It’s happening again. Dan in accounting is blathering on about policy and not listening to a word you’re saying. Meanwhile, your team’s big project is due next week and even though Jan smiled, nodded and promised she’d be ready–like always–you’ve seen no signs of any actual work done. You heard a rumor that Tom has been smearing you behind your back, and, oh God, here comes Kelly, ready to whine about how everyone and everything is just terrible and there is nothing that anyone can do about it!
“You can choose your friends in your personal life, but often the people you have to deal with at work are chosen by someone else,” says Dr. Rick Kirschner, co-author of the recently released Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How To Bring Out The Best In People At Their Worst. In it, he exposes the worst and most frustrating behavior patterns, what’s really going on underneath them and how you can effectively side-step the crazy to accomplish your goals.
The way Kirschner sees it, people conflicts in the office aren’t so much personality clashes as intention collisions. Generally, he says workers become frustrated when they want to get it done and it’s taking too long; get it done right and it’s not up to par; get along and there’s interpersonal strife; or get appreciated and nobody notices them.
If you’re wondering how much is them and how much is you, “God only knows,” says Kirschner. He believes having trouble with two or three people you work with is pretty normal, having trouble with everyone means there’s a leadership problem, and having trouble with no one means you may be other people’s problem. “When you have a conflict, it’s not happening to you; it’s happening through you,” he says. “If you change what you’re doing, then they’ll change. The greatest leverage is in your own behavior.”
Ruffling feathers in offices everywhere is an archetype Kirschner calls “the Tank,” who’s focused only on the end result and moving quickly. If you’re in his path, the Tank will try to remove you. It feels personal, but it’s not. His only intention is to get you out of the way—and that can be painful.
“If I just want to get it done and I’m in a meeting, it’s cutting into my time to produce results,” says Kirschner, taking the Tank’s view. “If it’s taking too long, my impatience is rising.”
The best way to deal with these weapons-of-office-destruction is to stay out of the war path. When speaking to them, cut to the chase and get to the point. Couch conversations with “if you need more information, I have it,” but don’t weigh them down with details. And let them have the last word. It helps maintain the illusion they’re in control.
Another of the most common—and dangerous—coworker types is “the Sniper.” When you’re in their sightlines, Kirschner says these covert operators learn about you and then exploit your weaknesses behind your back or with calculated attacks in front of a group. The only way to stop them up is to call them on it, as many times as it takes.
Kirschner recalls one mid-level woman who was assigned to a quality team with five other men. In every meeting, sometimes multiple times during a meeting, one of the team members would make a sexist joke at her expense and they would all laugh. She was frustrated, embarrassed and felt like everyone was against her.
Finally, she decided to confront him. From then on if there was quip, she would stop herself mid-sentence, look directly at him, repeat back what he’d said and ask how it was relevant. “It gives him a choice: shut up or come clean with the real issue.”
Most workplaces also have their own (or several) Know-It-Alls: smart people with a lot of knowledge who will talk your ear off but never listen, quickly dismissing your ideas. When dealing with them, Kirschner suggests getting their doubts out of the way before they have a chance to voice them. You may start with, “I realize we don’t have the budget, but I was thinking…” Then flatter them by asking questions like “What would you do in this situation?” or “Is there a way we could we make it work?”
Conversely, Think-They-Know-It-Alls don’t know much but want you to think they do. They talk a lot, exaggerate and brag because they want attention and appreciation. Go ahead and give them a little, recommends Kirschner, and then expose the holes in their argument. Say, “I’m glad you brought that up,” before asking specific questions that reveal they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Whatever the problem is, Kirschner warns that technology can exacerbate it. Email, texts and instant messages are “breeding grounds for misunderstanding,” he says. “You’re missing the visual and auditory components, and words can get misconstrued.” You may be sending negative vibes without even realizing it, so keep text-based messages brief and factual. If you can’t say it in three sentences, don’t write an email—use the phone or talk in person.
Ultimately, you can’t win with everyone. “But if you have to be right, you’re doing it wrong,” Kirschner advises. Instead of taking it personally and reacting, put it in perspective. How big of a deal is it really in the scheme of things?
He once worked with an older man who’d retired but decided to take a part-time job at a restaurant to supplement his income. One day some arrogant teenager got in his face, jabbing his finger and cursing about the quality of his hamburger. The older man just nodded his head throughout the rant, and when it was done, calmly said, “Thank you, young man, for being honest with me about how you feel.” The kid was so flabbergasted by the response he didn’t say another word; just turned around and left.
“As surely as some people bring out your best and your worst, you can be one of the people who brings out the best in people at their worst,” Kirschner concludes. “Understand where they’re coming from and where you’re going.”
Forbes Magazinecoworkers you can’t stand