How to Know You're Hard to Work With: True Confessions Edition Part 2

This week, I posted Part 1 of my True Confessions, and you can read it here. In it, I share with you my thinking about why it’s valuable for me to share how I’ve been hard to work with. In case you don’t have time to read all about it, here’s the gist: everyone is hard to work with sometimes, in some ways, for some people. We’ve all seen these articles before, right? “How to Spot an A**hole at Work” or “How to Know You’re Hard to Work With: Because I’ve Worked With a Bunch of Jerks, and Perhaps You Are One of Them (But Secretly We Both Know You’re Reading This Because You Want to Send the Link to Your Co-worker).” The reality is, with all your goodness and wonderful intentions and heart in the right place, we all employ behaviors that aren’t helpful at least some of the time. If we can step back and look at them and see them for what they are, we can learn to replace them with something better.

It’s important to note that just because I am/have been hard to work with, and you might be too, that it doesn’t mean we are bad people or that we suck to be around. Probably a lot of people love us and think we’re great to work with - maybe more people think that than think we’re the worst (I hope)! Ultimately, the reason I can take a look at these behaviors in my not too distant past and see them for what they are is because I have learned to love and appreciate myself for who I am. My behaviors reflect my circumstances, my knowledge at the time, my level of fear or safety, my sense of belonging and my ability to make survival choices in the moment. Sometimes, I’m better off. Other times, I act like a monkey on crack.

Further, the reason this came up for me was because I have been thinking a lot about organizational culture of late. In my mind, I’ve been running a post-mortem on a culture I was in that was...challenged (read: horrifyingly debilitating). It is natural to want to blame someone (usually the leader...or...just, anybody who isn’t you, let’s be real). The thing is, culture is complex. If relationships are complicated - just between two people, the interplay of relational dynamics compounds exponentially in organizations. The channels get mixed, the signals are scrambled, the communication sometimes doesn’t land. We doubt other people, we doubt ourselves, we distrust everyone. We find ways to survive when we feel unsafe - and cultures that perpetuate negativity and butt-covering/under-the-bus-throwing are the epitome of unsafe. That said, we all have a role in creating and perpetuating such cultures. We are part of the system, and as such, we make a contribution - positive or negative (there is no neutral, so don’t kid yourself). These “hard to work with” things are some of the ways I accidentally helped make my organization’s culture toxic - and how I could have made a better choice. Of course, sometimes the best choice is to leave, which is why I am able to see it for what it was now.

Without further ado, here are even more ways I’ve been hard to work with:

Conspiring and Colluding

What I Did: This is one of the most shameful things I’ll have to admit to doing. The stuff I mentioned the other day is pretty embarrassing and sad, but this makes me feel worse, because it directly tore down other people. That’s not what I’m about - it’s the opposite of what I’m about - but it’s what I did when I was not in alignment with my values and my true heart. One thing that happens in unhealthy cultures, is a whole helluva lot of gossip. When you work someplace, and you find you start to speak in a hushed voice all the time, you are probably talking about something you shouldn’t, or that could be dealt with in a more honest and forthright way. I found myself speaking in hushed tones or off-site constantly to talk with people I was close to - usually other managers, but sometimes my own team, about our culture problems and our fears and our discomfort and what needed to change. I knew other people were having similar conversations about me, sometimes with my boss. Honest conversations were necessary, in some way, but the more appropriate avenue would have been to bring them to the attention of our boss or board and have them out in the open. Bemoaning our fate endlessly in the darker corners, sometimes with tears, did exactly nothing to change the situation. It was a terrible situation, I’m not going to lie. I still have stress dreams about it all the time. But I helped keep it going, and that situation was definitely partly crafted by yours truly.

