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The Value of Annoying Co-Workers

2014-02-17 13:43:40Source:The Wall Street JournalAuthor:

James liked his job in the admissions office of a large university. It was interesting, decently paid, useful work, he told me at the holiday gathering where we'd met. The only problem: His co-workers agitated his every last nerve.

There was the social butterfly who spent her days flitting from desk to desk; the workaholic who obsessed over every last detail; the malcontent who subtly belittled anyone who spoke up in a meeting; the passive-aggressive assistant who would only answer calls if you were on her good side that week; and the boss, a hopeless narcissist who inevitably made himself the focus of every task. James came to dread going into the office. (For reasons of privacy, I've changed his name, as well as the names of others cited here.)

You rarely get to pick your co-workers, which makes it nearly impossible to predict whether you'll be happy at any new job. While exploring life in the modern workplace, I've heard people grumble again and again not about their job but about their office mates. They were thrown in among the autocrats and the aristocrats; the passives, the aggressives and the passive aggressives; the suck-ups and the backstabbers. This may be why so many of us could relate to the NBC sitcom "The Office," with its universal message: The office would be a fine place to work, if it weren't for everyone else.

But not all "disrupters"—the personality types who make it harder to get work done—harm office life or even productivity.

Take narcissists. Sure, they're terrible listeners and apt to gobble up all the credit. But they also can be charming, engaging and charismatic. They can attract and inspire followers and be terrific mentors and leaders—which is why so many bosses are narcissists. In a 2006 study of more than 100 CEOs, researchers at Penn State found that executive narcissism can actually be motivational. The key to working for such a boss is learning to share praise, making your own contributions subtly known and ensuring that the narcissist doesn't rule your work life.

Another classic disrupter is the passive aggressive type—the office scorekeeper. Greg, a graphic designer at a magazine and a family friend, told me that he habitually did better layouts for editors who took a personal interest in him. He'd frequently hand in shabby pages for colleagues he spotted going out for drinks who hadn't invited him along. "I did not ever want to be perceived as looking vulnerable or weak," he said. "Why should I do for other people when they don't do for me?"

Scorekeepers don't play fair, which makes them tricky to get along with. But Pat Heim and Susan Murphy, authors of "In the Company of Women," argue that scorekeeping can have an upside, if used to encourage cooperation and motivate co-workers—a sort of "do for others what they do for you" philosophy.

Then there is the office gossip. A 2012 study at the University of Amsterdam found that gossip makes up a whopping 90% of office conversation—but isn't as detrimental as you might think. The researchers concluded that such behind-the-back chatter may be essential for group survival. They found that gossip can make offices run more smoothly and improve productivity, helping to keep underperforming workers in line while fostering camaraderie.

Consider Sascha—a friend's daughter who worked as an assistant to a busy orthopedist in a Manhattan hospital. Sascha had been enduring a painful divorce and was overwhelmed with personal obligations. Her co-workers were losing patience, but she figured they would have to understand.

They didn't. Sascha began to overhear her name whispered in the hallways; she'd enter the break room for coffee, and chatter would halt. But instead of calling her co-workers out, she listened. She tried hard to get her work done despite her personal struggles. "I was wrong in assuming that my co-workers were my friends, or even that they shouldn't talk about me," she told me. "I needed someone to give me a kick in the ass, and, well, they did."

Finally, there are the obsessive, workaholic types—disrupters who live for order. They may be annoyingly rule-bound, but they set high standards, communicate well and make great operators, mentors and team members. As a 2011 study from the Rouen Business School in France reported, workaholism often can be constructive, inspiring co-workers to be more original and dedicated.

Adapting to personality types at work need not mean abandoning your principles. Even the most annoying co-workers often have something to teach. You also need to figure out if you yourself are a disrupter. James realized that he was the office enabler, the one who needed everyone's approval all the time. That revelation let him separate himself more from his job—making him not just a better worker but a better co-worker too.

—Dr. Drexler is an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves."





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