The Schmucks at the Office

A psychiatrist has some advice on how to work with difficult colleagues.

Olivia Harris / Reuters

When people enter a new workplace or new office, one thing is almost a given: Some people will be hard to get along with. Difficult co-workers are a headache, and with American workers spending an average of nine hours at work every day, often working more than they sleep, a disruptive relationship with a colleague can be a serious drag on one’s day-to-day wellbeing. And it’s not just people’s feelings that are harmed; it’s productivity and the bottom line, too.

Jody Foster is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and has consulted for the last decade on disruptive interactions in business settings. The work stemmed from a consulting product she developed for venture-capital companies back when she was a student at Wharton (in addition to an M.D., Foster also has an M.B.A.). Along with Michelle Joy, also a psychiatrist, Foster wrote the book The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively With Difficult People at Work, a guide on how to avoid drama in the workplace.

I recently spoke with her about why she wrote the book, why interpersonal relationships at work can be so hard, and what can be done to resolve personal conflicts in professional settings. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: How did analyzing personalities and interactions at the workplace start for you?

Jody Foster: When I was a business student, I learned that people who aren’t in my field tend to be absolutely fascinated by the people around them and really want to understand why they’re acting certain ways, how to interact with them better, and how to get a better handle of what’s going on. I realized there was a niche for providing psychiatry to non-psychiatrists in the business world, so we developed a package to evaluate management teams for venture-capital teams before they invested, because the venture-capital world has a very rigorous due-diligence process, but it doesn’t really include much at all in terms of due-diligence around the people who they’re investing in.

Lam: So the companies wanted to do due diligence on the people they might be investing in, just to make sure they weren't crazy?

Foster: Exactly. That’s obviously not how they put it. The first case that comes to mind was a company where there were twin CEOs, and they had a very odd relational style. They spoke about themselves in the third person.

The venture-capital company wanted some insight into who they were. This happened with company after company: The product was good, but there was just something about the way this team interacted. They pretty quickly learned that getting an overall sense of who the players were and how they worked with each other was a really good thing to know. It helped them with how to structure the investment.

Lam: When I was reading your book, I thought about the way most people just accept that there are jerks at work. But the way you’re describing these interactions through the lens of the venture-capital world, it was more a matter of risk management.

Foster: Absolutely. Part of the hope of the book is that we will label fewer people jerks, because we will try to take an extra minute to find out what’s driving them to be what we think is a jerk. We might find out that that’s not exactly what’s going on at all, and in fact there’s a strategy for interacting with them that might end up being really helpful. The whole workplace might feel like a totally different place.

Lam: I wonder if it’s a matter of effort and habit. I tend to think that people scrutinize personality harder in their personal lives: You consider personality a lot when thinking about who may be a new friend. But at work, I often think about the colleagues around me by what they do, not who they are. Why is that?

Foster: It’s so hard, because we spend most of our lives at work. And yet, people do want to put that much more energy into understanding in a friendship or a relationship. I actually often joke that the next book in this series is going to be called The Schmuck in My Bedroom, because people behave badly or in ways that cause interpersonal conflict no matter where they are. There is more effort when it’s a more intense or intimate personal relationship, and I’m just sort of advocating that we try to put a little bit more energy into the people around us before we label them. We spend so much time at work, why wouldn’t we put energy into making our workplace the best place it can possibly be?

A big point of the book is that conflicts take root when people avoid direct approaches to them, because people don’t really like to handle uncomfortable topics. Then we wait too long to intervene, and instead of doing something productive, we just get frustrated and label people schmucks and jerks.

Lam: Why do you think it is that people avoid this kind of interaction that could make life better?

Foster: I think that that’s the ultimate question. For psychiatrists, that’s the career question. Why do people avoid change when their life can be so much better? Why do people avoid difficult topics when just saying it would make things so much better? The fact is that people are so risk-averse when it comes to interpersonal discomfort, and even personal discomfort, that the idea of sort of talking about a situation for months at a time to other people instead of just walking up to somebody and saying, “I really don’t like this thing that you’re doing,” it seems somehow, we convince ourselves that this is the easier way to handle it, and it’s just not.

Lam: In a work setting, do you feel people fear that it might be inappropriate to discuss?

Foster: I think people just don’t want to deal. To your point earlier: “This isn’t my wife, it’s not my husband, it’s not my best friend, why do I have to put myself out there and get into an uncomfortable situation with somebody?” Therefore, we avoid it.

Lam: You also mentioned throughout the book that certain incentives in the workplace, the way our organizations are set up, can condone some of this inappropriate behavior. For example, you describe a type of person most people have encountered: the bean counter, a person who is obsessed with details. Wouldn’t a company that’s hyper-focused on productivity really want somebody like that around?

Foster: They might. Or, in fact, that might be the exact wrong person, because if the company is focused on productivity and they have an obsessive person who is preoccupied with orderliness or perfectionism and can’t make decisions, then productivity might come to a halt. So even though it may seem like a great thing—the idea that somebody is obsessive, and very detail-oriented, and does things right—oftentimes a bean counter is over-promoted because they are valued for their ability to take care of the details. When you actually get this person into a position where they need to do more than the small, detail-oriented tasks, they can’t see the big picture. They torture the people around them because they are also trying to control the other people’s activities, and this is why somebody is labeled a micromanager and people can’t stand working with them.

Lam: What can companies do about this dynamic, that it’s just hard for people to get along at work sometimes?

Foster: If people embrace some basic overarching strategies, I think that any workplace can be improved. The first is the most important: Accept the fact that people don’t set out to be disruptive. I do not believe that people wake up in the morning and set out to say, “I am going to be a jerk and make my office hell today.” We should recognize that people have traits, and that’s who they are. If we can take a step back, and look at them from an observational standpoint, we can generalize some of their behaviors which could help us figure out how to get along with them.

What is disruptive in one [work] culture may be perfectly acceptable in the next. You and I can be standing next to each other, and somebody in front of us can do something. I might be absolutely horrified by it, and you might be completely not bothered. It’s really important to lay out the rules of engagement in your organization. I think it’s incredibly important, difficult as it may be for some people, to call out what you see when you see it or feel it, because early intervention is key. When you do that, you should be concise and direct and honest. If you just start using a lot of words to get your point across because you’re anxious or because you’re uncomfortable talking about it, you stand a chance of losing your message.

Lam: It sounds like some companies are already sort of onto this. I’m thinking particularly about Google’s quest to build the perfect team, and what they found to be incredibly important in that equation is the idea of psychological safety—the ability for team members to feel safe speaking up.

Foster: There’s no new sort of earth-shattering concept in this book. It’s just attempting to address the discomfort that people have about directly taking a look at things, and instead of immediately getting upset in a situation, taking a step back and trying to take a more empathic posture and think about the anxieties that might have been driving someone to behave in a way that was upsetting. Psychological safety is a great term. If we all knew it was okay, where it might be safer to say, “You know, I really didn’t like what you did or said,” it might be easier. If we could create work situations where it was safe to do that, and that certainly is what I would hope to accomplish, then we would have a lot less trouble at work. And then, of course, we always have to ask ourselves whether we are the schmucks, because if you figure that out, it's almost like a gift from god. It’s a roadmap to, “Wow, I’m the problem here, which means now I get to go on a whole path of self-discovery and make my life better.”