What I Didn’t Realize: I didn’t realize my voice mattered. I didn’t know I could stand up and speak my mind honestly to my boss and not get fired on the spot. I didn’t realize that when you are in a role like I was, it’s very hard for an organization to explain if you are let go capriciously. I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t trust my boss, and I didn’t trust about half of my co-workers. And many of them didn’t trust me, either. It was weird, man, but what I needed to know at that time was that you do the hard thing, even if you face consequences you’d prefer not to face. I did eventually learn to stand up for what I thought was true and right - a little late, but still, I tried. Things changed. Slowly. They never got totally better - until I finally said the most true thing at a moment of decision: I said it was time for me to go.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation called “triangulation” before, but I can tell you that it is one of the most crazy-making things I’ve ever endured. It’s when you’re a manager, say, and your direct report goes to your boss over your head and/or your boss goes to your direct report...what...under your head? And then you get ensnared in it one way or another, and there’s a lot of hearsay, and confusion and frustration and mostly, a lot of instability and unsafe feelings. I felt very unsafe. I reached out for support to other people who felt unsafe. I went to them for confirmation - am I crazy? Am I OK? This happens when people are in abusive relationships and abusive work cultures. I will talk a lot more about abusive work cultures one day, but for now, let’s just say, I chose those behaviors, again, not out of divisiveness or a desire to harm anybody, but out of self-protection and a need to belong. It wasn’t the right choice. I wasn’t healthy. It was cowardly and damaging.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I’m very bored with talking about other people. I still talk about my old work sometimes, and I’m honest about that. But, I don’t have a need to be suspicious of, or tear down other people behind their backs nor to their faces anymore. This is a need I have let go of, as I have learned to find my value intrinsically, and also have created a stronger connection to myself. This behavior is associated with two main things, in my opinion: low self-esteem, and burnout. Both were happening for me then, and both are definitely on my radar now - it’s a practice to hold myself in high-esteem; and it’s a practice to care for myself so I don’t burn out. I now know how long to stay and when to go.

Perpetuating and Workaholic Culture

What I Did: My day used to look something like this:

5:00 AM - wake up, check work emails, read Something Important to keep up on the latest trends in the industry;

6:00 AM - freak out about the day AKA check work emails;

7:00 AM - arrive at work and get stuff done before everyone else comes in;

7:15 AM - talk to the one other person in the office at this time about how crazy everything is, but it’s not going to last more than another, eh, 6 months or so [cue maniacal laughter];

8:30 AM - frantically prepare for the onslaught of the 10 million meetings and impromptu people visiting my office for advice, information, decisions, signatures, questions, commentary, venting, weeping, telling jokes, complaining about spouses, and sometimes, talking about actual work that needs to be done;

9:00 AM - 5:30 PM - attend all the meetings, ever;

5:30 PM - 6:30 PM - pick up the kids, feed them, get them to bed ASAP and/or foist them off on their dad to do bedtime because “I’m so-busy;”

6:30 PM - 2:00 AM - catch up on work. Sometimes, this would extend into all night, if there was a grant due, for instance;

2:00 AM - 5:00 AM - sleep in between work-related stress dreams. Occasionally send work emails when stress dreams wake me up and remind me of something oh, so critical.

Note: food was smooshed into meetings, usually. So a lot of people had to watch me eat whatever crap I could get my hands on to keep my body minimally alive. Hence, the meals were not warranted their own time slot in my Super Important Person Schedule.

At the very same time as I was working like this (and I assure you, this schedule is not an exaggeration), I spoke passionately and eloquently about self care and not working too much so as to avoid burnout. “Use your vacation hours!” I’d say, having read Something Important about how that’s a thing. Meanwhile, I capped out at the company sanctioned 160 hours and lost about 2 weeks of vacation per year that wasn’t allowed to carry over.

I was the exception, you see. I was so very devoted to my job and the work and the mission of my organization, that I was impervious to said burnout, and I magically had the superhuman capability to stay productive and useful for approximately 20 hours a day, and more on weekends, if I could get the kids’ dad, or their grandma, or anybody, really, to take them. For mere mortals, though, they should be able to leave the work at the office and get on with their lives. Meanwhile, the mortals are getting emails from me at 3:00 AM, and constantly when I rarely went “on vacation” which was a fancy phrase I used to mean “working remotely from my home or occasionally a different place.”

What I Didn’t Realize: You know that thing parents supposedly say (not mine, because mine were actually quite devout)? “Do as I say, not as I do?” Yeah. That’s not something that actually works. It turns out, I didn’t notice that my actions didn’t match up with what I claimed were my values. I didn’t realize that my way of operating made everyone else think they, too, had to live up to the impossible standard I had set for myself. I didn’t realize that because of my insistence that working all day and night with virtually no personal time was sucking my life force and turning me into a husk of a person whose only identity was Important Working Person. As a leader, it is not your job to work until you very nearly (or literally) die. It is your job to provide a sane, reasonable example of how to work smarter and better so your employees will have a template for how they are expected to behave. Nothing makes people feel more insane than being told one thing and shown another. That’s called gaslighting - named after a super old movie where a dude made a lady feel like she was insane because he constantly and intentionally questioned her reality and her experiences. You might not be doing it on purpose, but if you are talking big game on self care and never ever ever ever taking five minutes to gather your thoughts or value your life, or invest in your relationships (surprise! I’m divorced! Woops!), you are gaslighting people. And yourself.

