Getting Along with a Biased Tormentor

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AMY GALLO: 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.

Sherri’s story starts with an email that spiraled into a tirade. Sitting in her office at the hospital where she’s an administrator, she composed what she thought was a straightforward request. She was looking for approval to send a colleague to a conference where that person would do a presentation on a program Sherri had championed. So, she emailed the manager she indirectly reports to, asking if they might be able to cover the travel costs.

SHERRI: I received a response, “Did you follow these steps?” They assumed that I had overstepped my boundary and not went to someone else – I just went straight to them. And that actually wasn’t what I had done.

AMY GALLO: She had followed the steps, she’d gone to the department where the project started, but the person who held the purse strings there said they didn’t have the budget. But because the program benefited patients across the hospital, Sherri figured another department could tap its budget.

SHERRI: Even with that information, instead of clarifying or what have you, I received this really long explanation that involved, “If I were you, I would’ve done this and if you were me, you would’ve done…” It was I felt out of proportion to the question. I responded very abruptly and said, “Thanks, you could have just said no.”

AMY GALLO: And this is all happening over email. Is that right?

SHERRI: Yes, yeah. Honestly, in hindsight, I could see where that could ruffle feathers, but at the time I really did just mean it because I can take no. I’ve heard it all my life, even though I would disagree with it.

AMY GALLO: Sherri doesn’t work in the emergency department or in one of the hospital’s specialty departments. She runs its health and wellness programs. Those programs she says aren’t as well funded as those that treat the sick, so a lot of her job is making requests like this one that advocate for funding and attention.

SHERRI: Oftentimes it feels like a fight. To add to that, I am what we call – there’s always new terms – an underrepresented minority and I’m a woman. Over the years I have had struggles related to that as well. Bias, prejudice, racism and all those things intertwined. I’m in this role to advocate. I grew up in the community and I have a strong passion for the work that I do.

AMY GALLO: Which is why she wanted to celebrate that program’s success — and which is why she found the manager’s long, angry response so discouraging.

SHERRI: I mean, it was just like they went on and on and on and on. I responded and we went back and forth multiple times. It even got to the point where I was stewing so deeply that I printed it out and I read through it and wrote in responses to their responses for myself to see. I wrote in, “That’s an assumption. No, I would not have responded that way because that is way out in the field.” I mean, I was trying to find where in this email, does any of this make sense? It was just a complete rant. Then after that very long exchange, it started to come down to these short phrases with this dot, dot, dot trailing off punctuation, way into the evening. Honestly, by the end of it, there was no clarity, it just ended. Now it’s just business as usual and we’re back to being chummy in the hallway.

AMY GALLO: Oh, interesting. Tell me the nature of your relationship with this person prior to this request for funding.

SHERRI: Prior to it one on one, things were fine and they’re still okay because they have to be for job security. I mean, I always take the high road.

AMY GALLO: So, you’re keeping the peace, but it sounds like there’s quite a bit of tension.

SHERRI: Yeah. For me, there’s tension and I think that’s what bothers me the most. I think I’m the only one who is bothered by it.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, yes. Oh gosh, that is so common. I think when dealing with difficult interactions with colleagues it can often feel like, Wait, is this just me? Am I the only one who sees a problem here? But I want to ask, because you mentioned racism, bias, prejudice. Do you believe that’s an issue here?

SHERRI: I do. I think it’s more on the bias side. I mean we talk about it openly in healthcare because it’s on the table. But I’ve heard commentary more on the side of, Why do we have to focus on one group?

AMY GALLO: From this specific coworker.

SHERRI: This specific coworker, yeah. Or things like, “Everybody’s important,” or they’ll maybe use an example of, “I had X patient in this demographic that is not a minority who had similar issues,” or, “What about people in poverty who are of this demographic?” to make their point that you don’t have to be a person of color, or to say all lives matter. I believe they’ve even said that before in private to get me to commiserate with them on these points.

AMY GALLO: This is a classic microaggression that you’re talking about of just proclaiming or assuming or deciding that there is not systemic bias or prejudice or racism and just denying that experience of your patients or of you. I think a lot of people who commit those microaggressions assume there’s nothing wrong with it. They see it as a point of connection rather than a point of denial.

SHERRI: And since they talk a lot, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. It’s even hard to rebut, for me to try to influence their thinking in a different direction. They own the room most of the time.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Okay, this is interesting because you’ve told me that things are okay except for this one interaction around funding, and yet it sounds like things really aren’t okay.

SHERRI: Yeah. You listen well, thank you.

