How to work with difficult people

In the latest episode of MT's Leadership Lessons podcast, Amy Gallo, the Harvard Business Review contributing editor and author helps leaders navigate the tricky conversations.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2023
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It was one of many emails that Harvard Business Review’s contributing editor and author Amy Gallo had received that day, but it’s the only one she’s still thinking about, months later:

“We’re all busy, but human connection is the most important thing. I’m going to take my writing elsewhere. I can’t handle the ego.”

It was prompted by her politely declining a meeting which she knew she did not have time to attend. Of course, that was the end of the interaction. The email was deleted. There’s been no correspondence between the pair since.

But, in what will be familiar to many readers, Gallo spent a long time ruminating over it. First, getting angry and rehearsing all the perfect responses in her head. Then, self doubt creeping in. Finally, her inner critic getting fired up when, at 3am, for the third night in a row, she was still preoccupied with the message: “Why can’t I just let it go? Why do I need everyone to like me? What’s wrong with me?”

It’s easy to dismiss such altercations as “just work” or brand people “too sensitive” who find themselves affected by it. But that’s doing us and our brains a disservice. As Gallo writes in her new book on workplace conflict - her second on the topic - called “Getting Along - How To Work With Anyone (Even Difficult People), “Work is where we form our identities, feed our egos (or take hits to them) derive self-worth, seek community and ideally, find meaning and fulfilment. And we do all of that alongside our colleagues.”

The problem doesn’t just stay at work either - it can affect our families and friends as we burden them with the issue and carry stress home with us. “There are also lots of physical ramifications of that stress too. There was a really interesting study looking at the healing time of wounds between people who reported having animosity in their relationship. A simple wound on their hand healed much slower,” Gallo says.

For leaders, the ability to create psychologically safe workplaces is critical for strong performance. In Gallup’s annual research into workplace culture, it consistently finds a link between the benefits of having friends at work and strong engagement and performance. For example, in its latest survey, 30% of people said they had a “best friend” at work, and those people were seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, better at customer service, producing higher quality work and less likely to get injured.

Negative interactions are also horribly inefficient. As Georgetown University professor Christine Porath found in her research, 80% of people who were faced with uncivil behaviour at work lost work time worrying about the incident, and 63% then lost work time trying to avoid the rude person.

The 8 types of difficult people

To help tackle the issue, Gallo’s book identifies 8 archetypes of difficult people, and provides practical advice on how to deal with them. They are: the insecure boss, the pessimist, the victim, the passive-aggressive peer, the know-it-all, the tormentor, the biased coworker and the political operator.

Gallo says she is most commonly asked for help navigating a passive-aggressive peer. Her advice is to ignore the way they are communicating and show interest in their underlying concern. Try to open up the conversation, by saying something like: “You made a good point the other day. Here’s what I heard you saying...” Give them the opportunity to tell you how they really feel. But don’t take their bait in emails or texts. Make direct requests. Set clear guidelines for how everyone on your team will interact, so they are publicly accountable. As a manager, deal with it quickly because it erodes team trust. “You have a responsibility to make it clear that underhanded behaviour isn’t tolerated,” she writes.

Possible rise in conflict since the pandemic

Interestingly, Gallo has noticed a societal shift in attitude towards conflict since the pandemic: “I put a call out about the book at the very beginning of the pandemic and used the phrase “difficult people” and got pushback saying it was unfair to call people difficult. When I was getting ready to launch the book last year, I put a similar call out, and people said why even give advice, just report them to HR, cut them out and be done with them. I thought, gosh, what’s happened to society?”

The response suggests a shift to a more individualistic society, where people are not as willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. “There's less tolerance in general of bad behaviour, which is a good thing in many ways. But it concerns me when we dismiss people out of hand before actually giving them a chance. It’s understandable after what we’ve been through during the past three years, but I hope the pendulum is going to swing back to more collective concern,” she says.

She adds: “I don't think you should be empathetic to someone who's making your life very difficult. But being empathetic helps you, as it's sort of a strategic move to get you in a better frame of mind to actually navigate the situation.”

Conflict can be beneficial

Even if the societal polarisation fades, there will always be innate conflict between people. “There is no such thing as a conflict-free team. It’s an inevitable part of interacting with other humans. We’re all hardwired for likeability, but more often than not, what we really want is to be respected and trusted. People respect people who can handle conflict, who can be direct, who can be honest, who can facilitate a difficult conversation.

And conflict can also be beneficial to a business, if done in the right way. Speak to most advertising agencies and they will say they pride themselves on being able to have healthy disagreements because it creates better, more creative, ideas.

Gallo believes that we don’t have enough healthy conflict in most workplaces, by which she means space for people to debate, dissent and disagree about a strategy or an idea, rather than criticising people personally. She urges leaders not to be afraid of conflict.

“I’ve worked with leadership teams where the CEO is the most conflict-averse person in the room, and that person loses a lot of respect from their team. They are not able to get people through a difficult conversation or decision to productive action. Navigating normal tensions, discussions is a critical leadership skill, you can’t be an excellent leader without that.”

To create an environment where positive disagreements can occur, Gallo advises leaders to normalise conflict, make it clear that it’s acceptable to have differences of opinion but explain that they must keep focused on the ideas, not the personalities behind them.

What most people get wrong about conflict is that they see it as a combative winner-takes-all fight, rather than a chance to collaboratively form a solution. “When you think about conflict, many visualise two people on opposite sides of the table trying to hash it out. But if you see that instead of as a tug of war between two people, I don't think you have a lot of room to build a constructive, productive resolution.”

“I like to think of two people sitting shoulder to shoulder on the same side, with a third entity, which is the problem that they're trying to solve, on the table. That visual makes much more sense. It's a more collaborative way to get through conflict,” she says.

Put yourself first

If you are facing a difficult person, Gallo is clear: you must put yourself first.

One tactic, she says, is to set clear mental and physical boundaries. She once worked for a terrible boss who damaged her confidence and whom she thought about 24 hours a day. Now, she thinks she could have been more mentally disciplined by setting herself a 15 minute timer each day where she could think about the horrible boss, or how stressful the job was, and then move on.

“I could also have set boundaries, like not talking to her after 5pm, because otherwise I know it will impact the way I interact with my family and ruin my evening,” she says. Or if someone is particularly challenging, work out what your minimum interaction needs to be and limit it to that. For example, a 5 minute conversation once a week to get a specific piece of information.

“You need to find a way to right-size the stress. That’s my core piece of advice. Make sure you are allowing the person to take up the appropriate amount of your time and effort, so they are not controlling your psyche and ruining every day. Realise that just because someone gets defensive or upset or is being rude or uncivil to you, that doesn't mean anything is wrong with you.”

And if all else fails, Gallo believes repeating this mantra can also be very helpful to internalise and repeat: “Sometimes people are going to be mad at you and that's ok.