Relationships with colleagues are fundamental to your engagement, performance, and happiness at work—something deeply underscored amid remote and hybrid work. Gallup’s classic research has shown for years that people who say they have a “best friend at work” have better performance and wellbeing.
The opposite is also true: When you have a toxic coworker, your performance, team culture, and likelihood of staying in a job all suffer.
That negative scenario is the main focus of Amy Gallo’s new book Getting Along, a guide to working with difficult people. Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, cites research indicating that the quality of relationships between team members is linked to 70% of the variation between the lowest-performing and highest-performing teams. “Our jobs are where we spend our days,” she writes. “As a result, they’re also where we have some of our most intense and complicated relationships.” (p. 3)
Gallo catalogs the common ways in which colleagues behave poorly, proposing eight archetypes and detailing research-backed tactics for dealing with each of them, including specific phrases you can use. The types of difficult co-workers include:
- The insecure boss. They often micro-manage and struggle to make decisions. You might try to build their confidence by expressing appreciation for them, or reinforcing their sense of control.
- The pessimist. You can explicitly reframe their critical viewpoint as a gift that helps them spot risks for the group. “What can we do to prevent the outcome you’re predicting?” is one useful question. (p. 82)
- The victim. This person—a bedfellow of the simple pessimist—feels like the world is out to get them. You might provide positive reinforcement and help them see the path to achieving their goals.
- The passive-aggressive peer. They’re not forthcoming about what they really think. Being direct with them is one tactic. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been responding to my emails. Is there something wrong? I don’t mean to pry, but just want to be sure everything’s ok,” is one sample phrasing Gallo recommends. (p. 113)
- The know-it-all. You might proactively preempt their interruptions by saying “Please hold any comments until I’m done,” and model humility by asking “What’s another viewpoint?” (p. 131)
- The tormentor. This is a senior person who believes if they endured suffering to get to the top, you should expect to also. Acknowledging the sacrifices they’ve made in their career and focusing on shared goals are two tactics for dealing with this.
- The biased co-worker. You might counter bias and acts of exclusion by asking questions like “What did you mean by that?” or “What information are you basing that on?” and being direct in calling out a colleague’s toxic comments (p. 173.)
- The political operator. Gallo advises not to get dragged into ruthless competition with a sharp-elbowed colleague, but do make sure you get credit for your work.
Do any of those flavors of difficult co-worker sound familiar?
If you’re lucky, maybe not, though the myriad flavors of toxic colleagues likely extend beyond Gallo’s list. My own first boss years ago was a misogynist fabulist with ethical shortcomings who drank to excess—he’s not covered neatly by any of Gallo’s categories. But in Chapter 11 she fortunately proposes nine principles for dealing with any difficult co-worker which, for what it’s worth, square with my own experience. Summarized handily on page 220, they include:
- Focus on what you can control.
- Be aware of your own biases.
- Don’t make it “me against them.”
- Know your goal.
- Avoid gossip, mostly. (More on that below.)
- Be—and stay—curious.
Ultimately, Gallo’s advice comes down to facing the reality of a difficult relationship, acknowledging any ways in which your own perspectives about it might be off or you might be contributing to the problem, setting a goal for how to improve it, taking the high road in trying to do so, and bringing in others or distancing yourself if all of that doesn’t succeed.
“The ability to confidently and calmly navigate friction with other people isn’t just a work skill; it’s a life skill,” Gallo writes. “We often disagree and that’s ok. As long as we do it with respect, compassion, and kindness, it can lead to new ideas, stronger bonds, and a refreshing level of candor. Isn’t that what we all want?” (p. 251)
She shares a series of mantras she herself has found useful to repeat when colleagues are difficult, such as “We are all doing the best we can at this moment. And we can all do better.” (p. 246)
To be sure:
- As Gallo acknowledges, it’s hard to neatly sort people into strict categories, and our relationships to each other can change over time. Other aspects of diagnosing colleagues’ challenges are also fraught: “You’re likely to mis-label emotions,” one expert tells her. (p. 107) As a result, it’s possible that the specific archetypes of difficult colleagues are less useful to some readers than the overarching principles and the cautions about tactics that backfire.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Some 94% of people said they worked with a toxic person in the past five years.
- Rutgers researchers found that groups of co-workers who considered themselves friends got better performance reviews.
- Some 38% of people mistreated by a colleague intentionally lowered the quality of their work, according to research by Georgetown’s Christine Porath.
- Swedish scientists found that when people thought their managers were less competent, they had a greater risk of heart problems.
- Insecure managers rate people’s performance higher when they’ve expressed gratitude to the manager, according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Nathanael Fast.
- People who vividly describe, visualize, or write down their goals are more likely to accomplish them, according to research.
- Studies show that gossip can deter people from misbehaving because the possibility that others might talk badly about them discourages some from doing so in the first place.
The bottom line is that Getting Along can give you confidence to try to improve tough relationships at work (including ones where you might be part of the problem).