Most of us who work at something do so because we need the employment. Whether you’re busy at something you view as temporary, longer term or fully engaged in what you feel is your life’s purpose, you will occasionally find yourself dumbstruck by difficult people. My old co-worker Kristin Smith used to say ‘They make it harder than it needs to be.’ Whatever you’re sorting through, below is great info and fab reads that will help you identify these challenging types and what you can do to deal with them by allying, accommodating, escaping, confronting or perhaps eliminating them.
I have been in the workforce since I was 12 years old, picking strawberries and later shearing trees for Christmas, in the Pacific Northwest. My first actual job, as opposed to temporary seasonal work, was Bob’s Big Burgers where I wasn’t fast enough on the line and politely let go. I worked at Moto Photo 3 times (back when folks with cameras needed film developed), Richland College Planetarium 3 times performing laser light shows (great gig!) and finally Sprint 3 times where I had planned to retire but was part of a massive lay off instead. Interspersed with Sprint, I worked as a radio announcer with a smattering of acting & photography work. Everybody would always hire me back when asked which made me feel I was a fairly adept employee to have around. At 58 things are different than they were in my 20’s and 30’s out job seeking. But the mentally instable folks are still there and may sit in a cubicle near you.
My work philosophy has always been to do my best, have some fun, be easy going as possible and in general, endeavor to get along even with people I might not otherwise have ever had the opportunity to associate with. Being thrust into different walks of life and people is a great educational experience. It is great to mix with one’s own, but also to diversify, just as you would any of your other assets.
It has always puzzled me when co-workers preferred to stir the pot, rather than try and get along. Each of us has our own crosses to bear and we don’t really know what all is going on inside an individual so erring on the side of compassion, is the best option. Being of diverse backgrounds, personalities and predilections IS what makes all this great! The problems arise when we have imbalanced personalities, insecurities, judgments, ego and stress thrown in the mixture as well as folks who plainly should be on meds.
I have learned exactly 3 things that are a job requirement with any company you work at. 1) Perform your job well. Fix what you break. Own your failures as well as your successes here. 2) Absorb and honor the culture, and just like people, every corporation is different. Learn it and abide. The dude abides. 3) Get along well with everybody else. Those you cannot tolerate, keep as far away from as possible without it looking obvious and conduct all business briefly as feasible and politely. Humor goes a very long way to making all of this happen. However well you do your work, you are replaceable. If you are tenured at some place, please enjoy that feeling because as soon as you start somewhere else, you will feel a culture shift that, unless you’ve been job hopping for years, will come as quite a shock. I don’t understand this but sometimes when new folks come on board, the people who have been there a while, rather than welcome you with open arms, want to size you up and judge and get sometimes intensely combative and defensive, as if you are there to take something away from them. At least this is what I experienced and I am still scratching my head over it.
Agendas – What is your agenda for working where you do? What motivates you daily? For me, I have always come to work with only one agenda, to do the work well. After being fired at Bob’s Big Burgers, I never wanted to ever be fired again so I aim to work well with others and do my job. I have never wanted the spotlight, to derail someone’s career, to one-up anybody or cause needless harm and chaos. I have never felt the need to scream insults at someone or single anybody out and make them look bad to pump myself up. I have not once not ever, called someone up in the middle of their work day to shout threats at them as happened to me in my last corporate job. I am full of flaws so I tend toward helping people rather than be the stone that weighs them down or in any way be the reason they don’t want to come to work. In short, my paycheck has always been based in part on my being a team player and I just instinctively knew that.
In my 4 decades of working, I have encountered some very challenging people. From sexual harassment to jealousies, and pettiness, a few very angry people and much ego. Many have been clients where I had to be exemplary in handling them while maintaining composure. For the last 20 years, I was a project manager over implementations (IPM) over voice and data networks for Strategic and Enterprise accounts. As much as I loved my role, it was mostly very imbalanced in the hours worked which brought out many personality quirks not to mention health issues. My superpower was taking an upset client and turning that relationship around. I usually got the worst cases to turn around and accomplished this, to the point of Sprint winning Vendor of the Year from Overhead Door, as just one example. While many people shy away from angry customers, the reality is that most upset folks just want a partner in the business that will hear and understand them and what they want, speak the truth so they aren’t blindsided, while also putting all efforts into meeting all the goals if at all possible. The 12+ hour days took its toll on my health. I manage an ongoing swallowing disorder (achalasia) due to all these years full of long hours and stress. When I took early retirement there, my goal was to put calm and my health as a priority and not work more than an 8 hour day. 8 is enough already. Corporations get greedy.
Wherever you go, there will be the slackers and the over-achievers and those that do their job well, but never push the boundaries to go over and above. You are never going to change that or them. You can only control yourself.
Through networking, I ended up with several job offers through folks who knew me and my tenacity. One seemed perfect, similar pay to what I made prior, learning something new and upcoming (apps) and an 8 hour day. I called it ‘Dream Job’. I managed APIs getting tested and deployed, and was hired as a contractor along with 2 other newbies who integrated into an existing team.
