AMY GALLO: Olivia’s a mid-level sales executive at a big company. Part of her job is to facilitate communication and cooperation between her former boss and the sales team. Olivia remembers the experience of working under this woman as being an overall positive one. She assigned her meaningful projects, set high expectations, and gave her enough coaching and encouragement to meet them.
OLIVIA: But she would also need to be like the smartest person in the room and the most well-informed person in the room. And so for me, it was mostly OK because I don’t need to be the best and brightest always. I was comfortable playing my role. She’s my manager. She’s very, very talented at her work so I was happy to let her kind of take the lead.
AMY GALLO: But now that she’s been promoted, she’s been leaving Olivia out. Like, by hoarding information to appear powerful and undermining her by not inviting her to meetings about projects she’s involved in. These are common behaviors of a political operator. Someone who, if you are not careful, will push their career forward at the expense of yours.
I’m Amy Gallo and this is Getting Along, a series where I help a guest and you and everyone else listening learn to work with anyone, even difficult people. By difficult, I mean rude, unprofessional, or hostile, bad behavior that wears us down. No one should have to grin and bear it. Change is possible. But the answer isn’t to suppress our emotions or hope the problem person leaves. Neither is retaliating or shaming them. These are lessons I’ve picked up from being a career coach, studying conflict, and spending the past couple years reading about behavioral science and interviewing researchers for a book. It’s also called Getting Along.
Tending to our toughest work relationships is worth the trouble. After all, they loom large in our lives and have a disproportionate impact on our experiences. The path to improving them starts with understanding why certain types of difficult people act the way they do. Then using tactics and phrases to match that type. Little by little, you can build a functional relationship, for the sake of your sanity and career. Across the series, we’ll cover how to put yourself in a productive mindset, model the behavior you want to see, and hold people accountable when they’ve promised a change. We’ll also acknowledge that we can’t force anyone to change. All we can do is nudge them to be a little less insecure or pessimistic or whatever their issue is. Note that every guest is using a pseudonym so that they can speak more candidly about their situation. All right, back to Olivia. At first, she tried to brush off her former boss’s behavior as a quirk.
OLIVIA: I did just kind of let it go because some people really do like the spotlight and need to feel the most important for their ego and things. And that’s just not important to me. It’s much more important that the team looks successful and that the work gets done, and politicking is not my favorite aspect of working in a large corporation. So, I was kind of like, eh, it’s fine. As long as my manager thinks I’m doing a good job and it’s reflected in my performance reviews and in my salary increases, it’s fine.
AMY GALLO: Now that she’s trying to be promoted though, she’s concerned that the office politics this person is playing might cause her new manager to question if she really is doing a good job, which is why she came to me for advice on improving their relationship.
So, Olivia, what’s the nature of the problem between you at this moment?
OLIVIA: I think when she needs me to be involved, things are good, and we are collaborative and get along well. I think sometimes she wants to be most important or have the more information, so sometimes she’ll just kind of go above me or not include me on emails or meetings. And then it’s hard for me to act as that liaison between her team and the rest of it when I kind of don’t know what’s going on officially. And then there are some moments too where now that she’s not my manager and I’m more of this partner, she will also kind of be mean and give me very direct instructions.
An example from this past week is I scheduled a meeting for input later this summer on a big project. I checked everyone’s calendars, it looked like people were available and she replies back like, “Need you to move this meeting. We’re all out of town.” And I was kind of like, OK, I’m happy to move it, but you could have said, “Hey, please move it. My calendar was not blocked like it should have been.” It’s just these side comments of trying to be a little bit domineering.
AMY GALLO: Right. Did she send that email, CC’ing everyone else? Or was it just to you?
OLIVIA: No, with everyone else on copy.
AMY GALLO: Right, right.
OLIVIA: So, yeah, it makes me look like I didn’t do a good job of checking the calendars or scheduling at an appropriate time.
AMY GALLO: Right. Is she typically short in emails like that?
OLIVIA: Yes, but there’s also plenty of examples where she includes lots of emojis or rah-rah kind of comments.
AMY GALLO: Right. I asked that because I have a colleague who’s very short in all her emails, and I just think of her as someone who’s efficient. And it doesn’t always land great with me, but I also recognize it’s just her style. But it sounds like this person sends short, curt emails like that one, but also ones that aren’t as short. Is that right?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. What’s another example of the behavior that’s problematic for you?
