Rising above your workplace nemeses

I know of practically no one who does not have to use their social talents to excel at work. In that social environment, many forces are at play. There are expressions of power between management and labor. There are tensions among teams, departments, sexes, races, religions, groups and leaders. Succeeding for yourself requires more than just clocking in. It requires social intelligence and the ability to read your environment and the intentions and motives of your coworkers and bosses.

The drudgery of work can be challenging enough without the need to handle challenging personalities you will inevitably encounter, all your life.

The drudgery of work can be challenging enough without the need to handle challenging personalities you will inevitably encounter, all your life. (From Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, of the Ford River Rouge factory)

I doubt there is anyone in a contemporary workplace in the United States who has not experienced frustration on the job linked to someone they work with. One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome is that of the passive-aggressive coworker.

You may know variations of this type of person. I think I must have encountered my first when I had my second job in high school. Despite our differences, we still had to work together, for two years in my case, and I had to develop methods to rise above their personality and actions. I learned a lot from that, and I built on that knowledge in my later jobs.

Such challenges have never really ended, because such personalities remain very common, more so in low-functioning work environments.

Managing Passive-Agressive ColleaguesRobert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and Mastery, writes it is always best to steer your ship clear of their rocky shoals: “But there are people out there seething with insecurities who are veritable passive-aggressive warriors and can literally ruin your life. Your best defense is to recognize such types before you become embroiled in a battle, and avoid them like the plague. … At all cost, avoid entangling yourself emotionally in their dramas and battles. They are masters at controlling the dynamic, and you will almost lose in the end.”

Does that sound like a familiar situation to you?

The so-called Bible of mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV, describes what it calls passive-aggressive personality disorder as “a pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance.” It will be visible  when someone shows at least four of these traits:

  • passively resists doing routine social and occupational tasks;
  • complains of being misunderstood by others;
  • is sullen;
  • unreasonably scorns authority;
  • expresses envy to those apparently more fortunate;
  • voices persistent complaints of personal misfortune;
  • alternates between hostile defiance and contrition.

A variation of this type of warrior is one who has reached a high level of power, to become a right-hand to the one wearing the crown, or bearing the title of CEO or manager. In fact, it is the courtier who is often the real master.

Robert Greene describes such masters of deception this way: “Great courtiers throughout history have mastered the science of manipulating people. They make the king feel more kingly; they make everyone else fear their power. … Great courtiers are gracious and polite; their aggression is veiled and indirect.”

The courtier is always closest to the king and emperor and may even wield more power in that position.

The courtier is always closest to the king and emperor and may even wield more power in that position.

So what does one do? There are many strategies. I think we all of tend to use what we find works for the environment where we find ourselves and within our own comfort level. Succeeding with such people really is a test of life, and it can even be a fun challenge if you do not let such people master your emotions. If you can master your feelings, you are on very stable footing.

If you are not certain what may work, given the people around you, do as Greene suggests based on his study of people who were masters of their chosen work and of working with others. Hone your social intelligence. Above all excel at what your do, and make your value known.

“Work that is solid also protects you from the political conniving and malevolence of others—it is hard to argue with the results you produce,” writes Greene. “If you are experiencing the pressures of political maneuvering within the group, do not lose your head and become consumed with all of the pettiness. By remaining focused and speaking socially through your work, you will both continue to raise your skill level and stand out among all the others who make a lot of noise but produce nothing.”

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