3 months later, 3 additional folks were hired and us new folks were asked to train them while we were all still learning. This was a HUGE corporation yet there were no M&Ps, no training documents, only a Client Handbook that, while filled with great info, was absolutely NOT a training tool. I did what I have always done in new work situations; I created a cheat sheet on all the steps to do my work and added to it as I learned more. I created this cheat sheet so I would not miss a step. I liked this job and intended on keeping it. The 2 folks training us in between their work, took offense that I would create a cheatsheet and refused to review it for accuracy. When we new folks began training the other 3 that had just walked in the door, with no corporate training tool to use, I was asked to share my cheatsheet. This turned into an ego blast where, rather than being happy the new folks were trained rapidly, in a matter of days by using this cheat sheet as a training tool, instead I got screamed at for several minutes in a phone call that was so unprofessional and crazy, threatening my job, calling me insubordinate and shutting my every syllable down. I decided the best course while I had my ass handed to me, was to just go quiet. Let it happen, let them scream, think about what I will do next for employment. For a minute I contemplated putting that individual on speaker. In hindsight, this is exactly what I should have done. Why allow someone to be that ugly and get their say in privacy? Why on earth did I extend courtesy in the face of all that hateful spew? Nobody ever in my life had spoken to me like this. Nobody ever again will! I sat in stunned silence. Was making six figures really worth all this drama? I had anticipated an adult, professional work environment, not bullies on the playground. I went home that day a puddle. My husband asked if I wanted a drink when he saw me walk through the door. I couldn’t even speak. I nodded ‘No’ and went straight to the atrium, closed the door, curled up in a fetal ball and cried for hours. When I walked into the living room much later, I quietly explained what had happened. He asked me not to turn in my notice, it was great money and to see what could be worked out. In all my years at work, I had never encountered such a rough experience. And while this individual eventually calmed down and had the cajones to take me into a breakout room and discuss it, I realized that this person, who was the one training me, was someone I could not reliably go to for any kind of help. Their mood could go from zero to hellcat in 3 seconds. I just didn’t have it in me to deal. I needed calm. And this perhaps wasn’t the worst of it.
As we newbies began getting some work, one of the individuals began clashing with everyone else. We’ll call him Howse. Howse wanted to spend an exorbitant amount of time deliberating on every little detail, as if he were checking his own logic but the team gradually realized it was his way of trying to coach us, train us on what he somehow assumed he knew more and we needed training on. And yes, even folks who had been there a decade, he was trying to ‘coach’. Classic micromanager, Howse spent every morning of an entire week standing in my cube demanding status as soon as I walked in the door for an API he should have been going to his own resources for. He created daily team reports and went through all of our work with a fine tooth comb. He would keep me late (and I did not get paid overtime) to show me ‘my report’ he created. He would go through each of my projects, their APIs and status and I had no idea why on earth he would keep me after work to go over my work as a peer that I of course already was well aware of since they were my projects. Then he proceeded to tell us, and the boss or our client, what we did wrong whenever he caught something. Be it a system glitch, a ticket really not in our shop to write or a simple mistake. There was a team intervention where, after he reported one of us, he was pulled into a breakout room where team-mates tried to get him to understand why that was wrong to do. He insisted they ‘Needed to know she made an error.’ Ironically, Howse made the same error first, but of course, management didn’t hear about that. He would jump into business that wasn’t his, join calls he was not invited to, cover up his own errors or justify them and create havoc and upset and distrust in the team. Always looking to argue a point and demanding things must be done his way, I believe he is the reason I was laid off and amazingly, he was retained. The last thing I tried to help him with was to warn him from tenaciously demanding documentation from tenured folks. My mistake entirely. I should have let him go on ahead! Instead I was trying to have compassion for the root of his behavior issues and help him. His wife was stayed at home with the kids and he’d lost his last job over this behaviour. Part of not going through things again is learning the signs of mental imbalance so to avoid getting sucked into it. It is never your role to fix a broken employee. Sometimes trying to help the mentally unstable comes back to bite you.
Above all else, always remain calm. Both with this phone call and when Howse was yelling at me in my cubicle, just coming completely unglued because I simply asked him to step out of my cubicle and allow me to get my work done my own way, I refused to get angry or shout back. My personal MO has been to always remain kind. In the end of it, the hothead screaming insults at you is going to look like the person they are if you remain quiet, calm and polite. When you jump into the fray, it then becomes ‘he said, she said’ and the truth of it muddies.
If your corporation keeps the asshat, well, they deserve it! Move onward and upward. Don’t bother looking back and bemoaning fate. But, I do encourage you to see what part you took in it. You may not have known the morale or ethos going into the job but now that you have, think about what you did or did not do or say and make your own behavioral changes. For me, my change is to not be as patient with mentally imbalanced people. It can encourage their abuse and nobody deserves to be abused at work. Working for a living, whatever it is, is challenge enough. None of us needs to put up with rudeness and ego. There are ways to end a call, stop a person from jumping you in your cubicle every morning and to do this in a polite but firm way. And when that doesn’t work, get up and walk away.
Life is too short for unnecessary conflict. One of the things I learned when my mother got dementia was that stress and shock can bring it on. This can be a bad accident, such as breaking a hip, losing a loved one, a bad car accident or anything that seriously jolts you. They don’t know why but I think I do. I think the life most of us live is vastly removed from the life most of us were designed to live. The pace is fast, the work hours long and judging by what I see, the respect and compassion has dwindled. No work is worth affecting your mental or physical soundness because at the end of it, what you have left is you. You have to be in shape to take on whatever comes next. I have watched a lot of worker bees who are spent, not in great physical shape or emotional condition trying to find work. Always put yourself first. Because the corporation you work for will take what it can, the responsibility rests upon you to call it when it’s time to stop.