OLIVIA: Yep. There’s a big project in which they’re asking for incremental funding to support. And because it’s high level and she’s above me, she sometimes talks directly to the VPs above. But then I was in a meeting last week where they were trying to get approval for one aspect, and the VPs were like, “I’m not sure what the money is being spent on. It’s not clear. So, I don’t want to approve this extra part of it when I don’t really understand the base plan.” And that would’ve been a great opportunity for me to say like, “Hey, let me explain exactly what it is” because that should be my role, but I’ve been left out of a lot of those conversations and emails. And so in a meeting where I could’ve had a lot of impact and value, I was just a spectator.
AMY GALLO: So, you didn’t have the information you needed to speak up even though that would’ve been expected of you in your role?
OLIVIA: It would’ve been expected of me in my role, and it would’ve been a value add.
AMY GALLO: Right. Because you could have helped get the approval for the funding. So, what ended up happening in that meeting?
OLIVIA: So, they didn’t agree on the meeting, and emotions ran a little bit high. And then it came out later via an email, again that I wasn’t included on, that they did approve it. So, the VPs worked it in the background and sent it directly to her without including me.
AMY GALLO: How did you find out it had been approved?
OLIVIA: In my weekly meeting with the team, I was kind of asking for a follow up because I wanted to share my perspective of like, “Hey, something’s going on in the background where the VPs don’t feel like they have the information.” So, trying to start the discussion of like, “Do we need to all be included? What’s the missing link?” And try to open it up as a forum. And they’re like, “Oh no, it got approved. Let me forward it to you.”
AMY GALLO: Oh, wow.
OLIVIA: And I’m like, “OK.”
AMY GALLO: Right. Right. Were you the only one in the room who didn’t know?
AMY GALLO: Interesting. OK. And I guess that’s another question is, do you see this colleague of yours exhibit the same behavior toward others in terms of cutting them out or being abrupt, or does it feel like it’s specifically to you?
OLIVIA: I think she does it to other people, but it’s because we work so closely when she was my manager and then now in this new position, it just seems like it happens most frequently and most acutely with me.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, that makes sense. OK. So, you mentioned you want a good working relationship with her. It sounds like you don’t want her to stand in the way of you getting promoted. What else would you say your goal is with this relationship?
OLIVIA: I also see it as an opportunity of practicing with the superstars on the team. Whatever team I join, what other organizations, I think there will probably always be examples of people that are trying to be number one always, and so really how to manage that or work with them and create more of a team mentality.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. I love that because I do think dealing with your most difficult colleague or the one who’s closest to you who’s causing issues for you does help you learn how to navigate all sorts of relationships.
OLIVIA: Yes, for sure.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, and I will say it’s very tempting in these situations to figure out who’s to blame. And you and I could sit here and say, she is completely to blame; and I’m sure that would feel great, but the problem with that is we don’t have control over her. You’re not going to force her to behave differently. I have obviously no control over her. So, what we have to figure out is what role are you playing in this dynamic and what role can you play in creating a more healthy dynamic.
And so, the very first thing, let’s talk about office politics for a moment because I’m getting the sense, and correct me if I’m wrong, I mean you’ve said this, you’re just not a political person. You’re happy to let someone else shine. You’re not sort of putting your ego out there. I’m hearing that loud and clear, right? You’re nodding, but is that right?
OLIVIA: Yes. Yeah, that’s correct.
AMY GALLO: Good. Good. Good. Good.
OLIVIA: I agree.
AMY GALLO: So, I think one of the things to think about when you’re dealing with a political operator, one of the questions to ask yourself is, is there part of their behavior that I either admire or that I may even be jealous of? Is she effective? I mean, sounds like she’s gotten this promotion. Sounds like she’s pretty well respected, the VPs are going to her or are willing to listen to her. Are there aspects of the way she sort of plays the politics game that you would like to emulate?
