejudices
- the politician
For each type, she offers a series of practical tactics to improve your relationship with that fellow.
She had doubts about adding “Difficult People” to the title of her book, she says in an interview with MT/Sprout. “Of course some people cause more difficulties than others, but the dynamics, how we interact with each other is more important than the individual.”
Most people are completely unaware that they exhibit such behavior
You’re starting your own boss’s nightmare, Elise. Did she approach you after publishing your book?
I was afraid of it, but I hadn’t heard of it. My friend at the time had already expected that she would not reply. After all, she doesn’t think she’s a boss at all.
Most people do not realize that they exhibit such behavior. Or they justify it to themselves. Elise, you might think, I should have pushed Amy that hard, because that’s what’s expected of me in this role. Or I’m talking about her behind her back, but that helps, so I’m sure people know what I expect of them. “
However, books about difficult people are often recognizable.
“No one is perfect, and that’s okay. I’ve definitely been passive aggressive, I acted like a know-it-all, and I’ve also been an insecure manager. We all display this kind of behaviour.
If people realize that they are difficult, they also realize that they are causing problems, and they understand that they have to work on it. This also changes the relationship dynamics in a more positive way.
I ask you to be an adult, and to be the first to extend your hand
Many readers have already written to me or contacted me that they have recognized themselves as a difficult person thanks to the book. That’s satisfying, because I’m asking you to be an adult. To be the first to reach and fix the relationship yourself.
The timing of your book is good too: crisis, war, stress and uncertainty…we have short wicks.
The idea of a pandemic emerged long before the pandemic, but learning how to deal with conflict is now more urgent. What did the epidemic do? Existing tensions and divisions in our relations have been exacerbated.
We can muster less and less sympathy. Working from home makes our way of communicating not making us feel human. Added to this is stress, uncertainty, and mourning over losses, a heavy cognitive load. Nobody can be the best version of themselves at work right now.
This creates a lot more tension and fighting than it was three years ago. Just no one taught us how to deal with those struggles. We intuitively think we’re good at it, but we’re actually not good at it at all.
How do we deal with conflict at work?
Most people ignore them or go along with them, but often with methods that don’t work. As a result, we often make the conflict worse. Our brains are working against us on this too. We must transcend our natural instincts to have fruitful struggles.
Our brains have programmed us in such a way that we do everything to be loved. We ignore conflict because we believe we are destroying the relationship, harming our reputation or job, or that the other person will take revenge.
We think the risk is too great, but we forget to think about the risks of doing nothing. What are the consequences for you as a person, for your integrity, for your team, for the organization, for the work you do?
And what if you respond?
Usually people do it in an unproductive way. Often we don’t have the skills, but here too our brain is in the middle. This is always looking for why things are happening.
The stories you tell yourself are often full of bias
For example, when you see a colleague roll his eyes, you are telling yourself the story of why he is doing it. Such a story is often full of prejudice, it makes you the hero and the other the villain. He’s always passive-aggressive, he’s never liked you, and so you’re telling yourself a whole story that’s not true or partly untrue.
You would never know the truth, even if you openly asked that fellow why he was rolling his eyes in this way. He can’t tell you the real story, probably because he himself doesn’t know why he’s doing it.
“So you have to ask yourself: What story are you telling here and is it helpful? What is the best story that makes you think differently? And then you can start working on a better relationship.
Read also: This is how you solve the most common conflicts with colleagues
You describe eight types of difficult people. What is the most common type?
The passive-aggressive coworker. This is understandable, too, because your brain is betting on empathy. If we can interact harmoniously with others in society, then we can survive. But when that harmony is broken, we want to say something about it.
But it is difficult to do so in such a way that the problem is immediately apparent. Or you feel insecure because you can’t access power. Therefore, we turn to passive-aggressiveness to express our feelings, thoughts or ideas. “
“We then think we don’t disturb the harmony in this way, but that actually disturbs the harmony even more.”
Is this also the hardest type to deal with?
“Personally, I think so, because a lot of the tactics in the book are about communicating with that other person or giving them feedback. It’s very hard to do that with someone who still says everything is going well, and that there are no problems.”
We always think it’s the other person, and that what we do is completely normal and acceptable
“It’s a bit like shadow boxing, and there’s no attempt to contact that other person.”
Read alsoThis is how to stop being passive aggressive
With every tactic you describe, you have to start with yourself first. why?
The only person who can control you is yourself. You cannot control the other, even if you try. Nor do we realize that we ourselves are contributing to the dynamics. We always think it’s the other person, and that what we’re doing is totally normal and acceptable.
It’s actually powerful to realize your role in this and get to work. Sometimes just changing the way you think about it is enough to positively change the dynamics.
People often ask me: Why do I have to do all the work when they’re causing the problem? No, you have to frame it differently. See it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Not all managers have the skills or motivation to intervene
“Yes, it may be somewhat generous with the other person, but in the end you help yourself because you gain experience. Next time you will react more presently and consciously in a difficult interaction. This will make things better.”
Don’t people think that their managers should resolve conflicts?
Yes, I often get questions like this. The truth is that managers play a crucial role. They form the basis of interacting with each other in a productive manner. They set standards, and they have to respond to bad behavior. They should pay attention to how people treat each other, not just how they achieve results.
Not all managers do this. Not all of them have the skills or motivation to intervene, even if you ask. Sometimes they don’t even have the power to do so.
Shouldn’t you go to your manager or HR department?
“First, ask yourself if this person can really do something about the situation. Do you really want to solve it for you? Wouldn’t that create a more difficult dynamic? After all, you’ve gone behind someone’s back.”
People who see their co-workers as friends actually perform better
If someone else solves it for you, you won’t learn how to handle conflict at your level. This way you cannot build skills to solve difficult interactions in the future. So be very careful, but always look at it as an option. Especially when it’s about real harm, about bias, about holding you back from doing your job.
What problem do you want to help solve in your book?
‘Sleepless nights. For many of us, those interactions at work cause a lot of stress and anxiety. I often lie awake in the middle of the night thinking about my colleagues and their behavior. We don’t deserve it.
We can have positive relationships with our colleagues if we put in more work. The research is pretty clear about rewards: it’s good for our mental health, our productivity, and our careers. People who see their co-workers as friends actually perform better.
Matchmaking: How to Work With Anyone (Even Difficult People) Written by Amy Gallo, global expert on conflict and work dynamics. The book is also for sale on managementboek.nl.