QUES­TIONS FOR

A lead­ing psy­chi­a­trist de­scribes some of the dif­fer­ent types of ‘schmucks’ that in­habit or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

Jody Fos­ter

No one wants to ex­pe­ri­ence dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour at work, and the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple don’t want to cause it. So why is it so per­va­sive?

I think it’s ubiq­ui­tous be­cause con­flict comes in a mil­lion shapes and sizes, and when­ever you put two or more peo­ple to­gether, you have an op­por­tu­nity for con­flict. Each of us moves through the world dif­fer­ently and be­haves in what­ever ways are most com­fort­able. Some­times, we just don’t mix well, and this gets par­tic­u­larly ac­cen­tu­ated un­der stress.

Talk a bit about the dif­fer­ence be­tween per­son­al­ity traits and per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders.

A per­son­al­ity dis­or­der is a series of traits and symp­toms that in­ter­fere with an in­di­vid­ual’s so­cial or oc­cu­pa­tional func­tion­ing. We don’t ac­tu­ally see many se­vere per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders in the work­place, be­cause in gen­eral, the dis­or­ders in­ter­fere too much with the in­di­vid­ual’s over­all per­for­mance. Per­son­al­ity traits are what we see all the time, and these are all the things that make us ‘us’. Each of us has a dif­fer­ent col­lec­tion of traits, and some are more flex­i­ble than oth­ers.

As to whether a par­tic­u­lar trait is a prob­lem, it is of­ten about where we place our­selves. If I have a series of traits that work per­fectly well in one set­ting, and then I ex­pose my­self to an­other set­ting where my way of nav­i­gat­ing the

world is un­ac­cept­able, I am likely go­ing to be con­sid­ered dis­rup­tive. If you take cer­tain per­son­al­ity traits to an ex­treme in these set­tings, they can look a lot like dis­or­ders.

Tell us about the dif­fer­ent types of drama kings and queens that we run into at work.

I have ar­ranged the types of peo­ple who get into in­ter­per­sonal trou­ble at work into clus­ters, and this is what I call the se­duc­tive clus­ter. In gen­eral, these peo­ple are very charis­matic and ap­peal­ing. Ini­tially, you be­lieve that they can take you where they say they’re go­ing to take you, but then things fall off the rails. There are three types within this clus­ter. The first is Nar­cis­sus. This is some­one whose ba­sic healthy narcissism has gone too far — to the point where they act en­ti­tled, self-cen­tred, con­de­scend­ing and at­ten­tion-seek­ing. This is a very com­mon per­son­al­ity type.

The sec­ond type is the Venus Fly­trap, and they can cause a lot of chaos. These peo­ple are se­duc­tive and ap­peal­ing up front; but they are emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble, and af­ter they draw you in with their in­ten­sity, they will even­tu­ally chew you up and spit you out. At first, they place you on a pedestal and you are flat­tered, but you can pretty much guar­an­tee that in time, they will knock you off of it.

The third type in this clus­ter is the Swindler, and they range from the guy who con­sis­tently cuts cor­ners, isn’t trust­wor­thy and doesn’t fol­low through on prom­ises, all the way up to peo­ple who em­bez­zle funds from com­pa­nies or get in­volved in or­ga­nized crime — or worse. These are the peo­ple you read about when you pick up the pa­per and see a story about some­one who was a suc­cess­ful trader on Wall Street but got caught em­bez­zling mil­lions of dol­lars. In gen­eral, peo­ple re­ally like Swindlers at first, and they feel com­pletely betrayed when they learn about what they’ve been up to.

What are some ef­fec­tive ways to deal with these peo­ple?

The best way to get along with these per­son­al­ity types is to make an ef­fort to un­der­stand the anx­i­ety that is driv­ing their be­hav­iour. Venus Fly­traps, for in­stance, feel unlov­able and fear be­ing aban­doned above all else. So, they will test you by do­ing things to make them­selves so un­ap­peal­ing that they ac­tu­ally make you want to aban­don them. The best way to deal with them is to not al­low your­self to get caught up in their drama, and to cre­ate clear bound­aries in your in­ter­ac­tions with them. You need to limit their abil­ity to suck up your time and en­ergy.

With Nar­cis­sists, on the one hand they’ve been told by their par­ents that they are amaz­ing and they can do any­thing; but in­side, they don’t be­lieve it .There is there­fore this di­chotomy of man­i­fested high self-es­teem with an ac­tual core of very low self-es­teem. If you have a Nar­cis­sis­tic col­league or boss, they’re al­ways wor­ry­ing that you will fig­ure out that they re­ally aren’t as great as they’re try­ing to put forth. The best ap­proach is to treat them with kind­ness and com­pli­ment them when­ever you have a chance. This will help them feel safe and think, ‘Oh good, this per­son isn’t try­ing to burst my bub­ble.’ This will make them less de­fen­sive — and eas­ier to get along with. These are very frag­ile egos, so any­thing you can do to pre­serve their ego is go­ing to be help­ful.