OLIVIA: Oh, for sure. I mean, she’s extremely talented and just good at her job, and she’s extremely confident and whenever someone asks for her opinion, very decisive. Those are all qualities that I know I need to work on and would like to be better at. And then the skillful way she navigates all of the backwaters and uses influence and her connections and the right timed insight has made her a total asset. And so, I do really appreciate that without maybe the downside of making team members feel excluded or not letting them play their full position.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Playing office politics is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of us have negative feelings about it, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re doing it at the detriment of others. So, you’re doing it in a way that hinders their career, makes them look bad. I mean, that’s sort of where the know-it-all behavior comes in, right? It sounds like she really wants to be the person who has all of the information, all of the knowledge, the sort of hub of these VPs, your team, her team. And that can be an effective role to play as long as you’re doing it while lifting others up. The problem is when she’s trying to outshine or trying to make others look bad. So, that’s one thing I want to sort keep in mind is, are there ways that you could learn from her, what she’s doing that you would want to emulate in some way? And that’s obviously not going to necessarily change the dynamic, but she may gain some respect for you if she sees you being a little more politically savvy. Obviously, it’s something she values. So, if there’s ways in which you can play the game a little bit in an effort to help everyone, not to outshine her not to compete with her, my sense is given that how ego defensive she is, that she would really be sensitive to competition and might sort of amp up her behavior if you were to be seen as competing with her. But are there ways you can play the game, bring in VPs, have some of those back-channel conversations which aren’t always bad, but in a way that helps the team and maybe even includes her, right?
That’s the other thing: I think oftentimes when we’re dealing with people who are exhibiting these difficult behaviors is, can we model the behavior we want them to actually exhibit? So, including her in these and say, “Hey, I was going to go talk to this VP about funding for this. Do you want to join me?” Showing her, I want you to be my partner in this, and ideally, she then reciprocates the same. How does that sound as a tactic? Is that something you could try? Can you imagine doing that?
OLIVIA: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it before as a way for her to see me and respect also that I can do it and get it done. I kind of felt like we had a dichotomy of like, she always does it this way, I’m going to do it this way. And now I kind of see the value of, maybe I can creep a little bit more towards the middle.
AMY GALLO: And hopefully she would do the same in an ideal situation. Now, I’m sure there are people listening going, she’ll never do that. And you may even be thinking, why would I trust this woman who leaves me out of meetings, who’s rude to me in front of all of my colleagues? I think it’s less about trust and more about experimenting. So, what can you actually do? Could you try modeling some of the behavior and see how she responds? And really setting up, OK, I’m going to do that for a week. I’m going to do that for two weeks and see what kind of response I get. The dichotomy you’re talking about too of, She does it this way; I do it this way — that I think can be really dangerous because we start to polarize like, She’s bad, she’s a political operator. I’m collaborative. I’m easy to get along with. And then we start to interpret everything they do in that polarization or in that dichotomy, right? It’s the confirmation bias. More proof that she’s bad, more proof that she’s a political operator. But I would challenge yourself to see, Are there ways I could be more like her and sort of draw her closer to the middle so that we’re in it together?
OLIVIA: I think that’s so true, because she definitely has moments where she is great and a true team member and then other times where I feel like she probably stresses and falls back on some of these other behaviors. And I’ve been trying to think these last couple weeks that she’s new in her job with a promotion. And now that she’s working with a client, she’s a little bit further removed from the core functions that the team that I work on. And so, she’s probably trying to do what she’s best at and feel familiar and kind of exert that power that she’s used to having while trying to make a good impression.
AMY GALLO: So, what you just said, you’re giving her a lot of empathy. You’re putting yourself in her shoes, you’re recognizing the pressures she’s under. Have you mentioned any of that to her? Is that the kind of conversation you might have with her?
OLIVIA: I have tried a little bit this week. She’s always quick to change the subject. And I think it’s partially because I don’t think she wants to admit that she’s struggling. And then I think the other part is since she’s above me because she was previously my manager, she quickly wants to turn it on me like, “How’s your promotion experience going? How’s this team doing?” that kind of stuff and really tries to turn it back on me. So, what I had said to her is, like, we were both working at night and I saw that she was online and we started Slacking and was kind of like, “I heard things have been really intense in your new job. How are things going? Checking in.” And she’s like, “Yeah, we’re trying to build the plane as we go. It seems impossible to keep everyone on the same page.” And then I was like, “That is a really hard situation to be in. How are you doing with it emotionally?” And she’s like, “Oh, it’ll be fine. Just working it out. What’s up with you?” You kind of get close to it and then immediately kind of shuts down and switches.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. And that’s the ego defensiveness, right? It’s easy to feel that as rejection, but I think you can recognize that as her trying to protect herself. And that’s not a bad thing to protect yourself; it just doesn’t feel great when you’re trying to make a connection. But you are part of that, empathizing with her, recognizing the pressure she’s under. You can feel proud of having done that. And I think whether or not she reacts in the moment, she feels that. But you’re reminding me because you mentioned this conversation happening on Slack. Do you have any in-person interactions with her now, or are all entirely remote?
