"It’s easy to get angry and label someone a jerk or a schmuck. It’s much harder to try to understand the underpinnings of why he or she approaches the situation that way."
In The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and author Dr. Jody Foster has put together a tremendous resource of both clinical and practical experience in dealing with behavioral and personality dysfunction, and ties this into many workplace situations. The title of the book grabbed my attention and made me want to read it, in the hope of better understanding the types of people I have worked with in the past, and what I could have done better in my dealings with them. The book, though, gains its power and effectiveness not from identifying problematic behaviors and the different people who exhibit them, but rather from its ability to open our eyes to the potential influences that drive workplace discord.
The Big Idea
No one WANTS to be disruptive
"These descriptions are not meant to lead you to overdefine or pigeonhole the people around you—they are simply presented to guide you in understanding and handling aspects of your relationships with them. Perhaps most important, in beginning to understand people, you can feel more empathy for their situations and why they may act as they do."
As Dr. Foster repeatedly states, the goal of the book is never to diagnose and treat issues, but to help us understand the diverse types of dysfunction that may be present in the workplace and some of the factors that lead to it. The reader is not to bring the book to work and label people or issues, but, rather, through a series of examples we can try to understand and begin to identify ways to better interact and engage with one another.
The types of Schmucks are:
- The Narcissus – someone with an over-developed sense of entitlement, who is self-centered, condescending, and attention seeking.
- The Venus Flytrap – someone who is over-dramatic and inconsistent in reaction, and keeps everyone on edge.
- The Swindler – someone who comes across as “slick” and manipulative.
- The Bean Counter – someone who is so obsessed with order or perfection to such a degree that they cannot handle not being in total control.
- The Distracted – someone who is constantly focused on everything else but their work, and who struggles with procrastination.
- Hyde – someone who has a completely different personality and one that is the opposite of their usual behavior (similar to an addict in that respect).
- The Lost – someone who exhibits memory loss, loss of language or even judgement skills.
- The Robotic – someone who appears unemotional or hard to read and just can’t connect with others.
- The Eccentric – someone who has difficulty relating to others because of their own view of the world, one which others may find odd.
- The Suspicious – someone who is constantly feeling that there is a conspiracy against them and alienates others via paranoia.
The reality is that this list contains elements that are often outside of the person’s control—some factors are biological, environmental, or even cultural. While none of these are inherently bad, if they aren’t kept in check they can manifest into larger and potentially more serious issues.
The other point that Dr. Foster brings up is that often the problem may lie with us, in our inability to understand others and ourselves, and that may cause the stress and anxiety that creates the dysfunction. Therefore, before we assume the issues we may face are someone else’s fault, we need to turn inward and look in the mirror.
"Avoiding a pattern of behavior will not cause it to magically disappear but will instead allow it to fester."
As with any problematic behavior or situation, the most important thing we can do is act—but not just act, but as quickly and as close to the initial occurrence of the behavior as possible. Too often there is a fear of confrontation, even a hope that things will blow over or correct themselves, but this usually leads to an increased level of frustration for everyone. The person who displays the disruptive behavior may not even be aware there is an issue, and those who see it and know that nothing is being done about it begin to lose trust in the organization.
If the disruptive behavior is serious and dangerous, then immediate action is critical, whereas if the behavior is of a less-serious nature (even merely inconvenient or unpleasant) a more moderate action is appropriate. Again, the key is confronting the offending behavior and working towards a solution. The behavior is what needs to change, and the focus needs to be on that instead of the individual.
Communication is key
"Workplace relationships are just another type of relationship between people, and they need to be built on openness and communication. We need to be honest with ourselves and with each other."
Regardless of which type of disruptive behavior you are seeing, according to Dr. Foster the critical element is clear and consistent communication. This may be done upfront with expectations laid out and standards of conduct that are clearly defined, in a way that no one can claim they were not aware, and as such can have no excuses. Other suggestions include direct conversations with a focus on the behavior and resulting impact, not only on the business but on all effected parties. Tactics include everything from simple conversations, casual coffee meetings and discussions, to the more formalized documented meetings with mangers and HR, to even medical/psychiatric interactions depending upon the magnitude of the workplace issue. For some, the direct approach is welcome, and for others it may only fan the flames and increase the tension. Regardless, effective communication, either in verbal or written form, solidifies the need to be clear for all parties to be successful.
Considering the title of the book, you might expect that The Schmuck in My Office would be cheeky and full of somewhat humorous advice, but it contains helpful information for anyone who deals with people and wants to be successful. Through clear and useful examples, Dr. Foster creates an essential handbook that provides clinical background and insights into factors that create interpersonal tension and the impacts that it can have in our organizations.