AMY GALLO: It’s my job, I hope I do. I guess I want to understand when you say things are okay, do you mean you’re just coasting with this person? What do you mean when you say things are just okay?

SHERRI: I guess coasting is the right word. If I was a person who didn’t have any goals or aspirations or wanted to feel appreciated for the good work I do, then I could live like this forever.

AMY GALLO: Okay. I’m sorry to laugh, but–

SHERRI: I know.

AMY GALLO: I’m not a person without goals or aspirations or who doesn’t need to feel appreciated.

SHERRI: That is a revelation, and I can’t even believe I just said that out loud. But that’s what okay means.

AMY GALLO: Got it, okay. I’m just going to tell you that’s not okay.

SHERRI: It’s not, right? Ouch, that stinks.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, it sounds like you feel like this person is in the way of your goals and aspirations, does not make you feel appreciated, maybe even is actively standing in your way. Is that fair to say?

SHERRI: It is fair. You know what Amy, the worst part about it is, I think I’m going to get tearful, that my goals and aspirations aren’t individual. I feel like I’m letting people down. They’re not about me.

AMY GALLO: Right, right. So, this person is standing in the way of you reaching those goals you have for your patients, for your colleagues.

SHERRI: Yeah, I feel like people are waiting for me to make important change and that they’re just watching me fail, which is not what I signed up to do.

AMY GALLO: Right, and it’s not coming from you.

SHERRI: No, it’s not who I am. I’m not a person that would ever sabotage someone else or even bad mouth them or blame them. I’ll just put my head down and do the work.

AMY GALLO: Right, right. Let’s take a deep breath because I mean, the emotion you’re feeling is completely normal. That is what it feels like to be on the end of sabotage. One of the struggles I have with the word microaggressions is that it makes it sound small when actually the impact is actually quite big. And there’s a term that a lot of DEI experts use, and you may know this – it’s called subtle acts of exclusion.

SHERRI: I’ve never heard that one.

AMY GALLO: Which I think is to me a preferable term for microaggressions because it’s an action the person is taking and the end result, whether they intend it or not, is exclusion. It can be a helpful term to get to the gravity and the impact and the cost of these behaviors.

SHERRI: I like that term. It felt like it landed more for me because that’s exactly what I feel. It embodies exactly what I feel.

AMY GALLO: Do you feel comfortable sharing another example of what this person has done? I mean, you used the word sabotage and I’m just curious to hear if there’s another example you can give beyond this really rude email exchange. But is there anything else they do that you can point to that feels sabotaging?

SHERRI: Another example would be, I’ve been working really hard on a strategic initiative – been doing the work for two years on top of my daily duties and it’s not light work. Lots of meetings, subcommittees and it reports up through several chains, out to the board, so on and so forth. We’re putting forth names of who should lead the committee. I say “we,” as in not me putting forth names. I raised the question, “Is there a reason why we’re considering a new leader other than myself who’s been doing the work?” That conversation circled for a while. My coworker and I had a direct conversation about it and behind closed doors, very candid with me. I mean, almost like rallying around me and “Yeah, you go. We got this and I think that makes perfect sense.” I left there feeling really good like, Oh, they have my back. I get a phone call from someone I’ve been very close with for a number of years who said, “Did you know that this has been offered to someone else? I was just wondering because I thought you were doing the work.” I’m like, “Say what?”

AMY GALLO: Yeah, yeah.

SHERRI: Yeah, they selected someone else within 24 hours of our conversation–

AMY GALLO: Wow.

SHERRI: — and has yet to come talk to me about it.

AMY GALLO: Wow. When was that?

SHERRI: It’s only been about a month or so.

AMY GALLO: I have to say, based on what you’re telling me, this person fits two of my least favorite archetypes. The biased coworker and then also what I would term the tormentor, which is someone who acts like a mentor but is actually really sabotaging, to use your word, or just making your life miserable. These labels I use not to diagnose and not to dismiss the person and not even to demonize. I don’t think we should be demonizing these people because ideally we want to have positive or at least neutral relationships with them at work. But I do use the term in a way to help us understand the behavior and to understand the costs of it. Then also to help us come up with some strategies about how can you best work with them.

SHERRI: Yeah, you got to call it like you see it in order to do something.

AMY GALLO: Exactly and someone who’s a tormentor does not mean that you cannot work with them, that you’re done. It’s just, Okay, we see what the behavior is, let’s think a little bit about why this person behaves the way they do. Then, what strategies or tactics can you use to try to make it a more positive interaction? It’s tricky with the biased behavior because it’s not really on you as the target of that behavior to fix it. And yet I also want to make sure you have some tools and strategies to work with this person because it sounds like your work is quite interdependent.

