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The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Winter

Move over, Birds of North America and World’s Top Restaurants. Make room for a new field guide—to obnoxious co-workers. The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work helps readers reduce friction with unruly colleagues by understanding the psychological and biological causes of their behavior. The authors, both psychiatrists, identify disruptive personality types and offer strategies for working with them.

Jody J. Foster, M.D., M.B.A. and Michelle Joy, M.D. ’12, use stories to illustrate the traits of 10 personality types that include the Narcissus, the Bean Counter, the Venus Fly Trap, the Distracted, and the Robotic. The Narcissus, for example, is someone (usually male) who expects others to cater to him, seeks attention, fishes for compliments, sulks, frames insults as jokes, and spreads rumors. Colleagues may find themselves treating a narcissist like a glass ornament for fear of offending him. The book explores what underlies these behaviors, explaining that the arrogance and bluster are compensatory: “In his most private moments, the Narcissus fears that he isn’t all that great.”

So how to endure the narcissist who wreaks havoc in the workplace? It helps if co-workers respond promptly to requests or invitations, because narcissists are quick to feel snubbed. Managers can prevent them from hogging credit by rewarding teamwork more than solo efforts. And colleagues can help narcissists digest criticism by delivering it inside a “compliment sandwich” that begins and ends with praise.

Readers will benefit from such strategizing, Joy noted in a recent interview. “If you’re having a hard time at work because of a difficult person, it can make a huge proportion of your life uncomfortable. But it’s not just about how happy we are at work. It’s also about the safety of our patients.” The Joint Commission issued a Sentinel Event Alert in 2008 warning that workplace strife can lead to errors. Disruptive and intimidating behaviors may also hasten employee turnover and increase costs.

Joy met Foster, the principal author, in 2013 when Foster was her attending on the acute psychosis unit at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Foster chairs the hospital psychiatry department and serves as a clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Joy now works at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

During the five years required to pitch, write, and edit the book, Joy said the partnership worked well because Foster has experience at the intersection of psychiatry and institutional culture, and a master’s from the Wharton School, while Joy has a long-time interest in writing.

Joy found time to write while at Yale School of Medicine. Physician-author Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. ’90, M.P.H., M.S., served as a mentor when Joy edited the Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine. Joy also worked with the late gastroenterologist and writer Howard M. Spiro, M.D., and participated in a writing group led by psychiatrist John Strauss, M.D. ’59, now professor emeritus of psychiatry.

Joy and Foster don’t intend the book to be a diagnostic tool, but rather a rough guide to what makes co-workers irritating. “No person is going to exactly fit into one category and not the other,” Joy said. “You can get a sense of what ballpark to go to: ‘OK, the Robotic fits, but maybe the Bean Counter kind of fits, too.’ Because often there’s an overlap.”

Foster and Joy counsel empathy (and sometimes therapy) for the irritating co-worker. “They’re not setting out to be a difficult person,” said Joy. “They’re struggling with their own anxieties, their own insecurities.”