Wednesday, October 24, 2012

10 Ways to Deal with an Office Jerk

For 8 months I worked in an office with someone who refused to talk to me.  On the rare occasions in which she did decide to speak, her sentences were curt and her tone was loaded. Her desk faced the wall, and whenever anyone asked her anything, she didn’t even turn around. She gave one-word answers to questions that required explanations, and gave almost everyone the silent treatment in the office. Once, I wrote her an email, politely letting her know about something. Her response?


No punctuation. No “Dear X”. No context. No “Not now, I’m totally stressed.”

And this went on for way too long to remember. So, I nicknamed her Little Miss Sunshine because every time I say that, it brings a little giggle to my face. And I prefer to laugh at life than to punch someone because violent outbursts are not good for humanity. (Repeat: Violent outbursts are not good for humanity.)

Being the sensitive and sometimes overly introspective person that I am, managed to drive myself crazy trying to figure out how to appease this toxic person. But at a certain point, a number of other people began to have the same complaints and frustrations about this same co-worker. Projects that would normally take a short amount of time were taking days, sometimes weeks or months because before implementing any step, employees would have to map out a way to circumvent this person to avoid her involvement.

Clearly, it was extremely relieving and validating when I discovered that I was not alone. My colleagues, too, felt sucked into this other person's insane reality; manipulated into a psycho’s drama. What a blessing it was to know that I wasn't at fault, and that others unfortunately felt similarly. This person was sick; almost to the point of pathological; insecure, ridiculously passive-aggressive (when she wasn’t outright aggressive) and controlling.

As I dealt with this, I discovered that there many books and blogs written about dealing with toxic people, control-freaks, maniacal colleagues and jerk managers. One book helped me in particular:  The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton. Based on an academic article in the Harvard Business Review, this book handles these infuriating scenarios in rational level-headed management terms (and some snarkiness too). It is fresh air for the cubicle! Why didn’t they ever teach “dealing with assholes” in in high school or college? It’s like you’re thrown to the wolves as soon as you graduate, just when the principal or dean's office is off-limits to you.

Based on my cursory research and my own processing, there are a lot of practical tips I've come up with that help others dealing with office politics, a maniacal co-worker; the downright office bitch. (THEY ARE EVERYWHERE, I TELL YOU!)  

Without further ado, here are 10 practical ways to deal with an office jerk: 

(1) Surprisingly, the number one piece of advice offered is, after wholehearted, practical attempts to rectify the situation, if you see no end in sight, the #1 suggestion is to get the hell away from the person. Sometimes that means leaving a job; other times that means switching departments. 
(2) Make sure to document as much as possible, whether it’s in email or by submitting complaints to HR. (We did not have a formal HR nor a manager who seemed to care much so I was left to fend for myself…)

(3) Start doing something outside of work as your own outlet; something to release the negative energy. Do something creative, go walking, running, join a drama club. Don’t just go out with friends to vent about work; the energy will just stay inside your mind and body, consuming you. You’ll start to have trouble sleeping and it will ultimately affect your health (mental and physical). It's just not worth it. Do something for yourself to feel creative and healthy.   

(4) Come up with a nickname for them that reminds you of a similar character from a movie or TV show. Use the nickname a) in your head, b) at home, c) NOT IN THE WORKPLACE. Though it’s immature, it will at least give you a dose of laughter, and lighten the situation. (Note: I don’t think the Harvard Business Review suggested that one.)

(5) On a similar note, find a playlist of what I call “Angry Girl Music”. Listen to it after an altercation of some sort. (Anything from Avril Lavigne, Pink to AC/DC will work.) It will help you realize that everyone at some point in their lives, has encountered irritating, toxic people. Take Lilly Allen for example. Her profound and evocative work, Fuck You will hit the spot on a particularly irritating day:

(6) See this difficult person as if you’d see and deal with a sick person. Take their ‘complaints’ lightly, brush them off, see that their anger is very likely from another source in their life (Spouse? Annoying kids? Abusive childhood?) REMEMBER: IT’S NOT YOU.

(7) ...but at the same time, be honest with yourself. If there are things that you do that are irritating, or if you incite the person, respond in a spiteful or passive-aggressive manner, take ownership of that. Take responsibility for your part and stop.

(8) Sometimes we are blind to our own flaws, so you might want to show a sample email correspondence to a trustworthy and honest friend (not someone from work) who can pinpoint which parts of the communication are unhealthy, biting, charged, and which parts are your contribution to that. Remember: IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO.

(9) Pray. Yes, seriously. Take a few minutes to pray sincerely. To ask for guidance with your thoughts, your words, your mindset. Pray for Little Miss Sunshine’s mental well-being because whatever the heck is going on in her life, she’s taking it out on you (me, that is). So pray that it is resolved and that you’ll get back to a healthy dynamic.

Yes, similar behavior is antithetical to a healthy work environment (or any civil environment for that matter). However, it’s important to remember there will always be difficult people in life, and unfortunately, we can’t always escape them so easily. Figure out a way to release your stress, outsmart them, and respond neutrally to the person.  

(10) Last tip: Wait at least 5 minutes before responding to an email. Otherwise you will respond on impulse and you will likely convey a charged emotion. Waiting (and maybe get up out of your chair to process or cool down) will help you respond with your head instead of your heart.

These are things that I incorporated into my life – thanks to lots of reading, processing, therapy and good friends. And thank G-d, little by little, things got slightly better. Eventually the person left me alone and we began to have very little interaction. The dynamic between us became minimal and strictly functional. Sort of like a cold peace between Soviet Russia and the US; Gaza and Israel. Sounds promising, eh?!

My new college course @ The University of Life: Life Politics 101
Rating: The Most Frustrating (but worthwhile!) Class Ever.