This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: How to deal with toxic colleagues

Taylor Nicole Rogers
What do you think was the most extreme example of a difficult colleague or bad work situation that you heard when you were researching and writing your book?

Amy Gallo
Oh, my gosh. There were so many. (Laughing)

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Lay them on me.

Amy Gallo
So there was the business partner who stopped speaking to her other business partner for six months because she was left out of a meeting. There was a colleague who, the manager actually, who asked his direct report to reschedule his wedding because it conflicted with an important meeting. Oh, one of my favourites was someone who went on vacation and one of their colleagues took over their desk while they were away and said nothing to them when they got back.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Nothing at all.

Amy Gallo
Nothing at all. Just went like, you know, “Welcome back from vacation!” And the person I spoke to didn’t actually have the courage to point it out, just went and sat at a different desk. I mean, I think I would walk in and say, “Wait, you’re at my desk. What’s going on?” I mean, wouldn’t you?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Absolutely. I’ll be like, “Get off of my desk.” 

Amy Gallo
Exactly! And for whatever reason, this person just felt like they couldn’t.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
Hello and welcome to Working It with me, Taylor Nicole Rogers. I’m a journalist at the FT, and I usually cover the US labour market from our New York office. And occasionally I’m a guest on this podcast. Today, however, I’m sitting in the host chair while I cover for Isabel.

In this episode, we’re talking about difficult colleagues: the tyrannical bosses, the person who puts you down in order to build themselves up, and the people who lack any empathy. You know the ones. These complicated relationships and how we navigate them is something that author and podcaster Amy Gallo is absolutely obsessed with.

How did you get to that topic?

Amy Gallo
Conflict. Oh, man. So I often like to say that I blame my divorced parents for my interest in this topic. But truthfully, it did come about when I started in the workplace and whatever work I was doing. I worked in nonprofits, I worked for an HIV prevention organisation, then I became a management consultant in a strategy firm. And no matter what the work I was doing, I was very interested in how people either got along or didn’t get along and how that affected the work and our well-being and our level of stress. So it’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time but really started writing about in earnest about 10 years ago.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Amy went on to write many books on the topic, but the one I’m focusing on today is How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). And really, when we dug down to it, like a lot of you listening, Amy’s interest in navigating tricky workplace relationships all started with a particularly nightmarish boss.

Amy Gallo
She would do things like send me something to do at 6 pm and then follow up at like 7:30, 8 am in the morning asking if I’d done it. She would talk badly about her other colleagues. She would calendar surf. She would look at everyone’s calendar and point out that if someone had a meeting-free day, they didn’t get anything done despite that. I mean, she was challenging and pretty unhappy, I think too, which led to a lot of tough conversations, just about how much we should be working, how much work matters in our lives. And she had very high expectations that I could not live up to. And I’m sure she . . . If you had her on the mic right now, I think she would say, “Yeah, Amy was not fun to work with”. And I don’t know exactly how, what she would say too about, you know, what she would say about my behaviour, but I’m guessing she would have some complaints.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
And that’s just it, isn’t it? No one is awful in a vacuum. One bad person at an organisation makes another, by proxy, change their own behaviour. And that, my friends, is how you breed a toxic workplace culture. So how do we navigate it? How can you affect change not just in an individual, but in a company at large? I’m joined by my friend and colleague Madison Darbyshire. She covers US investment for the FT and is definitely very nice to work with. So Madison, have you ever had a nightmare boss like Amy?

Madison Darbyshire
You are such a tea stirrer. (Both laugh) I have had bosses who have been . . . You know, I’ve internalised their negative feedback to such a degree that I don’t want to say it out loud in case somebody thinks it’s true. Right? (Laughter)

Taylor Nicole Rogers
But it’s definitely not true.

Madison Darbyshire
I know. I’ve had bosses tell me I needed to be more supplicant on calls. A lot of it is gendered, right? I’ve had bosses who’ve taken umbrage with the characteristics that I have that are the things that make me good at my job. Right. Like when you’re a journalist, it’s really important to be somebody who sees connections, who is socially nimble, who can have conversations, who can seek out their own workflow, who’s ambitious. And all of these things at various intervals in my career have been things that a boss has directly criticised or punished me for.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I thought it was really important that you pointed out that a lot of the feedback you’ve gotten has been gendered, and I know that as a person of colour sometimes you feel like it’s racially targeted as well. So I mean, how do you navigate situations like that where the diversity of your workplace kind of makes you seem like the difficult person?

Madison Darbyshire
Yeah. So confidence is something that is heavily criticised in women and revered in men, right? That has been perpetually frustrating to me and other female colleagues, like over the years and over the various workplaces that I’ve been in, where if you seem confident and you ask for work or you ask for things, you’re seen as getting above your station or being a hustler. And so that has been really difficult to navigate over the years, like how to present yourself in a way that is authentic but also gets you where you’re trying to go. So there is really like privilege and being able to push back on difficult bosses and difficult co-workers that not everyone has.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Yeah, you’re right. And Amy Gallo has outlined eight different archetypes of difficult people in offices, including, you know, the insecure boss, the passive-aggressive peer, the know-it-all, the biased co-worker, the pessimist and the political operator.