OLIVIA: We work in different cities. And so, while we are in video camera and stuff, yeah, there’s not, like, the same opportunity to kind of be in-person hallway kind of chat, go out for a drink or something.
AMY GALLO: Yep. OK. And had you worked in the same city before when she managed you?
OLIVIA: Yeah. And we came to the office, like, three-ish days a week.
AMY GALLO: Got it. OK.
OLIVIA: So, lots of in-person time.
AMY GALLO: And that’s helpful to know too because some of her curtness or some her sort of brusque behavior may also just be about the medium in which you’re interacting. Slack, email, even video call, it’s much harder for us to connect as humans. And someone who’s not naturally empathetic, I wouldn’t necessarily diagnose her as that. But if you’re not naturally empathetic, it’s hard to express empathy and care and compassion especially if you’re also under a lot of pressure and worried about yourself and willing to sort of throw others under the bus in order to get what you want for your career.
OLIVIA: So, in that kind of Slack conversation where I was trying to express empathy and ask her how she’s doing and she tried to pivot the conversation away from herself, is there a way I could have used that opportunity to kind of say like, “Hey, I know you’re under a lot of stress but also we need to fix our own issue”? I knew that’s what I was trying to get at in the moment, but I wasn’t sure how to make that hard pivot when she didn’t want to talk about it either.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, well I think you made the right choice not to bring it up then, for two reasons. One is I think if you had expressed empathy and then said, “Hey, I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but we still need to collaborate,” it would’ve looked as if your empathy was a little bit manipulative, right? Like, I’m just giving you empathy because I want you to be in a better working relationship with me. The second reason is it’s just so hard to bring up that stuff on Slack. You don’t have the nuance of her facial expression, her body language. You wouldn’t be able to pick up on a lot of things that you really need to. So, I think it was the right choice then. However, I do think the instinct to ask her, “What’s going on with us?” or, “Why are you leaving me out of meetings?” or even to say, “Success here is going to depend on us collaborating, and I don’t quite feel like we’ve gotten off on the right foot in this new relationship. What’s your view on that?” I think those are all really helpful things to bring up, but I would try to do that by phone or by video chat because I think doing it just in text, especially given the examples you’ve given so far of how she’s behaved on Slack or email, make me think that’s not going to be a very fruitful conversation.
The only thing I would’ve said in that conversation you had with her is when she deflected it and said, “How are you doing?” and clearly didn’t want to talk, I might have ended that conversation by just saying, “Hey, if you ever want to chat about the pressures you’re under, I’m here to do that.” Right? Just sort of making sure it was clear that you were there to also help her and that you are interested in a collaborative interaction rather than one that’s combative.
OLIVIA: That’s good advice.
AMY GALLO: So, one observation I also want to make, and I think this might be clear to you, but that it does seem like it’s not an all-negative relationship, that it’s what researchers call ambivalent relationship or even like almost a frenemy would be the sort of colloquial. Would you characterize the relationship that way?
OLIVIA: Yeah, I would say we are good friends when things are going well, and I feel she really does have my best interests at heart and cares about me as a person. We’ve hung out outside of work many times. When things are hard in the office, that then makes me feel like we are actually friends. And so, yeah. It adds a layer of complication because, I’m like, I know in a lot of ways she does care about me, and so it’s like, how do I raise this issue because I don’t want her to feel bad? But it has to be obvious to her too, I would think.
AMY GALLO: What do you think she thinks of the situation? Do you think she thinks, Well no, we’re friends; there’s no issue here, or do you think she’s recognizing what’s happening?
