Help! There’s a schmuck amok at work

Book of­fers ad­vice on deal­ing ef­fec­tively with dif­fi­cult peo­ple

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - JANE M. VON BER­GEN

PHILADEL­PHIA — Jody J. Fos­ter’s mother was ap­palled.

Can you imagine the em­bar­rass­ment? Her daugh­ter, the doc­tor, so im­pres­sive, chair of the psy­chi­a­try depart­ment at Penn­syl­va­nia Hos­pi­tal, vice chair for clin­i­cal op­er­a­tions in the depart­ment of psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Health Sys­tem, pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Penn, Whar­ton MBA.

And what did Jody Fos­ter do that so em­bar­rassed her mother?

Fos­ter wrote a book with the word schmuck in the ti­tle — as in the Yid­dish word for pe­nis. The mean­ing is closer to other syn­onyms for pe­nis not nor­mally used in po­lite con­ver­sa­tion.

But then, po­lite lan­guage doesn’t al­ways de­scribe some of the peo­ple Fos­ter and coau­thor Michelle Joy, also a psy­chi­a­trist, write about in their book, “The Schmuck in My Of­fice: How to Deal Ef­fec­tively with Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple at Work.”

The schmucks are the plagues of ev­ery work­place: the cheaters; the liars; the para­noid; the life-suck­ing per­fec­tion­ists; the nar­cis­sists; the overly emo­tional drama kings or queens. In their book, pub­lished by St. Martin’s Press, Fos­ter and Joy de­scribe them and pro­vide strate­gies to help work­ers cope, whether the schmuck is an em­ployee, a col­league or the boss.

“Michelle and I are pro­fes­sion­als,” Fos­ter said. “But it’s ob­vi­ously not an aca­demic text. My fa­ther thought it was funny. My mother thought it was crass.

“We wanted to get a ti­tle that was go­ing to make peo­ple think,” Fos­ter said. “We wanted to get the book off the shelf and into some­body’s hands.”

Fos­ter had years of train­ing in psy­chi­a­try in which knowl­edge of be­havioural dis­or­ders was taken for granted. But when she en­rolled in a Whar­ton School MBA pro­gram, she found her fel­low busi­ness stu­dents were end­lessly fas­ci­nated by work­place dy­nam­ics. They wanted her to ex­plain why the of­fice “schmucks” — their word — acted the way they do.

Why are some peo­ple so cruel, will­ing with­out any re­morse to be­tray their co­work­ers? Why do some para­noid col­leagues see a dark side to ev­ery com­pany ini­tia­tive? What about the pas­sion­ate, en­thu­si­as­tic su­per­star who burns bright but then crashes in an emo­tional tan­gle that turns the of­fice into a soap opera?

And then there are the garden-va­ri­ety prob­lems: the drug ad­dicts; the se­nile; the dis­tracted at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der folks who can’t get their work un­der con­trol.

Each gets a chap­ter and a strat­egy for cop­ing.

Some schmuck­ism can be pos­i­tive, Fos­ter and Joy pointed out. For ex­am­ple, Fos­ter said, “you have to some healthy nar­cis­sism” to have enough self-con­fi­dence to ac­com­plish work as­sign­ments. But that self-con­fi­dence taken to a patho­log­i­cal ex­treme at the of­fice leads to ar­ro­gance, credit-grab­bing, dis­par­age­ment and a con­stant need for praise.

Fos­ter stud­ied doc­tors with “dis­rup­tive be­hav­iours” and “they are ab­so­lutely loved by their pa­tients,” she said. “There might be a nar­cis­sis­tic doc­tor, and his per­spec­tive is that he’s the best. He tends to ad­vo­cate very stren­u­ously for his pa­tients, and that makes them feel very cared for.”

Busi­nesses hire her to deal with of­fice schmucks, and “I have to spend a lot of time ed­u­cat­ing the re­fer­ring body.” Some­times, Fos­ter said, small tweaks to of­fice pro­ce­dures or com­mu­ni­ca­tion meth­ods can re­solve prob­lems eas­ily. But she de­clines jobs if she’s be­ing used to get some­body fired, she said.

Em­pa­thy helps. Many times, Joy said, “when peo­ple are frus­trat­ing you, chances are they aren’t set­ting out to make a prob­lem for you. They are prob­a­bly deal­ing with their own anx­i­eties.”

How­ever, don’t avoid the prob­lem. “It’s also in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to call out (dis­rup­tive be­hav­iours) in a timely man­ner be­fore things go awry,” Fos­ter said. “Your lan­guage should be as clear and con­cise as pos­si­ble.”

In deal­ing with schmucks on the job, start by look­ing in the mir­ror, they ad­vise. Try to un­der­stand why the schmuck is able to push par­tic­u­lar but­tons that an­noy or frus­trate.

“The work­place is made of re­la­tion­ships,” Joy said. “Your re­la­tion­ship with the schmuck is sim­ply an­other re­la­tion­ship, and you are bring­ing your own (is­sues) to the ta­ble.”

Maybe, they said, the schmuck is you. Yes, you.

Ex­am­ine your­self to see if you ex­pe­ri­ence re­cur­ring prob­lems when chang­ing jobs or su­per­vi­sors. Rec­og­niz­ing the prob­lem is half the bat­tle.

Be­ing psy­chi­a­trists, Fos­ter and Joy be­lieve that peo­ple can change and are mo­ti­vated to do so “when their per­sonal qual­i­ties be­come un­com­fort­able for them and when they start not to like parts of them­selves,” Fos­ter said.

In­cen­tives help, said Joy. It could be a car­rot — a prom­ise of a hap­pier work life.

Or, she said, it could be “some­thing like keep­ing a job.”

DAVID MAIALETTI, PHILADEL­PHIA INQUIRER

Psy­chi­a­trists Michelle Joy, left, and Jody Fos­ter, right, have writ­ten the book "The Schmuck in My Of­fice: How to Deal Ef­fec­tively with Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple at Work."

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