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'Be the adult in the room': Amy Gallo shares principles that will help you get along with anyone at workplace

Amy Gallo, a workplace expert and author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) and the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, unpacks strategies to deal with difficult coworkers

Published: Dec 6, 2023 12:32:46 PM IST
Updated: Dec 6, 2023 12:39:59 PM IST

'Be the adult in the room': Amy Gallo shares principles that will help you get along with anyone at workplaceAmy Gallo, a workplace expert and author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)
Conflict at work is inevitable, but there are diligent ways to transform even the toughest relationships. And in the process, develop the skills and confidence needed to boost your career, argues Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and co-host of its Women at Work podcast for the past four years, in her new book Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).
Q. What are the research insights that helped you shape the book?
When we perceive a conflict— we open a rude email from a colleague or catch our boss subtly rolling their eyes at something we said — our brains react as if we are in actual danger. It goes into “flight, fight, or freeze” mode or what experts call “amygdala hijack.” This self-protective mechanism can cause us to be overly reactive, ruminate excessively, or even concoct stories that might not be true to explain the other person’s behaviour. Put simply, we don’t think clearly. For this book, I drew on findings and research from a variety of fields—neuroscience, emotional intelligence, negotiation, and management science.
Q. How crucial is it to have workplace friendships?
We know from research that teams of friends perform better, that people with supportive coworkers report less stress, and that being close with colleagues increases information—and idea-sharing, self-confidence, and learning. Social connections with others are also a predictor of our cognitive functioning, resilience, and engagement at work. Friendships are often good for your career, too. A research team at Rutgers found that groups of colleagues who thought of one another as friends got higher scores on their performance reviews.
Q. Which are the eight archetypes you have identified?

  1. Insecure boss: This boss often lacks confidence and will micromanage as a result. They are often overly concerned about what others think of them and can struggle to make or stick to decisions.
  2. Pessimist: These colleagues believe the worst is likely to happen. They can’t seem to find anything positive to say and often shoot down ideas.
  3. Victim: This person feels like everyone is out to get them. They don’t take accountability for their actions. And when you try to give them constructive feedback, they often respond with a laundry list of excuses.
  4. Passive-aggressive peer: These coworkers are not forthcoming about what they are truly thinking and use indirect methods to express themselves. They will often appear to comply with the wishes and needs of others but then passively resist following through.
  5. Know-it-all: This colleague believes they are the smartest person in the room, will hog airtime in meetings, and has no qualms about interrupting others. They inform you of what’s right, even if they’re clearly wrong or lacking information.
  6. Tormentor: A senior person who has earned their way to the top, typically making sacrifices along the way and then mistreating others below them. They appear motivated by the idea that because they suffered, you should, too.
  7. Biased coworker: This person sometimes says something that immediately makes you uncomfortable. Maybe they think they are just being funny or paying a compliment, but the comment is inappropriate—even perhaps sexist, ableist, ageist, or racist.
  8. Political operator: This person wants to advance their career, and they don’t care at what costs. They will often take all the credit for a project that was a group effort or even lie to get ahead.

Also read: Anxiety can be turned into a leadership superpower: Morra Aarons-Mele

Q. Why do some leaders feel insecure?
Self-doubt is a universal part of the human condition, but research has shown that insecurity often increases as you move into leadership roles. One survey found that the biggest fear of executives was being considered incompetent. This may stem from increased pressure to perform when they’re promoted to a senior position.
To deal with an insecure boss, recognise the pressures they are under. It’s possible that hitting year-end targets or dealing with constantly changing rules about hybrid work policies, for example, is raising your manager’s anxiety and prompting them to take out their insecurities on you. Try to frame your work as a joint effort. Start sentences with “we” as much as possible. You can say, “We’re all invested in making this project a success”, or “We all want the team to look good here.” When you do succeed, be sure to share credit with your boss and acknowledge their contribution. To battle micromanaging, keep them up to date on what you are working on.
Q. Isn’t office gossip best avoided? Or does it have an upside, too?
There are lots of reasons we turn to others when something is off at work. It might be to confirm that we are not misinterpreting a vague email or figuring out whose buy-in we need to push forward a stalled project. Gossip can play an important role in bonding with coworkers and information sharing. But you need to be careful that you’re not making the situation worse by stirring the pot or spreading misinformation.
Before you turn to a colleague to vent, think about your goal. Whether it’s to improve your relationship, feel better, or get your job done despite resistance, ask yourself whether gossip will help or hurt the situation.
Q. What explains the mindset of the ‘tormentor-mentor’?
Several things can make a senior person question your commitment to work, treat you harshly, or insist you suffer to earn your stripes. It may be a lack of empathy. They may have had a tough time coming up in their career and think you should also suffer. Their behaviour could also be motivated by envy or social identity threat—the belief that being associated with a devalued group will harm them. They may be trying to distance themselves from you, especially if you both belong to a traditionally underestimated group in the workplace.
To address their mistreatment:

  1. Find ways to show them that you are more alike than they think.
  2. Ask them about what it was like coming up in your industry, the battles they faced earlier in their career, or obstacles they had to overcome.
  3. Listen. You can also attempt to shift the balance of power by showing them that you have something they need—knowledge, a skill, or connections in other parts of the organisation.
Of course, you can also confront them tactfully—say something like, “I could be wrong, but I get the sense that we’re not working together as well as we could be. Is there something we can do differently going forward?” This may be awkward, but ideally, you will open up a conversation about how to work better together.

Q. Three principles that will help us get along with anyone…

  1. Your perspective is just one perspective: You and your colleague won’t always see eye to eye. That’s ok. You don’t need to have a shared worldview to get along. Ask yourself: What if I’m wrong? What assumptions am I making? Skip the blame game and try to rally around finding a path forward.
  2. Don’t make it “me against them”: Try to imagine three entities in the conflict: you, your colleague, and the dynamic between you. Instead of imagining you are in a tug-of-war, use positive, collaborative visualisations, such as you and your coworker sitting on the same side of a table.
  3. Focus on what you can control: Be the “adult in the room”. Don’t waste time trying to convince your colleague to change—people change if they want to. Focus instead on what you can do differently.
Q. How do we go about this in a remote work environment?
Remote work can exacerbate tricky interactions because you don’t have a shared context—you are not sitting in the same building, experiencing the same weather, or seeing the same things. So, you need to be more intentional in your communication and even over-communicate. If you are dealing with a colleague over email or Slack, try a different medium. You can pick up the phone and call your colleague or schedule a time for a video chat. To get along, both of you need to understand one another’s perspective, and that’s harder to do when you communicate via text or asynchronously. You’ll have more empathy for one another if you can see and hear one another.