Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’ve had a job, you’ve probably worked with someone we might politely call “difficult.”
Or as Dr. Jody J. Foster would say, “a schmuck.”
Foster, the author of “The Schmuck in My Office,” has developed a field guide of sorts for office jerks.
As a psychiatrist and MBA, Foster has developed quite the expertise in schmuckery: She oversees a program at the University of Pennsylvania for physicians who become disruptive, and has expanded it to help troubled employees elsewhere.
“I will tell you, in 100 percent of the talks and conversations I’ve had about this, I have never once met an individual who did not feel that they worked with a schmuck,” Foster says.
Along the way she’s identified 10 distinct types of schmucks. Here’s a sampling:
You know this guy. It’s always about him. He spends a lot of time talking about the great work he’s doing, and may even take credit for things he didn’t do. He’ll definitely shake blame for things he did wrong. And he’s probably your boss.
Foster calls the Narcissus the most common character, but a confusing one, because there’s the recognizable look-at-me type, but also what Foster calls the woe-is-me type, who is equally self-involved, but in negative terms. “So it’s, I have the worst cold. I have all these papers and nobody notices me and I don’t even have a corner office. It’s that person.”
The Venus Flytrap
These are creators of chaos — they’re unstable and likely to lash out if things don’t go as planned. The Venus Flytrap might call, email and text on repeat if she doesn’t get answers, and get angry over perceived slights. She may be openly angry, hostile or even aggressive.
“The push-pull, walking on eggshells chaos that they can cause is just unbelievable,” Foster says.
This person is always trying to get away with something, whether as a shortcut, for convenience or for sport. They’re often seen as likable and trustworthy at first but will manipulate those around them.
Foster says we all encounter swindlers eventually, even if it’s not a dramatic Bernie Madoff situation: “I’ve certainly hired my fair share of swindler contractors.”
The Bean Counter
Ready to jump through some hoops? This is the person who makes hoops for a living. They want every t crossed and never let go of procedure. They can appear logical and even intellectual, but tend to be long-winded, hypercritical and dogmatic. They are often “over-promoted” because of their attention to detail.
The Bean Counter comes in two types: the hermit, who holes up with his obsessions, and the hostile, who inflicts them on others. “They’re going to send your work back over and over in what feels like a sadistic way until you get it right. It can feel malicious, but at the end of the day they’re just upset with you that you’re not doing it perfectly because not doing things in a perfect way makes them feel out of control.”
Needless to say, this would be the natural enemy of the Bean Counter. She’ll procrastinate, drift off during meetings, have trouble following directions and make careless mistakes. They’re the ones who are late to meetings or forget important deadlines. They might interrupt frequently, and they’re likely to be frustrated as they fall behind on email or other tasks.
How to Deal With a Schmuck
So what to do if you’re working with a schmuck?
Foster says she starts with the assumption that the person isn’t a serious jerk — often it’s simply a failure of management to set out expectations. Sometimes they’re in the wrong culture or are simply oblivious.
"First and probably the most important, you need to accept that people don’t set out to be disruptive," she says. "They’re not on their commute to work thinking hey, how am I going to cause havoc today? These are things that just happen, so you have to keep the assumption of malice out. The fact is that a lot of people don’t know they’re being disruptive. They don’t even understand that their behavior is aberrant, and what might be disruptive in one culture might be completely acceptable in another culture."
Lay the Ground Rules
"You really have to lay out the rules of engagement of where you are. Even if you and I were standing next to each other and someone did something, I might be completely offended by it and you might say, what’s the big deal? That’s what makes this tricky, but you have to make sure you’re clear about what’s OK and what’s not," Foster says. "So if someone is behaving badly and they don’t perceive it then the only recourse you really have in the workforce is to set limits with them."
Know What You’re Seeing
"I don’t advocate labeling people, saying you’re a Flytrap, done," Foster says. "But I do think that people can be categorized by themes in their behavior, and those themes can be generalized and there are certain behaviors that come with it, and that intervening with those behaviors can be very helpful."
"You have to call out what you see when you see or hear it, because early intervention is absolutely key. When you’ve decided you’re ready to call something out and make an intervention, you must be concise and direct and clear when you communicate. If you in your discomfort about direct intervention use a lot of words to say a short thing, your message could very easily get lost," Foster says.
"So even if you’re working for a boss and they’re making you feel horrible and the intervention isn’t really going to change that person, the ability to say, 'the way that you’re acting doesn’t feel good to me,' or 'I’m not in agreement with the way you’re treating me,' that alone can be therapeutic for people."
"The ultimate question is, if in workplace after workplace I’m having trouble with people, am I in fact the schmuck in my office?" Foster asks. "If everyone is around you is an idiot and a jerk and it’s their problem over and over again, you need to look around and say, am I in the right business? Am I in the right culture? Or am I the one bringing personality issues to work with me that’s causing trouble here? It’s always good to be a little bit self-reflective before you jump to blaming others and getting angry at them."