What to Do About Dysfunctional Co-Workers

Psychologytoday.com recently posted an interesting article entitled, “The 11 People We Love to Hate at Work” by business psychologist Steve Albrecht, D.B.A [11-26-14]. You can read the article for yourself. I’d like to go a little deeper, and a little further, than the author did in his column.

One example of the dysfunctional co-worker is the “office gossip.” Albrecht describes this type as a person who, “Talks about everyone else to everyone else, whether they want to hear it or not. Can create cliques, team conflicts, and the silent treatment among co-workers.  Great at ruining marriages, relationships, and friendships.”

This is a real problem in a lot of offices. It’s hard to ask the boss or supervisor to hold such a person accountable. For one thing, the complaint about gossiping isn’t related to the job. If you complain about such a problem to your boss, it might seem like you’re bringing personal concerns into the workplace.

My suggestion here? First, do a little thinking on your own. Ask yourself: “How can anyone ruin my relationship or friendship without my consent?” If you think about it, nobody can.

If you’re aware that someone is a Gossip, then you possess valuable information to protect yourself from them — so don’t give them ammunition. Granted, if you don’t talk about your personal life or feelings with such a person, they will likely begin to pry. They won’t accept your right to privacy; but in the end, there’s nothing they can do about it.

Recognize the Gossip’s manipulation for what it is. Be strong against it. You don’t have to be as strong as you might assume. Realize that such people are weak. No matter how vulnerable you might feel in some context, it doesn’t matter; the gossip, by definition, is that much weaker. Whatever causes a person to wish to engage in gossip, it’s not psychological strength.

Keep in mind there are two types of people who gossip. One is the person who initiates it. This sort of person, while seemingly smug and strong, is actually weak for the reason I just explained. Like a criminal or sociopath (although less extreme), a Gossip enjoys power over others for its own sake. He or she talks about other people for the sheer pleasure of it — because he or she can. This isn’t an indication of strength or internal serenity, not as most of us define it; so don’t let such a person intimidate you!

The other type of person who gossips is someone who temporarily weakens and gets into the bad habit, and then usually feels badly about it later. I would only classify the initiator of gossip as the worst sort of person. Curiosity or sheer boredom create a breeding ground for gossip, especially where work is unevenly distributed across staff members or times of year, etc. If you find that you sometimes succumb to gossip, then work on strategies for avoiding it. Change the subject. Find something else to distract you that doesn’t involve interacting with the gossipy person. Create a list of five or ten topics (parking, weather, traffic, shopping opportunities, sports teams, pets) you can legitimately talk with co-workers about that don’t involve gossip about co-workers. Gossip about celebrities or sports stars if you must, but not about people you both personally know at work.  The bottom line is: You don’t have to engage in gossip, and if you make this a priority you can and will achieve success in this area.

Another kind of dysfunctional co-worker is labeled by Albrecht as the “Idea Killer.” He defines this sort as someone who uses “lots of sarcasm, especially during meetings.  The trouble with them is their internal monologues become external. ”

In one column of mine, I called this type of person a “contrarian rationalist.” It’s someone who disagrees for the sake of disagreeing — because he or she can. It’s basically a know-it-all who offers seemingly rational or sensible reasons for shooting an idea down, without having the ability or willingness to fully prove its invalidity. The hidden premise in the Idea Killer’s emotional manipulation is, “I can name one possible problem with this idea; therefore, it’s of no value.” If that were the case, no good ideas or inventions would ever get off the ground. There’s always some kind of problem with a new idea, even an ultimately great one, until some of the kinks or contradictions are clarified, corrected or otherwise worked out.

The Idea Killer is motivated by internal weakness, just like the Gossip. It probably has something to do with a belief that he or she — the Idea Killer — can’t come up with anything intelligent or original him- or herself, so it’s easier just to knock others’ ideas down. It’s most likely a subconscious motivation and possibly started in family dynamics going back to childhood, where a lot of subconscious false or invalid beliefs take hold. The point is: It’s not your problem.

The best way to handle the Idea Killer is to simply ignore him or her. Whenever such a person displays the contrarian rationalism I described, simply don’t comment. Don’t show any verbal or nonverbal reaction. Just be blank and move on. Such a person has already lost credibility in your opinion, and probably the opinions of others too (even though they might not tell you.) Stop giving Idea Killers visibility whenever they say something that you know isn’t a constructive opinion, but something done for purely emotional reasons. It’s not rude to ignore them. It’s no more rude to ignore them than it is for them to be Idea Killers in the first place. You’re simply holding them accountable. And you can still be polite and friendly to them the rest of the time, when they’re not arbitrarily shooting down ideas.

Still another example of an infuriating co-worker identified by Albrecht is the “Smart Slacker.” This is someone who, “Knows how to work hard; just doesn’t want to. Missing on Duty or Retired on Duty. Works only when it helps him or her.  The worst is when they teach other employees to slack.”

Think of such employees as pushing the limits, just as children sometimes do. They’re trying to see how much they can get away with, only with a boss rather than with Mommy or Daddy. This pattern might be subconscious and have developed from flawed thinking begun earlier in life. Or, they might consciously and ideologically resent having to work, as if it’s somehow an injustice created by the mythological “robber barons” who employ them rather than in the nature of reality itself. Again, their motives are not your problem. How you look at them is the key.

You ought to look at such people as you’d look at The Gossips of the world, or the Idea Killers. They don’t really matter. It might not be fair that you’re doing an honest day’s work, and they are not. But could you live with yourself if you didn’t do an honest day’s work? Wouldn’t it be dull and boring to spend the day slacking off rather than accomplishing something, however mundane it might seem at the time? Are you willing to put your livelihood or even career goals at risk by not doing an honest day’s work? Sooner or later, this “Smart Slacker” will probably meet his or her Waterloo. Do you want to live with that kind of insecurity, in the first place?

My guess is that you probably don’t, not if you’re the kind of person to be annoyed or infuriated by the Smart Slacker in the first place. The key way to cope here is not to get caught up in the fact that “It’s not fair.” It isn’t fair, of course, but the fact remains: You are not this slacker’s boss, and you are not in a position to hold the slacker responsible. The Slacker does not answer to you. Remind yourself that you’re doing your job for your own sake. You’re not a child being required to work or do something your parents demand of you, where your parents perhaps hold you and your sibling(s) to different standards. You’re an adult doing this job because you want to, or at least need to do so, and it beats the alternative. By all means do your best to plan a way out to a hopefully better work environment — or even self-employment — but don’t waste energy being angry about things you can’t control, and on people it does not make sense to envy. Much smarter to put time and energy into a Plan B, the alternative to this job working side-by-side with the Slacker you so dislike.

When the Smart Slacker tries to get you to do less work, see it as the attack on you that it is. On the surface such a person might appeal to emotions of resentment that he or she hopes you have about the very fact of working. If it were me, I’d probably say something like, “I like being productive. I’m not angry about it.” Whatever you say or don’t say, just ignore it. Create a wall of non-responsiveness whenever such a person tries to intimidate or manipulate you, particularly when having a bad day.

There are other types of dysfunctional workers we could identify, but you probably get the idea here. It’s all in (1) how you look at such people, (2) how much power you give them, and (3) how much visibility you give them by your responses. The best response is no response. The next best response is minimal response. They’re your co-workers, not your employees. If they were your employees, you’d have a whole range of ways to hold them accountable. But you don’t have those ways, not right now, so for your own sake it’s all in the coping.


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