OLIVIA: I think she probably thinks, Oh, it’s just a part of doing business. We’re just moving and grooving and keeping things moving along. I think I take it more personally and I don’t think she necessarily intends it, but I think she has to be somewhat aware of the consequences or how it plays out.
AMY GALLO: Right. It’ll be interesting to find out if she’s picking up on that. Part of me of course wants to bring her into this conversation right now and say, “What’s going on? How are you seeing this?” Because I imagine she would say things that would surprise us both about why she’s behaving the way she is, what she makes of her behavior. And that may be it, is that she may think leaving you out of meetings and having these back-channel conversations is effective, and she’s not thinking about the negative consequences for you. Or she may be thinking she’s sparing you: I’m leaving Olivia off this meeting because she’s in this new role and overwhelmed, and she doesn’t need to be there. Do you think that’s possible?
OLIVIA: Yeah, I think that’s possible. I think she’s just like, What’s the most direct way of getting it done? I want to talk to the decision maker, influence whoever I need to influence. I think to your earlier point, if she doesn’t view me as being as skilled in politics or being able to influence people in the same way, I’m just ancillary.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. But one of the things that when someone moves from being a direct report to a peer, one of the pieces of advice that I find really helpful is to try to reset the relationship. So, she sees you as someone junior, less experienced, maybe even as a mentee, someone who she’s helping develop. But now you’ve elevated to being her peer and someone she really needs, she may not have made that mental shift in the same way that you have. When you took on this new role and she moved into her new role, was there any discussion between you two of how you should interact or how things might change?
OLIVIA: I tried to have the conversation of, you know, “In this new role, what are your preferred methods of communication? We used to Slack all the time in our normal day to day, do you still want to do that, or is your day look different and you would rather have more scheduled time or scheduled meetings? Or something urgent is happening, how would you like to handle it?” And she basically said, “I don’t know yet. I don’t know my job and I can’t answer that.” But also kind of didn’t, I think, answered for herself but didn’t necessarily recognize that I was trying to, I think to your point, reset the relationship a little bit of like, Hey, we’re in new roles now. How do we reset that? So, that’s a good point. Maybe I should circle back and try again.
AMY GALLO: Could you imagine having a conversation with her where you said, “I just want to touch base about how we’re working together now that it’s been a few months and there’s a few things I want to share with you and I’d love to hear from you about how you think it’s working”? Is that a conversation you’d feel willing to have?
OLIVIA: Yeah, I think that’s probably a needed conversation. Yeah.
AMY GALLO: I think this direct conversation of giving her feedback, we’re going to talk about it as if it’s super easy to do, but let’s just acknowledge that this is really hard. But I think there’s two things you’d want to do in that conversation. One, as we’re talking about, reset the relationship, is saying, “We’ve been in this new configuration for a few months. I just want to talk about how things are going and how things could be better. I want to hear from you what your perspective is.” So, it’s meant to be a real collaborative conversation. If you feel open to it and willing, I think it’s also an opportunity to give her some feedback. And I’m going to pause there and just say, the idea of giving her feedback, how does that land for you? Are you comfortable with that?
OLIVIA: On paper, yes. I think when it’s face to face or we’re in a video chat and saying, “Hey, you’re really direct on email and CC’d everyone about a calendar invite,” it also feels kind of silly or petty to bring up, so I also struggle with that – of, like… Especially when some time has passed and you’re less in the moment or the project worked out eventually, I feel kind of hard circling back and bringing it back up even though it would help future —
AMY GALLO: Yeah, and it is hard to bring up things when you’re like, one, it’s just feels like, Is this really about me? I think as we were talking about earlier, you have to get out of the like, Whose fault is this? The reality is, the dynamic between you clearly isn’t as healthy as it could be or as it is in other circumstances. I think that’s something to really lean on. If you had no positive interactions with her, we would be strategizing it in a very different way. But I think you can give her feedback that starts with, “We work really well together. I feel like you have respect from me. I’ve learned so much from you. I admire the way you do X, Y, and Z.” Or, “here’s something I learned from you that I’ve really been able to use in my current role.” I’m a big fan of genuine flattery, especially for someone who’s as ego defensive as she sounds. It helps to calm that reaction. And then I think you can say, “There’s also been moments that I’ve struggled in our interactions, and I know some of this might be me, but I just want to share it with you.” And one example, and I’m not saying this would necessarily be the example, but you can say, “When you responded to me about the calendar invite and you all being out of town, it felt brusque, and the story I was telling myself was that you weren’t concerned about how it might make me look to everyone else. How did you see it?” Right? And then you sort of get her to start talking, and she might say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was in a rush. I was texting you from the grocery store while I was trying to get eight things in my cart.” Who knows what her reaction will be, but it shows her that you’re paying attention to how she’s treating you and you want to be treated differently. So, I’m not saying that feedback conversation’s going to go well and she’ll go say, “Oh my gosh, you’re so right.” But what you’ve succeeded in doing no matter how she reacts is telling her, I’m paying attention to how you treat me, and it’s important that I feel treated with respect. Do you think that’s a kind of conversation you might be able to have?
