I’m a pretty even-keel person, but find the extreme personalities in my office a little bit much to deal with. At best, they’re irritating. At worst, they complicate the simplest of projects. From victims to martyrs to arrogant jerks, how are normal people supposed to work with these nightmares?
A very wise soul (otherwise known as “My friend Kim”) once told me that “Everyone is dysfunctional. Some just hide it better than others.” While it sounds like your colleagues aren’t exactly masters of disguise, it’s important to first acknowledge that all human beings — both the “extreme personalities” that bug you as well as the “normal people” you identify with — are imperfect creatures who are all a little screwy in one way or another.
At some level, everyone you work with, live with, are related to or occasionally meet for coffee has a flawed personality, as do you. We all put our best foot forward in the beginning of working (or any other kind of) relationships, but eventually we get more comfortable with people and let our guard down a bit. In doing so, we connect with others in more honest and meaningful ways, but we also expose the less fabulous parts of ourselves in the process.
There is also a theory out there that warrants a mention, and that is the idea that everyone is your mirror. Whatever bothers you about another person is typically a characteristic that really bothers you about you. While I think that holds true in personal relationships, and may be accurate to some degree with your colleagues as well, collaborating with people at the office is really a different situation. You’ve theoretically been thrown into an office stew and forced to work with people you otherwise wouldn’t cross the street to spit on if they were on fire.
While it’s frustrating that their antics make every task more difficult than it needs to be and can affect the end work product in a negative way, try to remember that nobody gets up in the morning and says “I’m going to be difficult today.” These folks all have talent and goodness within them, even if those are the parts they keep well-hidden.
You can’t expect a victimized thinker to “stop being such a victim” any more than you can tell a crack addict to simply set down the pipe and walk away. Present behavior is strongly rooted in past dysfunction, so try to have compassion for how The Victim or The Arrogant Jerk came to be this way.
I have a colleague, for example, whom I have viewed as a most arrogant jerk ever since I’ve known him. When I found out, however, that he was one of the soldiers in Vietnam whose job it was to fly in on a helicopter and pick up the soldiers we had lost, often under enemy fire, my ability to manage him changed for the better. Now every time he flexes his arrogant jerk muscle, I remember that story and have more compassion for the fact that he walks with a darkness that I cannot possibly understand.
And understanding people is the key to dealing with them in the workplace. Victims drive me nuts, because these people blame everyone else for everything that goes wrong in their lives instead of standing up and taking action to better the situation. But when you understand that they do this ultimately because they feel they have no power to change anything, you begin to comprehend the behavior. Think about it: would you choose to be whiny and helpless if you really believed you could be strong and powerful?
I understand The Victim incredibly well because I used to be her. The circumstances of my childhood were such that I grew up believing I would always be at the mercy of unhealthy choices made by other people. Being The Victim is also very convenient, because when people think you’re helpless, they don’t expect much of you. Of course, they don’t respect much of you, either.
Luckily, “helpless” and “blaming” were not labels that fit; I tried on “self-respect” and “accountability” instead. Thanks to the strong and accomplished women I gravitated toward, I learned about who I wanted to be in the world and the action steps I needed to take to achieve that.
If you’re The Victim, when you hear yourself start to blame the system, your boss or the PTA president, ask yourself, “What is my role in this?” I promise you, you have one, even if it’s as simple as “I should have been honest with my boss that my skills were inadequate to the project task here.”
If you have to manage The Victim, don’t engage in the drama. Instead, inspire action in the action-less. If it’s “all Mary’s fault for screwing up the accounting,” ask your employee how he will manage things differently in the future to make sure that doesn’t happen again and that the task or project ends with a successful result. The Victim is already well in touch with what he believes he cannot do, so focus on the assumption that there’s plenty he can do.
If more personal time is needed on a regular basis because the dog is sick, the car broke down, the sister passed out and the washing machine blew up, be matter of fact about company policy. Say “While I understand that life gets in the way sometimes, Mike, the needs in your personal life seem to be spilling over on too regular a basis lately. What steps can you take to settle things at home and recommit to regular working hours?”
And if The Victim is your boss, then document, document, document. When she gives you an assignment, repeat “So, Jill, just so I’m clear, you’re asking that I do A, B, and then C by May 1st. Is that correct?” and let her watch you write it down. Knowing there’s a written record somewhere will make Jill less likely to blame you when she screws up.
Keep in mind that while understanding someone’s behavior is important to dealing with it at work, that doesn’t mean you have to enable the dysfunction.