Why I Chose My Behaviors: Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern by now. Most of the behaviors I’ve exhibited were based on fear of losing my job/title/status/self-respect/the admiration of others and/or my own sense of worthlessness. This is no different. I was running away from the emptiness of feeling worthless and not good enough - and toward the promise of “If I just try harder, then…” and “Just a little further and more hard work, and then I can be happy and slow down…” Of course, “enough” never comes. It just keeps moving further into the distance like a desert mirage. The thing that’s funny here is that I thought I had inordinately high self-esteem. I think I can do anything, and usually, I’m right. I can. That doesn’t mean that any of it makes me happier, or better, or more worthy. The truth is, my entire concept of personal value used to be based on my ability to perform. If I didn’t, I was a failure and I crumpled. If I didn’t fail, but didn’t do something perfectly, I was still a failure and I didn’t deserve to live and was lucky to have a job and to have any friends at all, because boo, I sucked. Truth is, my value had to come from within. Without that, nothing will fill the void that comes from feeling ungrounded, like you don’t belong, and like you don’t deserve to be loved unless you’re super amazing 100% of the time.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I constantly choose to connect to my value as a person. What I do does not dictate who I am and how OK I am. How I perform does not indicate how worthy or unworthy I am. I know my value, and I refer to it when I doubt it. Most of all? I attend to what I need. I get enough sleep. I eat food regularly - usually pretty good food, too. I make sure I drink enough water. I have fun with my kids and with friends. I do stuff that I like doing that has nothing to do with work. I have learned to allow my work to be an expression of my heart and purpose without needing it to give me significance.

Not Recognizing Burnout

What I Did: As you may have guessed, based on the description of my work habits above, I eventually hit a place where I was so burned out, I probably left little streaks of charcoal on everything I touched. No matter how exhausted, frustrated or flat out furious I felt, I ignored it and kept going. With greater and greater frequency, I found myself crashing. Migraines. Needing to go to bed at 7:00 PM. I would “rally” and just do more work.

What I Didn’t Realize: My heart had left the situation before I let my body do so. That’s how Dr. Dina Glauberman described burnout in her wonderful book, “The Joy of Burnout.” I happened to read it when I needed a four month (not kidding) nap after I left my last job. I didn’t realize that I had truly maxed out all of my bodily systems, ravaged my brain, frazzled my soul, and ignored every single thing that mattered to me (besides my work, for the reasons recounted above).

Why I Chose My Behaviors: I really did care deeply about the work I was doing. It was passion-driven. It was exciting and wonderful. It was addictive to me to create and launch the kinds of programs we were constantly creating. There was a clear moment when I realized I had sacrificed too much of myself, my energy, my life to something I was when I realized I wasn’t living up and that, against all of my deepest hopes - I probably never would. BUT! Instead of taking some time to ask myself where I wanted to be and whether I wanted to be where I was, I doubled down and worked harder. I did more. I got up earlier, stayed up later, put in more time and effort, got better, did the introspection, did the work on myself. It got me someplace. But it didn’t get me to a place of wellness. I was burned out, and the only road through burnout is one that attends to your basic human needs. Sleep, love, empathy and compassion. It takes a lot to stop - you think you’ll die - but then, you don’t. But you might if you don’t slow it down or stop.

How I Choose Better Behaviors Now: I pay attention to my heart. I know when I want to be somewhere and when I don’t. I know when I’m putting more energy in than I’m getting out, and I adjust in the moment to make sure I’m still fulfilled by what I’m doing. This sounds esoteric - but it was really about reconnecting with my body. I used chakra meditations as one tool for this - whether you believe in energy centers in the body or not, the practice of feeling specific parts of your body is extremely helpful in rebuilding your intuition and your trust in yourself.


We all have things we could do better. Chief among them, is spending time developing our hearts and our souls. It takes everything within you to always become a better person in order to rise to the occasion and lead humbly and lovingly. I think, underneath all of my bad workplace behaviors, fear and low self-worth lurked. Your behaviors might be a little different, but I’d be willing to bet, the reasons you do them are pretty similar. The good news is that we can all make improvements in our own behavior and when we do, our workplaces and our missions will be better for it. You can be your very best.

Now. What do you need to make it so?

Sarai JohnsonComment