OLIVIA: Yeah. I really like the way you framed that too, of the story I was telling myself about it. I think that will help a lot. What if she goes into the old kind of manager giving feedback role when the conversation is meant to reset?
AMY GALLO: Yeah, that’s why I think having the reset conversation is important before you give her feedback so you don’t sort of fall back into that. I would sort give her room to do that. That might be a normal reaction. I think the minute you start pushing back on her and that kind of stuff, things are going to feel even more tense. So, I would give her room and say, “That’s helpful feedback,” assuming it is, right? “I really want to focus on how we now work together as peers.” Just sort trying to reframe it. And I would find ways to say, “Well, now that we’re peers…” — I would use that language as much as possible.
If you start to have an emotional reaction, Oh my gosh, she’s treating me like I’m her direct report. Why is she not respecting me? I would allow yourself to have that emotional reaction, but sort of try to give it a moment before you respond. I think sort of introducing resistance to her in that conversation will make things worse. And I don’t want you to be a doormat. I don’t want you to sit there and take like, if she’s like, “Well you did this and you did this” and you go, “Oh, thank you for the feedback,” right? I think you can say, “Wow, I didn’t know you felt this way. I need some time to think about that. What I really want to focus on now is how do we interact as peers.” And if there’s something she says you could do differently that you genuinely feel you could do differently, say it, right? That’s incredible modeling to say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that thing I was doing was causing you these problems. That’s an easy thing for me to fix. Happy to do it.”
OLIVIA: Oh, yeah.
AMY GALLO: Right? Because that also breaks the polarization of like… Because I’m guessing in her head she’s thinking, Who’s to blame? Who’s to blame? because that’s what most of us do. You know have to sort give her that room to have that reaction but then model to her, No, no, we’re in this together. One of the things I talk about in the book that is so helpful to me when I’m dealing with someone I’m having a challenge with, instead of seeing me and that other person at sort of opposite ends of a tug of war, which is very easy – that’s my instinct: It’s me against them, and I have to win, and I have to pull harder, and I’m going to pull them on the ground – is to think about, me and them sitting at a table, there’s a problem we need to solve together. That problem might be our relationship. That problem might be getting funding for this project. That problem might be the dynamic between us when things are stressful. Whatever that is, that mental image of seeing us on the same side of the table I think can be really helpful.
OLIVIA: All right. So, it sounds like I need to have both like a reset conversation with her and maybe a feedback conversation.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, I think that’s right. I’m talking about sort of two separate conversations that might happen at the same time or they might be separate at separate times. Let me just of summarize again. The reset conversation is, “We’ve been working for a few months together in this new configuration or our new dynamic. I just want to check in with you, see how you think it’s going. I want to share a little bit about how I think it’s going, and I want to talk about how we can work better together.” And I think really you start by asking her questions. I think sometimes we make so many assumptions about how someone thinks and feels that we forget to ask them what’s actually going on. So, you see that as a collaborative conversation.
Assuming that goes well in the moment, I think you can also say, “You know, I’m glad we’re talking about this” — and this is the feedback conversation — “because I’ve noticed that it feels like sometimes we aren’t interacting as well as we could.” And for example, you can bring up the sort of harsh reaction to the invite or being left out of a meeting. I think that’s another one that might be a helpful example, and say, “This was the situation. This is what you did. This was the impact on me. This is the story I’m telling myself about that. I’m sure it’s not true. What’s your take?” And what I just described is often called the situation, behavior, impact framework. So, you describe the situation, the behavior she’s exhibiting that’s problematic for you or causing you issues and then discuss the impact. And then the story I’m telling myself about this is helpful because it makes it clear you’re not saying, this is the truth. You’re saying, This is my perspective. What’s your perspective? Is that clearer?