Amy Gallo
The one that I hear questions about the most is the passive-aggressive colleague. And that is, I think in part because so many of us don’t know how to get what we need or be direct about what we want. And so we resort to passive-aggressive tactics. It’s also one of the hardest ones to deal with because it can feel a little bit like you’re shadowboxing or you’re trying to land a comment, a question, a piece of feedback with someone, and they’re just avoiding it at all costs. And so it can be really hard to actually make progress on improving that relationship, especially if someone’s really dug in to their passive-aggressive behaviour.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
So Madison, have you ever had a particularly challenging interaction with someone who was a bit passive-aggressive?

Madison Darbyshire
I think passive-aggressive people are everywhere because conflict is very fearful for so many people and we are all guilty of occasional passive aggression. The best advice I ever got was when a situation is bad or you feel jarred by a situation trying to fix it is often a lot less productive than trying to respond to it in a way that gets you and that person both where you need to go. Like one way a person can be passive-aggressive is if they give feedback about you to a superior of yours without bringing it to you first. And that can be a really difficult situation to cope with because you feel like you are being undercut or an unfair version of you is being disseminated in your workplace. And one, you spiral, you cry, like . . . .

Taylor Nicole Rogers
(Laughter) Yeah!

Madison Darbyshire
One thing that’s really important in those situations, I think, is to have advocates within your organisation or have people that you can lean on and say, “This has happened. I’d really love to just bounce this off of you or get your advice on how you might navigate this situation,” and focus on solutions. So if you want that person to stop doing those things, you might book a lunch meeting with them, something really casual, something non-confrontational, just like you go get a cookie and you have a conversation about how they think things are going because that’s their opportunity to bring that information to your consciousness.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Right. Absolutely. And Amy also has some tips on how to deal with tough co-workers.

Amy Gallo
The first thing is to avoid the label. So rather than telling someone, which hopefully most people won’t do, but rather than saying to someone, “oh, you’re so passive-aggressive,” right? Recognise that they’re using a tactic that they think will work for whatever reason. They have learned that that might be effective and it might be a fear of failure. They don’t want to look like they’ve made mistakes. It might be a fear of conflict. When it comes to actually addressing it, if you can ignore the passive aggressiveness and try to get to the underlying message or desire or need that they’re trying to express and really focus on that rather than the snarky packaging that they’ve delivered that message in, I think you’re gonna be much better off. The other thing I’ve seen work really well with trying to curb passive-aggressive behaviour is to set norms on a team. So to agree at the beginning of a project or even to reset a relationship with someone or a team’s dynamics and say, you know, when we commit to doing something in a meeting, we will all follow up. We’ll keep it in writing. If we’re unable to follow up, this is what we’ll do instead, right? To just be very clear that we expect each other to be straightforward, to follow through on our commitments and to not be passive-aggressive.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
One of the obvious ironies of this whole conversation that we’re having is that being narcissistic or even a little bit sociopathic in how you communicate or interact with others has historically been rewarded in a lot of workplaces via promotions and powerful positions. There’s even been a bit of research that shows that CEOs tend to have psychopathic traits, which then in turn, of course, sets the cultural precedent that this passive-aggressive or just aggressive-aggressive behaviour is fine. So Madison, why do you think that happens?

Madison Darbyshire
Well, ’cause companies are structured to reward people who solve problems, right? Like, it’s very popular to make a huge deal out of company culture during a hiring process or during a recruitment process, or even when they’re trying to justify not having market rate wages, for example. But culture is not something that is necessarily rewarded when it comes to promotions, and it’s certainly not something that companies are very good at firing around. Usually you only get fired for underperformance. I have not seen in my decades in the workplace very many people got fired for being a bully or a jerk. So I think these problems remain so persistent because companies haven’t evolved to a level where they are ready to fire for culture or fire to preserve positive workplace dynamics if a person who has a problem colleague still checks the box for doing the thing that is their job really well. The priorities have not shifted yet.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
So do you see any first indicators of things changing?

Madison Darbyshire
Yes. So I’m hearing a acknowledgement from people who might have been in very hardcore, traditional finance roles that certain levels of negativity are no longer being tolerated within their teams. A lot of this is being driven by a new generation of employees who have not been numbed to bad behaviour. So Gen Z is not taking your nonsense. (Laughter) I’m so grateful for them. And also we’re in a very competitive labour market and people can leave. And a lot of people are saying, “Actually, quality of my life is so much more important to me than golden handcuffs”. And I had a really interesting conversation with the outgoing CEO recently at T Rowe Price, which is a big asset manager in the US. And T Rowe really loves to talk about their culture. We were talking about the preservation of culture and how they’ve managed it in a pretty competitive industry over all this time. And he was very explicit that culture is the first thing that they prioritise when they’re hiring. It’s the first thing they prioritise when they’re promoting. And it is also the first consideration they make when they’re considering firing. So if somebody doesn’t fit with the culture or somebody is difficult, they don’t have a long career at T Rowe. And I thought that was revolutionary because I had never heard an executive talk about culture and being a “good person” person as a number one factor for your ability to remain in your organisation, not just to enter it or to rise through it, but to stay. But culture is fragile and it only takes like one bad apple to spoil the bushel, or whatever it is.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Here’s Amy again.

