The pandemic has afforded many of us an extended opportunity to think and re-think our jobs: Am I in the right one? Can I live out my values at work? Am I doing what I’m good at? Is my work environment a healthy one? How can I best contribute to the world?
We don’t answer these questions in isolation—even those of us who are solo staff or who work remotely. Work is inevitably work with others. So what to do when those others are hard to work with?
Last fall Harvard Business Review Press published Amy Gallo’s Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). It offers strategies for how we work with challenging others. And it looks at how interpersonal stressors can affect one’s own mental health. Gallo suggests numerous practical ways for us workers to care well for ourselves in tough settings.
Gallo wrote the book “to provide a more nuanced, practical, evidence-based approach, one that acknowledges the complexity of unhealthy relationships at work and the immense discomfort they can create“ (7). She wants to help readers develop “interpersonal resilience” (9). She makes a big promise, on which she delivers:
With the advice in this book, you’ll be able to put work conflict in its place, freeing up valuable time and mental capacity for the things that really matter to you. (9)
Gallo lists “eight archetypes,” eight categories of difficult people we might expect to face in the workplace:
- the insecure boss
- the pessimist
- the victim
- the passive-aggressive peer
- the know-it-all
- the tormentor
- the biased coworker
- the political operator
Each of these archetypes gets a chapter, with Gallo admitting there can be overlap between archetypes. She gives background to each archetype, names some “costs” to working with such a person, lists “questions to ask yourself” (this inward turn is hard but needed), and ends with “tactics to try.” For those working with “the pessimist,” for example, she suggests you “reframe cynicism as a gift” (77) and “give them a role to play” (78), but that you also “help them understand when their pessimism helps and when it hurts” (80). Toward the end of each chapter Gallo gives a list of “phrases to use,” which I think was one of the best parts of the book.
As practical as Gallo is, I benefited from the time she spent in the first two chapters laying the groundwork for navigating difficult relationships. I agree it is true, after all, that “you’re better off trying to create a workable situation with your colleague now than hoping things will improve if they leave” (238). So how to make it workable? Why bother? Gallo’s early chapters talk not only about why work relationships are worth investing in; she also suggests the idea of actually making friends with your co-workers! And she details how relational stress impacts the brain in a way that really motivated me to keep reading.
The final chapters are great, too. Having run through the archetypes, there are still lingering questions. Gallo addresses them all, and well: Should I just quit? How can I stay in a sustainable way? Is there someone I can escalate this to? How do I take care of myself? Gallo suggests these two powerful mantras: “It’s OK to feel hurt” and, “Who I am is not shaped by this person’s beliefs” (247). I found the last one especially affirming.
I really appreciated this book. It comes at a great time for a lot of us, and Gallo’s years of experience and passion show. Getting Along is accessible and practical, as well as backed up by research and lots of interpersonal interactions across industries.
I also thought Gallo does a good job of thinking inclusively. Early on she notes, “Not everyone experiences the workplace in the same way—and particular groups are often the targets of incivility to a disproportionate degree” (8). Throughout the archetypes she uses lenses of racism and sexism and other -isms to analyze difficult interactions. It feels like this level of analysis is often missing in self-help or workplace productivity books.
If I have a critique or two of this book, it’s that—based on the title and book description—I expected to see more writing on how to address a co-worker who has a distinct mental health issue. This would probably make the book much longer, but what if your boss actually is a narcissist? Gallo jumps right in on this possibility in the “know-it-all” chapter (starting on p. 118), but I worry she might have too quickly dismissed a reality some folks face, even if she’s right that we shouldn’t be armchair psychologists and even if “pathological narcissism” is rare. Or, to take another archetype, what if your “pessimistic” co-worker is (also) clinically depressed or has an anxiety disorder? Should that shape how you interact with them? If so, how? Are you on the hook to try to get them help? Do you need to be more careful about how you word things? Or not?
Finally, I wonder if readers who are in a persistently (or even occasionally) abusive work environment might need to look elsewhere for help on how to navigate their toxic environment. Gallo does much to help readers work toward health, and I think (I hope!) what she offers will cover the vast majority of workplace personality difficulties. But I can call to mind settings where something like a more trauma-based lens might be needed to help the worker navigate their setting. How to respond, in other words, when you believe you are being abused at work—physically, emotionally, sexually, or psychologically? To be fair, Gallo’s chapter on “the biased co-worker” offers an in-depth response to discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace, although I think the chapter on “the tormentor” could have covered abuse dynamics more fully.
I don’t mean these final comments to take away from how truly affirming, helpful, and empowering Getting Along is. I appreciate how an author of a book like this may be putting themselves out there. And it seemed clear to me that Gallo has heard about, coached people through, and lived through more than a fair share of workplace conflict and difficulty. That she shares her hard-earned wisdom in such an engaging book is a gift to anyone who would read it.
Thanks to Harvard Business Review Press for sending the review copy, which did not (at least not consciously) affect how I reviewed the book.