Work relationships can be hard. The stress of dealing with difficult people dampens our creativity and productivity, degrades our ability to think clearly and make sound decisions, and causes us to disengage. We might lie awake at night worrying, withdraw from work, or react in ways we later regret—rolling our eyes in a meeting, snapping at colleagues, or staying silent when we should speak up. Too often we grin and bear it as if we have no choice. Or throw up our hands because one-size-fits-all solutions haven’t worked. But you can only endure so much thoughtless, irrational, or malicious behaviour—there’s your sanity to consider, and your career.
Amy Gallo is an expert in conflict, communication, and workplace dynamics. She combines the latest management research with practical advice to deliver evidence-based ideas on how to improve relationships and excel at work. She is the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, a how-to guidebook about handling conflict professionally and productively, and the forthcoming Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).
In this interview, I speak to Amy Gallo about the archetypes of people we encounter in the workplace and how we can understand and deal with challenging workplace relationships more effectively. We discuss the principles that will help us build stronger, more resilient relationships, and look at the tools we can use to rebuild fractured ones.
Q: Why are work relationships so important to us?
[Amy Gallo]: We spend so much time at work, so we’re going to have relationships with our colleagues – and those relationships may be distanced, troubled or fantastic. We’re going to be interacting with our colleagues no matter what. In fact, we often come to work for those emotional connection. We’re only just acknowledging the importance of those relationships. They’re incredibly important because when they’re positive, they’re a source of joy, energy, productivity, and resilience. There’s a lot of research that shows that when we have friends at work, we are more resilient, and we perform better. There’s one study that shows that people who consider co-workers as friends even get better performance reviews. So, we really know there’s positive benefits to having those connections and I think everyone can intuitively relate to that. On the flip side, when those [work] relationships are negative or stressful, they have incredible ramifications for our well-being, productivity, and creativity. Studies show that even when we cut ourselves, it takes longer to heal if we are having animosity in our close relationships!
Q: Why do work relationships break down?
[Amy Gallo]: There are a myriad of reasons why work relationships can break down, and one of the most common is the fact that we’re just different people with different expectations, values and ideas about how to behave. We all have different senses of what is, and is not, appropriate. When we get into the workplace – we assume everyone should feel and think the same way, and when they don’t? things fall apart. A disagreement over whether, for example, a project should finish in 3 or 6 months quickly becomes a personal issue of speed versus quality. We start assigning meaning to disagreements because they feel bad, and we end up creating distance between ourselves and our co-workers.
Let me give you one example of how this can escalate. I had a colleague who was on a zoom call, they saw someone roll their eyes multiple times and were furious by the end of the call. They later found out that the person wasn’t rolling their eyes, they were looking up at a clock on their wall because they were worried they would be late to pick up their kid! It was just a complete miscommunication. And it festered into this real split, real sort of rupture in that relationship. That’s hard to repair. Even once you realise it’s a misunderstanding, there’s still that negative feeling that lingers.
Q: Do we need to put ourselves in the minds of the people we’re working with?
[Amy Gallo]: There’s a lack of empathy in the workplace, we don’t put ourselves in the others’ shoes enough. Even when we do… we tend to use our own frame of mind. There’s a concept in psychology called naïve realism. We think we see the world perfectly and assume that everyone sees it the way we do. If they don’t? if they disagree? Our assumption is that they are wrong, and that they are misinformed. It’s a natural inclination we all have which stops us putting ourselves in the other’s shoes.
There was a revealing study which showed this too. If you tap out the rhythm to a familiar song, say ‘happy birthday…’ how often do you think that someone listening to your taps will guess the song? The person tapping usually guesses about 50%, but in reality, it’s about 2.5%! You are assuming the other person can hear the song you are tapping!
Q: What are the common archetypes we see in the workplace?
[Amy Gallo]: I have defined archetypes not to be dismissive labels, but to help you understand the types of people you encounter in a workplace, what you’re dealing with, and how to approach improving those relationships. So, let’s go through them:
The Insecure Boss: The person who is in a position of power, but for some reason doesn’t believe they should be there. They may have impostor syndrome, and are often overly concerned about what others think of them. They can be indecisive, change direction, and might even hoard information for fear of being powerless. Insecurity is normal, we all feel it. If you don’t? you’re a psychopath! This is the manager who really leads from that place of insecurity.
The Pessimist: The person who is chronically complaining, constantly putting ideas down, the sort of person who always has a grey cloud over their heads. They see everything through dark glasses.
The Victim: This person is an offshoot of the pessimist. They not only see the world as negative, but feel like the negativity is directed just at them. One caution about this archetype is to realise that there genuinely can be people in the workplace who are victims of abuse or bullying. This archetype refers to people who feel like they are constantly the victim, not those people who are victimised.
The Passive Aggressive Peer: One of the most common workplace archetypes. This is the individual who ignores deadlines, promises to send an email that never arrives. This is the individual who, when they start acting upset or angry… when asked… says, ‘no, I’m fine…’ it’s the classic, ‘I cannot actually say what I think and feel, even though I’m behaving in a way that makes it clear I’m thinking and feeling that way…’
The Know it All: This is someone who just feels like they have the right to own the conversation, to own the room. They feel like they have all of the knowledge and nobody else has the same knowledge. This is also often seen as the mansplainer, the person who really feels like they get to explain to whoever (females, people of colour) that they are right, just because they are a man.