SHERRI: Exactly.

AMY GALLO: Tell me, what is your goal for your relationship with this person, Sherri? What would success look like for you?

SHERRI: To be able to communicate in a way that I don’t provoke defensiveness at the outset, because I know I can’t change them, so I need a strategy for me. I’m not above managing myself and regulating how I communicate, but there’s something about me that… I don’t know if I intimidate, I don’t know what it is. They receive me that way. I don’t know if I come in too hot, whatever it is. But I need to figure out how do I approach them in a way that they hear me because I need to be able to move forward with my goals and I’m not being received.

AMY GALLO: I wouldn’t take too much of that on yourself in terms of what you’re actually doing that’s causing that. I think it’s fair to realize that there’s something going on with them where they feel threatened or they feel the need to put you down or they feel the need to sabotage you. Now the question is, is there a way to neutralize that? I think with someone who does fall into this tormentor archetype or even skirts it, there is a need to amp down the competition, to try to get them to be less aggressive and less intent on actually making your life miserable or making you look bad. I would venture to say this person, whether consciously or not, is competing with you. I think the question is how to approach the relationship, your interactions with this person in a way that doesn’t give into that competition without making you look bad. What I really don’t want to happen is for you to undermine yourself or to downplay your successes or your talents just to make this person feel comfortable.

SHERRI: Agreed. I don’t want to shrink.

AMY GALLO: Yes, no shrinking. Let’s not do any shrinking. But are there ways to make this person feel like you are more on their side so they’re not reacting in this way?

SHERRI: I think one thing I will have to do is less email communication. That’s the norm in our organization, is to use email. However, with this person, I will probably have to have more face to face conversations for the obvious reasons. It’s easier to interpret tone, all of those things. I think that would serve me better, especially when I’m asking for resources or advocating, I need to do that in a more formal way, in person and not make assumptions.

AMY GALLO: I think one of the things that could help is to be really clear about your intention. Before you make a request, before you ask them for something, before you have an interaction that might be tense, is to be very clear about what your intention is. “My intention here is to help this department get the funding they need because X, Y, and Z,” or, “My intention here is for us to be on the same page because I think we’re stronger when we’re working together.” Because it sounds like that email exchange, there was a lot that they were accusing you of in terms of what your intention was that was not truly the case.

SHERRI: Yes. I have a question though.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, please.

SHERRI: I personally had no problem with the follow up, this-is-what-we-talked about email. With someone who’s a tormentor, is it safe to send that email after you have the face to face or will they get defensive? Should you just use that judiciously?

AMY GALLO: Well, I’m a big fan of that with anyone, especially with anyone who fits any archetype of difficult person because I do think it’s helpful to have the documentation. Not only for you, but then also to check especially someone who’s, let’s be honest, to your face saying one thing and then doing another if we think about that leadership role. So, it’s helpful to do that. Now what I think you need to be careful of is that again, you’re not trying to trigger the competition between you. Is there a way to phrase the email so it doesn’t look like you’re documenting the conversation? It’s just saying, “Thanks so much for the conversation. I’m so glad I have your support for this leadership role. It really means a lot to me.” Simple.

SHERRI: Not like, “At 12:02 we discussed the following,” and bullet point it out.

AMY GALLO: That’s right. Although, when things go really south, I do actually encourage that. But I think for now, I think when you’re trying to rebuild a little trust with this person, that it can be helpful to just confirm you’re on the same page. Document what you said, what’s been discussed, but in a way that’s like, We’re in this together. Again, I don’t want you to do this with the intention of making this other person comfortable. I think this is a strategic move for you to get what you need. That I don’t want it to be focused on accommodating this person’s real inadequacies and aggressions, but I want it to be focused on, What does Sherri need from this interaction and how does she best get that? There is some need to build a little trust with this person, accepting that this is not a full trust relationship.

SHERRI: And that’s to be expected. It’s just when you move over in the sabotage, it’s like, Whoa, back it up.

AMY GALLO: Exactly, exactly. Actually yes, let’s talk about the sabotage for a minute because I do think this is behavior we do want really to stop. I’m curious what it would feel like to you or what it would sound like to you to address the fact that this person said you were right for this leadership role, encouraged you to go for it, and then chose someone else.

SHERRI: I’ve thought about it to some degree and what I want to tell them is that, “You don’t have to agree with me or give in to what I put forth. I like to be heard and reasoned with and we can bat it back and forth. I may in fact not be bringing forward a good proposal. If you say yes to everything I say, then that’s probably not good leadership. I mean, we’ve got to be able to bounce things off of each other. That’s how this works. But just outright going another direction without communication, I was disappointed.” I thought I was angry. I was angry initially, but it transitioned to disappointment. I was disappointed.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. What about just asking the question of, “We had this conversation, I thought I had your support for taking on that role. What happened?”