OLIVIA: Yeah, that helps a lot.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Do you feel up for having both those conversations? I know I keep asking that, but I just want to make sure the advice I’m giving you is actually useful and it’s something you can use.
OLIVIA: Yeah, of course. I mean, I’m picking up so many nuggets on how to phrase and position stuff. I love saying, “I’m so lucky that we’re working together, and I really do like this, and I’m glad we’re in it together. If anyone can figure it out, it’s us,” and really kind of shifting into that positive collaborative opening, because that’s something I’m worried about, getting her on the defensive and just not being able to crawl back out of that.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, let’s talk about that for a moment because there’s a very good chance based on what you’ve said about her that she would get defensive and say, “I was just in a rush. Why would you take that so personally?” Or, “That wasn’t about you.” And you can say, “Oh that’s good to know. I was taking it that way. It’d be helpful in the future if you either didn’t CC everyone or you just took a little more time with the email just because everyone else saw that as well. I’m very concerned about my reputation with this team. I don’t want people to think that I was not thoughtful about when to schedule this meeting.”
OLIVIA: Oh, that’s really good. Yeah, that’s really good.
AMY GALLO: I’m glad. One other thought just came to mind. Before you have these sit-down conversations with her – and again, I highly encourage doing it face to face. It sounds like you’re in different cities, so that I’ll be challenging. But even if when she maybe visits your office, you visit hers… if you can have this conversation face to face, it generally goes much better. We tend to have more empathy for someone when we can look them in the eyes, even more so in person than on video. But if that’s not possible, you can do a phone call. You can do a video call. But one other thing you might try – I wonder if there’s, in response to certain things, like being left off of a meeting, for example, is what if you just sent her a very straightforward Slack that said, “Oh, I saw that you all met. Next time, can you please include me in that meeting?” If you just made the direct request, how do you think that would go over?
OLIVIA: I think she’d be like, “OK, sure. But I was just trying to keep the meeting small or keep it focused.” I think she would agree to accommodate but then kind of say, “Well yeah, but I don’t know what you’re asking. If it was important for you to be there, I would’ve included you.” And so, I don’t know if it would necessarily translate to the next meeting.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, and it may be that you need to be clear. If you made that request and she said, “Sure, yeah, but you didn’t need to be there.” Or, “I’m trying to keep the meeting small.” And you could just respond, “I appreciate that. For me it’s helpful to be kept in the loop on this because da, da, da, da,” right? “I will need to follow up. I need to keep my team informed. I see that as an important part of my role.” Whatever the reason is, just sort of give that to her. When I was talking before about how we make so many assumptions, she may be thinking, “Olivia’s just trying to insert herself into every meeting,” right? That might be her assumption, and if you make it clear, you have a real reason for why you want to be there. And then what’s helpful about that, when you do get to that feedback conversation, maybe being left out of meetings is one of the behaviors you explained, you say, “I asked you to include me, and you still didn’t include me. And the story I’m telling myself is that you don’t value my input or you’re not hearing me, but what’s really going on?”
OLIVIA: So, say we have good reset, a great feedback conversation, lots of empathy, and then a month or two later something small happens, like the calendar invite. Do I try to set up another call or send a Slack and I’ll be like, “Here’s another example of…” I’m just thinking the bigger things I feel like I might be able to circle back on of like, “Because we talked about this. This is important,” but what to do about some of those small digs?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. I’m so glad you asked this question because this is important. It’s not as if you’re going to have these two conversations, you’re going to reset, she’s going to hear you, and everything’s going to be great. Chances are, she will continue to do some of those behaviors. So, you have a choice to make. Well, one thing I will say, you might end the feedback conversation by saying, “I hope we can keep the channel open. If you have any feedback for me, if I have feedback for you, I’m hoping we’ll continue to have conversations like this.” Assuming it goes well, I think that’s a nice way to end. So, if fast forward two weeks later she leaves you off the invite, as soon as it happens, as close to as when it happens as you can, when you’re calm. So, if you’re worked up, I wouldn’t try to do it right away, but once you’ve had a moment to process and sit with it, maybe pick up the phone, maybe set up a quick video call and just say, “Hey, this is one of those times that I mentioned. Again, this is how I’m viewing it. I know you might not see it the same way, but I wanted to be honest with you about how this landed with me.”