The Tormentor: Someone who you expect to be a mentor. They are more senior than you, perhaps you share the same background, perhaps you’re both women, or came-up through the same industry. Instead of being a mentor, they seem set on making your life miserable and essentially they haze you to try and make you suffer the same sacrifices they have suffered.
The Biased Co-worker: Essentially, this is an individual who commits microaggressions towards you – based on your identity or other demographic information.
The Political Operator: This is the person who is set on achieving something in their career, and will do so at the expense of everyone else, so they create or play office politics.
Q: Is the hybrid environment making office relationships worse?
[Amy Gallo]: Remote work has turned the lights on in the room, it’s allowing us to see the cracks and cobwebs, and we can never switch that light off again. If your relationships were strong to start with, remote and hybrid work has been shown to intensify those relationships. If you already had fractures and negative relationships, hybrid and remote has been shown to intensify the negativity and make those relationships worse.
When we’re little squares on a screen, we feel less human. We need to draw more on our emotional intelligence skills to cope with this natural distance between us. We also have so many channels of communication – slack, email, text, all of which are ripe for miscommunication. These channels also don’t give us the same opportunity to repair relationships and disagreements. When you close the screen after a virtual meeting, you don’t have the opportunity to cross paths in the hallway and clear the air. So, all that stuff starts to fester, and it gets worse.
Q: Why are passive aggressive behaviours so common in the workplace?
[Amy Gallo]: I do wish we could hand our co-workers prescriptions for therapy! There is so much unresolved emotion in the workplace that people bring in from other relationships in their life, and from previous work relationships. You can end up being passive aggressive if you work in an organisation where you are not allowed to speak to authority, speak openly and address your thoughts and feelings. We’re all passive aggressive at times – it happens – it can come from a fear of failure, from not wishing to admit our mistakes, or from being worried about judgement. Passive aggressive behaviours are also very common in people who are conflict averse; if you say what you think and feel, could it cause disruption to the harmony in your relationships? The irony is that the more passive aggressive you are, the more your relationships will get damaged, much more so than if you were just honest. Passive aggression is infuriating when you’re dealing with it. It can feel like shadowboxing!
Q: How can we diffuse negative behaviours?
[Amy Gallo]: Whether you are leading a team of two people or two-hundred people, it’s important to normalise conflict and say- very clearly- that people will not always agree. Dissent, disagreement, debate, these are all normal, positive aspects of a workplace and having those intense conversations allows people to say what they think and feel rather than wrapping up emotions in snarky comments.
Leaders also need to make it clear what the norms are on the team. When you say you want to do something… you follow through. If not? The team is accountable. Holding each other accountable is important. When someone is behaving passive aggressively, you need to address it. You need to open-up the conversation sensitively and gently – it can often open the door to a real discussion and resolution.
Q: Can workplace relationships ever get beyond repair?
[Amy Gallo]: In any relationship, you must think about whether you could get to a place where you can imagine having at least a neutral conversation with the person. Our brains take shortcuts on relationships, and so if it’s always been a certain way, we assume we can’t change things. You often encounter two people who just have such a cemented view of each other that it’s hard to push past that, but it just takes one of those people to decide, ‘hey, let me see if I can change something here….’
Q: How can we get past political and ideological debates?
[Amy Gallo]: Some political conversations are necessary, think about conversations on race or gender, there aren’t ‘sides’ to take when we’re talking about human dignity. There are other situations however where, instead of focusing on trying to change someone’s mind, we can focus on speaking from a place of curiosity, and also a place where we’re aware of what we need from the conversation. Do you need the person to agree with your political ideology? Or do you need them to just have a productive conversation with you on a topic. Trying to change other people is a fool’s errand – we can have some influence on how people behave, but if your success relies on changing someone? You’re setting yourself up for failure.
Q: How does the mission of a business impact workplace relationships?
[Amy Gallo]: One of the best ways to start a difficult conversation or to get on the right footing is to have a shared objective. If you and I work together and it’s clear what the organisation is doing, where it’s headed, and what our targets are…. If we know what the ultimate-goal is, even if we disagree along the way, we have that shared experience of vision and objectives to make us feel aligned. When there’s nothing like that to grasp on, conflicts start and can get messy. Without shared mission and objectives, we have nothing to get us back to the same course. We end up lost at sea.
Any major company-wide project; digital transformation, change management, EDI initiatives, requires you to be able to handle disagreement and conflict. For any major project to work, you cannot assume that everyone will see eye-to-eye and agree. This is really high table stakes for change in organisations.
Q: How can we get on with anyone?
[Amy Gallo]: We need to avoid the me-versus-them mentality. It’s so easy in a conflict to feel like it’s a tug-of-war. Someone wins, someone loses. It’s our way of making it a zero-sum situation. I always prefer to visualise it as three entities, the two people and the problem that needs solving. The problem might well be the relationship, but if you see the parties as collaborators and not enemies, you’ll be so much more productive, creative and innovative in your frame of mind.
We need to remain curious too. It’s so easy to become certain about things because of confirmation bias, because of the stories our brains tell us about a situation – after all, our brains are always looking for meaning. Curiosity means you ask yourself, ‘what if I’m wrong? What assumptions have I made here? What do I not know about the situation?’ It also forces some perspective taking, making you think on the pressures the other person might be under, and what could cause them to behave that way.
You need to experiment. You need to try different ways of interacting with people in different situations, and to tweak your methods. You must keep going and not get stuck!