SHERRI: At the moment, I don’t feel safe with them. But that would be a great question if it was a safe person, which I do have several leaders that I could ask that question and they would answer it. This person, I don’t know what they would say and if it would even be the truth. I guess I’m apathetic. It’s like, Why bother, is what I really am thinking if I’m being honest, because it’s just probably going to be some made up story.

AMY GALLO: Right. Well, okay if we don’t trust them to be direct or honest, the other option which is I think what you were just speaking to, is to explain how it made you feel. I think part of the issue is that this happens a lot with bias and it happens a lot with tormentor, is that when we assign intention to the other person, that becomes the question. Oh, I didn’t mean to do this. Then you get a big discussion about what they mean. So, setting that up is saying, “I know this wasn’t your intention, but having that conversation, then having you make another decision, I was disappointed by that.” You’re not inviting what your intention is or not, you’re just saying, “Here was my reaction.” That’s a little more difficult for that person to disagree with because it’s your emotion.

SHERRI: I love that. So, then they have to speak to the impact.

AMY GALLO: Exactly, exactly. You stay away from what they actually did and talk more about how it landed with you.

SHERRI: Yeah, that’s gold. I love that.

AMY GALLO: I mean, and I think that’s true with the bias. I think about this person’s comments about all lives matter or all people are important and instead of saying, “That’s racist,” which let’s be fair, I agree that is, but you can say, “I know it’s not your intention, but when I hear that, I hear you dismissing the experience of people of color. I know that’s not your intention, but that’s how I hear it.” Again, it takes it out of, What did this person intend to do, and more, Let me reflect to you how you sound. Let me reflect to you how that might be heard by others. Again, it’s not your responsibility to do that. I’m giving you a little bit of language to possibly use when and if you do decide to address those comments. You don’t have to, but if you wanted to, I think that might be a way to do it.

SHERRI: Can I just tell you something? I appreciate you telling me it’s not my responsibility because I think I walk through life feeling like it’s my responsibility to do a lot of these things, which is a heavy load to carry. I think you might be one of the first people that’s ever told me it’s not my responsibility, so I really appreciate it.

AMY GALLO: Well, I’m glad and it is really truly not your-

SHERRI: I mean, I know. In theory, I know it, but it’s really just like, people like to hear “thank you.” I think people should tell people sometimes what is not their responsibility because it’s usually other duties as assigned.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. You can choose which comments you’re going to address, which ones you’re going to just let go. You can choose to lean into certain conversations and not have others. And you don’t have to beat yourself up for choosing not to have them. Engaging with someone who is sabotaging, who can be two-faced, there’s only a certain amount of that you can do before it’s counterproductive.

SHERRI: Absolutely, it’s exhausting.

AMY GALLO: It’s exhausting, exactly. The other thing I would say is it sounds like you have a great reputation. It sounds like you have some really wonderful colleagues. Can you spend more time with those people? Is there stuff you do outside of work that fills you up in a way that gives you a little more resilience in the face of this person?

SHERRI: I have all those – the other relationships in work and the structure and support outside of work. The thing that’s an area of opportunity is comparing them against each other. Instead of just being grateful for those other things, I constantly weigh them and compare them against each other and want that thing at work to be just like the others. Instead of saying, “I’m grateful for those other things,” given that I’m always saying, “I want that to be like those.”

AMY GALLO: Gosh, you have just captured the insidiousness of the tormentor because you want that relationship to work. You want it to be as good as your other relationships and it’s not. That’s the part that’s so frustrating is that it’s so easy to compare. I have people who are supporting me, I have people who respect my work. What’s wrong with this one person? But instead we actually turn it on us – “What’s wrong with me?”

SHERRI: Me, yes. It is literally tormenting me.

AMY GALLO: Yes, and I’m sorry we’re both laughing about that because it’s not good.

SHERRI: But it’s true. I just realized that. All these other things are great, it is tormenting me. Oh, my goodness.

AMY GALLO: Sherri, tell me what right now you’re taking away from this, even if it’s just a change of mindset. Or, are there actions you want to take? Where’s this all settling with you?

