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.