Amy Gallo
In the book I have a chapter called “The Nine Principles for Getting Along with Anyone”, which truth is one of my favourite chapters. And I won’t go through every principle, but a lot of it does require that you sort of be the adult in the room and that you change what’s in your control, which is your behaviour and your reaction.

So one of the principles, for example, is acknowledging that your perspective is just one perspective. So you may be seeing this person as difficult, but they may not see themselves that way and others may not see themselves that way. So you have to remember that you think you’re seeing the absolute truth, right? But that’s not necessarily the truth. It’s just one perspective. And we are flawed, all flawed, in how we interpret things like other people’s behaviour. One of the things that can be really tricky is that we get polarised. We start to see that this person is behaving a certain way and we just use confirmation bias. So they’re passive-aggressive. We’ve decided that in our head, we’ve labelled them in our head. And then everything they do, we see through that lens. And we identify, “I’m the opposite”. So they’re passive-aggressive, I’m not. They’re a pessimist, I’m an optimist. They’re a political operator, I’m collaborative. And that polarisation can really dig in an unhealthy dynamic.

And that’s one of the other principles, is that it can be really dangerous to think about me versus you, right? So instead of seeing yourselves as sort of warring factions, think of yourselves as two people trying to solve a problem together. And one of the things that people really often fear doing but can be so effective is just giving some direct feedback. So you describe the situation, right? So on that Zoom call and then you describe the behaviour: “You interrupted me three times”. That’s the behaviour, and then the impact: “And it made me feel like you didn’t value what I have to say”. And that very simple statement, which, you know, I say it as if it’s the easiest thing to do. I know it’s hard. But that simple statement sometimes can start to raise their awareness of like, “Ooh, gosh, right, I do interrupt”. Or, “I knew I interrupted, but I didn’t realise it actually had that much of an impact”. And that can also help to encourage them to start to change.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
But what do you do if you’ve honestly tried everything and you’ve put in your best effort and the situation doesn’t improve? When do you decide to move on?

Amy Gallo
That is a tricky question because oftentimes we don’t have the opportunity to move on. We are stuck working with who we’re working with. And, you know, I do want to put out there that if you are in a relationship or in a dynamic with a co-worker that’s causing you, you know, physical or mental harm, it really is important to figure out how to get out of that situation, whether it’s transferring to another department, leaving your job if you’re able to do that from a financial perspective. But there are other ways. If the relationship is difficult but not damaging or not causing you a lot of stress, then there are ways to disengage. And you know, one of my favourite tactics — and it’s not the nicest thing to think about someone, but it does help me to emotionally disengage — is to say to myself, “You know what? Every day they have to wake up as themselves and that looks pretty miserable. And I get to wake up as me”. (Laughter) And I know that’s not the nicest thing to think, but it does give you a little bit of distance.

And you know, there are other ways to disengage. Figure out what’s the minimum amount of interaction you have to have with them in order to get what you need. I talked to one person for the book who realised that anytime she emailed with her colleague — this was a know-it-all — you know, she would get these long diatribes back about all the ways she was wrong. But if she picked up the phone and just said, “This is what I need, can we get this done?” He was much more responsive and much kinder, I think. He just had a thing about sending these ranty emails that really upset her. So trying to figure out, okay, what are the mediums in which this person behaves better? Are there situations I can set up so that it’s just very “boundary to interaction”? Sometimes people behave better when there are other people involved, so that might include not having one-on-one meetings with them but including other people. You know, there are other ways to sort of protect yourself, and that’s really key, I think, in all of this experimentation where you’re trying different tactics to improve the dynamic. You have to remember that you need to protect yourself both from a well-being perspective, but also from a career perspective. So that may mean documenting the behaviour when things happen. That may mean escalating to someone who you think can help or do something productive about it. And that also may be just keeping your boss informed. So if things go sideways, if this person retaliates, that the behaviour doesn’t improve but gets worse, that you have someone on your side to help you if things get really messy.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I think Madison really hit the nail on the head earlier when she said that it’s really all about solutions, because at the end of the day, when you’re dealing with a difficult colleague, the problem is completely out of your control. So I think that’s what I’m going to do when I’m in situations with passive-aggressive colleagues in the future.

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Thanks again to Amy Gallo and Madison Darbyshire for this episode. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really love it if you would leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. And please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. We’re at workingit@ft.com and I’m on Twitter @TaylorNicoleRogers. If you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our new Working It newsletter for some behind-the-scenes extras from the podcast and exclusive work and career stories you won’t see anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks again to the producer Anna Sinfield, executive producer Jo Wheeler, production assistance from Lee Maier and Amalie Sortland and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening and see you soon.

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