SHERRI: I hear the practical things I need to do. I can do those. It’ll take some courage and some letting go of pride. I don’t consider myself a prideful person, but like you said, I’m doing this for a strategy not to give in or to cater to this person. I’ll just have to keep telling myself that because I know that’s going to rear its head. Like, “Oh, you’re just doing whatever they want you to do.” That self-talk that goes in your head, I’m going to tell it to shut up. I’m hearing that, I’ll have to remember that that’s not why I’m doing it. But then I also hear that the human tendency – my tendency – to focus on the things that aren’t going well, I’m going to also have to intentionally refocus on the things that are, because there’s a lot that is going well. My mom always says, “Don’t let nobody steal your joy,” and I used to roll my eyes at that. Yet that’s exactly what I’m allowing to happen. I have a lot of joy in my life and I’m letting it be stolen for what? It doesn’t even make sense honestly, because I may not get everything accomplished in this lifetime even. No one said, “You’re failing me.” That’s the story I’m making up in my head because it’s how I feel. Even if they did say it, I have to tell myself I’m doing the best I can do in the context of what I am working with right now. To sum that up, I need to give myself some grace.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, and there’s a tactic I’ve actually used myself a few times when I do feel that I’m failing either other people or myself, which is to write down – because it’s so easy to focus on the to-do list and the things we haven’t done. You’ve described the work you’re doing as a big challenge. I would also make a list of the things you’ve done in the last year, in the last six months, in the last week because I bet that list is very long.

SHERRI: Yeah.

AMY GALLO: All right. And going in with that, reminding yourself of that, what you’ve actually done, I also think, again, is going to put you in a better position with this person. It actually reminds me of one other tactic that research shows works. The research is done with abusive supervisors, which are often the tormentors, is that you can often shift the balance of power because we often feel powerless in front of these people. They have authority over us, they have control over funding and whether we get the leadership role. But to shift the balance of power to show them they actually need you. Whether that’s because you have a skill they don’t have, an area of expertise. You don’t have to parade it in front of them, but to remember that in your mind, “I have these things that this person needs”–

SHERRI: Right.

AMY GALLO: – and to find opportunities to demonstrate that. Again, not like, You need me, but the subtle message is, I have this expertise and I know you need that, so treat me well. That’s the subtle message. But by bringing up those things that you do have, you do bring to the table, the contributions, bringing those up in that conversation will hopefully shift that balance a bit so this person doesn’t feel they have so much power over you that they can mistreat you.

SHERRI: That is an opportunity, too. I am a worker. You give me a job, I do it, give me a job, I do it, knock it out, knock it out, knock it out. That definitely is an opportunity for me to sit down and reflect.

AMY GALLO: Well, and I think let’s change the pattern from, You give me a job, I do it, to, You give me a job, I do it, I tell you what a good job I did; You give me a job, I do it, I’ll make sure you know what a good job I did.

SHERRI: I like that. I mean, I’ve never even thought about it that way. I mean, I don’t. My mom also told me to be humble, too, so she might’ve needed to define that a little bit more.

AMY GALLO: You can be humble without hiding all your good work.

SHERRI: She didn’t say that.

AMY GALLO: I think that’s what she meant.

SHERRI: I think so, too. I’ll ask her.

AMY GALLO: Do you have any other questions or thoughts you wanted to share?

SHERRI: No. I think as soon as we started, I was having revelations just fire all over the place. I didn’t know how much I needed this. I typically feel very deeply. If you couldn’t tell, I’m passionate. But before we talked, I haven’t been able to cry and I’m a crier. I mean, you usually don’t thank people for making them teary, but thank you because I feel a little bit more restored to my normal self.

AMY GALLO: I’m so glad to hear that. Well, and it’s hard to feel those feelings when you know there’s not a lot you can do to change it. It’s like, “Well, I’m just putting up this wall to protect myself.”

SHERRI: I 100% agree with that and I believe that’s why I was becoming more stoic and even disconnecting because there was no end in sight except for maybe an exit, which I’m not ready to do for one person.

AMY GALLO: We didn’t even discuss the option of quitting, which of course is an option.

SHERRI: No, I wasn’t even there yet, except maybe I was. This came at the right time because I think if I hadn’t been able to talk this through… I don’t know.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, it’s an option I like to put out there because I do think no one should be in a position where they don’t feel valued, where they feel tormented. No one should have to endure that day in and day out. And yet I didn’t sense that that’s where you were yet.

SHERRI: No, I don’t think it’s unrecoverable, especially considering there’s still strategies to implement and I still love the work.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. I want to wish you luck and I know it won’t always be easy, but we’re going to be rooting for you.

SHERRI: I appreciate that. You’ve been so helpful.

AMY GALLO: If you want to learn more about how to work with a tormentor, a biased colleague or an 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.

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 womenatwork@hbr.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.

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