The thing you want to be careful about is that it doesn’t feel like you’re monitoring her behavior and you’re sort of keeping a checklist of like, “Well, you did that. You did that,” because she will get… any of us would get defensive, right? If someone gave me feedback and was like, Can you do this differently? And they’re like, you’re not doing it, you’re not doing it, you’re not doing it, I would be like, Give me a moment people. I’m human here! So, I think you want to not do it every single time and maybe let it pass a few times. But you definitely want to talk about it as quickly as you can soon after it happened and just sort of casually be like, “This is one of those moments I was referring to. I’d love to be included in that meeting.” Not in a gotcha kind of way, like, I caught you doing the thing I told you you were doing, but in like, “This is an example. Could you include me in that meeting?” And trying to keep your voice and your tone very neutral as opposed to sort of “I told you so,” right?
OLIVIA: Yeah. Yeah.
AMY GALLO: Do you have any other questions about what we’ve talked about or how to interact with her? Is there anything else that was on your mind?
OLIVIA: I guess any advice for someone starting out or trying to build some of those political skills in order to maybe gain more respect from her?
AMY GALLO: Yes. So, going back to the beginning of the conversation of, how do you emulate some of what she does; how do you get better at that political operating yourself and do it in a way that feels good to you – I think there’s a couple things.
One, is she may not be the best model because it sounds like she’s doing it in a way that certainly leaves you feeling slightly offended. Who knows if others feel the same way about her? But I would look around and see, are there people who do what she’s doing who play the political game in a way that is beneficial for others? My guess is some of those VPs that you’re interacting with, maybe someone on another team, there’s someone you can identify who actually does a really good job and does it in a way that’s helpful to others, not detrimental or harmful to others. And that’s one of the things I try to do. When I’m trying to build the new skills, I’m like, let me find who’s actually doing it and watch them. And political operating is actually one of the things that is sort of easy to watch because they’re actually having the conversations. Oh, I know she went and spoke to him before the meeting. OK, what happened there? And if it’s someone even you trust, you could even say, “This is a skill I’m trying to build. Do you have any advice for me?” At some point I would like to see you ask her for advice. I just think it’s too loaded at this moment. But at some point, if things get a little bit better, if you have this feedback conversation that goes well, if she starts to change some of her behavior, you might even say, “I recognize you have political skills I do not, and I’d love to learn from you about how to do that.” Talk about calming the ego, right? Now you’ve positioned her as an expert. What I like about that question or that request is it also causes her to reflect on when her behavior is helpful and when it’s not, because if she has to teach someone else how to do it, she’s not going to teach you how to be a jerk. She’ll be focused more on what are the ways that it actually benefits me.
And then again, I’m a huge fan of experiments. I would say try it out. So, if one of the political moves that you think is helpful is having the meeting before the meeting, for example, that’s a common one, try it out. See how it goes. What felt OK for you about it? What felt awkward for you about it? Did it actually help? Did it end up offending others who knew you did have that meeting? Just try it out and see what works and what doesn’t. Is that helpful, Olivia?
OLIVIA: Really helpful. I feel like it’s just, like, the most important career conversation I’ve had.
AMY GALLO: I’m so glad.
OLIVIA: This helps a lot. Yeah.
AMY GALLO: If you want to learn more about how to work with a political operator or otherwise difficult person, you can order my book Getting Along through HBR’s online store, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore. And if you prefer to listen, there’s the audio book I narrated as well.
HBR has put together a toolkit to accompany the book that includes more of these episodes, as well as worksheets and an assessment to help you put the book’s advice into practice. Find the toolkit by going to store.hbr.org and searching “Getting Along.”
Let me know what you think of this series by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, HBR has more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team, and your organization. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates. My co-host, Amy Bernstein, will be back with me for Season 8 starting October 17. I’m Amy Gallo. Thanks for listening.