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Work Effectively With Difficult Colleagues

It is said that variety is the spice of life. However, in the workplace, the variety of personalities and work styles can sometimes be more of a challenge than a delight. We all find ourselves, at one point or another, stuck in a situation of working with someone we find particularly difficult. To help us navigate these situations, I spoke with Amy Gallo, author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).


Here, Amy shares how we can better engage with our difficult colleagues to create a work environment that is less stressful and more productive.


CONFLICT AND DISAGREEMENT AREN’T ALL BAD


Before diving into the difficult behaviors and remedies, Amy reminds us that conflict in the workplace is not only inevitable; it can be beneficial. Diverse styles, like speed-driven vs. detail-oriented approaches, can stimulate healthy tension. These disagreements can become a boon to innovation, as long as they focus on benefiting the organization, team, or end goal, rather than transforming into a personal skirmish.


WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE BEHAVIOR?


In her recent research, Amy identified eight archetypes of difficult behaviors. These categories, though not exhaustive, provide a foundation to understand common workplace personalities. They include the insecure boss, the pessimist, the victim, the passive-aggressive peer, the know-it-all, the tormentor, the biased coworker, and lastly, the political operator.

Characterizing individuals is seldom straightforward. It largely depends on how individuals handle tension and respond to situations where they feel threatened. For instance, a text message response of “whatever you want” could be passive aggressive or victim depending on the person and their intent.


Amy suggests we get specific about the behaviors. For instance, is someone’s constant negativity hindering collaboration due to folks not sharing their ideas for fear they’ll be shot down in meetings? 


Once you know the nature of the behaviors and have specific examples, you can begin to form an empathetic understanding of the reasons behind the behavior. 


WHAT IS DRIVING THE BEHAVIOR?


Amy warns of us labeling people as “jerks” too quickly. The challenge is not letting our ego or self-image lead us into these snap judgments. It helps to remember that most people don’t realize the negative impact their behaviors have on us and others. Usually, there is some underlying reason that a person acts the way they do. If we take the time to explore their intent, we might discover a better way to engage them, or at least, have a new frame of understanding. 


To begin, Amy recommends we consider the question: What truly motivates this individual? We often perceive others as difficult or challenging when, in reality, it's merely a clash of approaches or misunderstanding. Most individuals behave in a particular way as a compensation for their vulnerabilities. Consider the "know-it-all"; they often seek validation or control to cover for a lack of self-confidence. Recognizing such behaviors as a reflection of hidden insecurities can guide us to provide reassurance and react compassionately rather than exacerbating their self-doubt.


HOW SHOULD I ENGAGE WITH MY DIFFICULT COLLEAGUES?


When engulfed in challenging work scenarios, Amy suggests we view it as a collaboration rather than a conflict. By shifting the focus from personal dynamics to problem-solving, the change becomes about adjusting interactions, not transforming personalities.


While we’re not responsible for the negative behavior, we can take ownership over our part in the relationships. Amy notes that we can usually make small shifts that don’t cost us much but can have a meaningful impact on the dynamic. 


For example, Amy shared the story of a client who actively tried to warm up to a colleague who regularly dismissed her. By taking him to coffee, sitting next to him in meetings, and being kinder in her own tone towards him, he slowly improved in how he communicated with her, including publicly apologizing when he was unnecessarily rude. In this case, and many others, the goal is not to transform the relationship into best friends, but rather to neutralize the interactions so they are less stressful for both parties.


Managing challenging personalities effectively requires a subtle blend of understanding, compassion, and resilience. So next time you find yourself stuck in a challenging interaction with a difficult colleague, remember, the key lies in understanding, empathy, and constructive responses. Change your interactions, not the person, and watch your professional relationships transform.


Listen to the entire episode 303 to learn more about conflict management.


Keep up with Amy Gallo


- Follow Amy on LinkedIn here


- Listen to her podcast show here


- Grab a copy of her book here


- Check out her other works here


Book Giveaway:  2 Signed Copies of “Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)”


Amy is giving away 2 copies of her book, Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) to members of Podcast+. In this book, Amy identifies eight familiar types of difficult coworkers and provides strategies tailored to dealing constructively with each one. She also shares principles that will help you turn things around, no matter who you're at odds with. You must enter the drawing by Wednesday, May 1.


To get guest bonus and many other member benefits, become a member of The Modern Manager Podcast+ Community.


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The Modern Manager is a leadership podcast for rockstar managers who want to create a working environment where people thrive, and great work gets done.


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