Where the Swindler is con­cerned, my ad­vice is that if and when you smell a rat, don’t ig­nore it. If you’re in­ter­view­ing some­one and some­thing seems off, or too good to be true, do your due dili­gence. And if you’re aware that you’re work­ing with a Swindler, the best thing to do is try to fig­ure out how to move them out of your sphere.

Ap­par­ently, Bean Coun­ters aren’t only found in the Ac­count­ing Depart­ment. De­scribe this type.

It is great to be de­tail-ori­en­tated and to cross your t’s and dot your i’s. Every­one wants to do things right, but with these in­di­vid­u­als, there is an al­most ir­ra­tional ef­fort to con­trol their en­vi­ron­ment. They fre­quently pur­sue jobs in medicine, law, engi­neer­ing, ac­count­ing, com­puter pro­gram­ming or other rule-based fields where they can feel in con­trol of the al­go­rithms. They tend to mi­cro-man­age every­one else’s work and think that they are the only ones who can do things

When pre­sented with their dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour, an over­whelm­ing num­ber of peo­ple will sim­ply stop do­ing it.

prop­erly. They will make you cor­rect your work re­peat­edly — and even then, they might crum­ple it up and do it them­selves.

It’s im­por­tant to keep in mind that these are very anx­ious peo­ple who have an in­cred­i­ble fear of los­ing con­trol of them­selves or their en­vi­ron­ment, so they at­tempt to over­lay ar­ti­fi­cial rules and laws upon life. Of course, we can’t do that, be­cause ‘life hap­pens’ — but they try so hard to con­trol what­ever they can con­trol that it ends up be­ing tor­ture to work for them.

You can’t just walk in and say to this per­son, ‘Hey, you’re be­ing to­tally ob­ses­sive. Stop it,’ be­cause that’s go­ing to cause even more trou­ble. In­stead, help them see that you, too, can do a great job and be care­ful. Ap­pre­ci­ate their ded­i­ca­tion, but also em­pha­size your own, so they will con­sider trust­ing you. Be care­ful though: If you prom­ise more than you can de­liver, the Bean Counter will never trust you again.

One study found that 60 per cent of doc­tors elim­i­nated their pat­tern of dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour af­ter it was sim­ply pointed out to them. What does this tell us?

Ac­tu­ally, it’s some­where be­tween 60 and 80 per cent. When they are pre­sented with their dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour, an over­whelm­ing num­ber of peo­ple will sim­ply stop do­ing it. This gets back to what I said at the be­gin­ning, which is that peo­ple don’t wake up in the morn­ing and set out to dis­rupt the work­place. It’s just that we be­have in ways that in­di­cate how we’ve learned to nav­i­gate the world. If we find out that our be­hav­iour is caus­ing trou­ble, in gen­eral, most peo­ple are ap­palled. They will say, ‘Oh no, I had no idea I was upset­ting you!’ And they stop. Or, they might say, ‘This is the only way I know how to be’, and in those cases, it could be that they’re not in the right cul­ture or that they need help with some tools to make change. As in­di­cated, there is usu­ally no mal­ice there.

Un­for­tu­nately, it is so un­com­fort­able to con­front peo­ple with their be­hav­iour that in most cases we don’t say any­thing — or we talk to other peo­ple about it, which can go on for months or years. By the time peo­ple call me, they are so an­gry with these peo­ple for act­ing this way. Yet I find out that they never both­ered to stop and say, ‘Hey. You’re do­ing this, and it’s a prob­lem. Please stop.’ It’s re­ally un­fair not to tell peo­ple and give them a chance to cor­rect their be­hav­iour.

What is your ad­vice for read­ers who fear that they might be the sch­muck in their of­fice?

The fact is, it’s pretty dif­fi­cult to get through an en­tire ca­reer with­out be­ing con­sid­ered a sch­muck on a few oc­ca­sions. Like I said, we are all dif­fer­ent, and when­ever you put peo­ple to­gether you have an op­por­tu­nity for con­flict. But if some­one clar­i­fies for you that you are in­deed a sch­muck, or if you get an inkling of it, it’s re­ally im­por­tant not to freak out. In­stead, view it as an in­sight and a gift, and start on a path to­wards self-im­prove­ment.

We all want to do bet­ter. We all have good in­ten­tions. And if some­body has al­lowed you to see your prob­lem ar­eas, you have ba­si­cally been given a roadmap of what you need to work on. If you em­brace the chal­lenge, it will make you a bet­ter col­league, leader and hu­man be­ing.

Jody Fos­ter, M.D., MBA, is a Clin­i­cal Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try in the Perel­man School of Medicine at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, Chair of the Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try at Penn­syl­va­nia Hospi­tal, and Vice Chair for Clin­i­cal Op­er­a­tions in the Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Health Sys­tem. She is the au­thor of The Sch­muck in my Of­fice: How to Deal Ef­fec­tively with Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple at Work (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

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