Saturday, January 27, 2007

Strangling is not an option

Not quite sure what this was doing in a leading national newspaper, but I got a laugh out of it. Not that I agree with the Talmud-quoting dean who's blaming the victims; I'm convinced that some people are just plain nasty.

A post-9/11 desire to make peace with the wretch in the next cubicle??? We're fighting the terrorists by overcoming petty office politics? I wonder if it isn't more likely that some terrorists are taking out their office frustrations on the rest of us (terrorists have day jobs, don't they?).

Below are excerpts from the article, for the sake of putting the above in context.

If you know where to find the Cambridge University study, tell me!

Help, I'm surrounded by jerks

By Stephanie Rosenbloom
Published: January 18, 2007

CERTAIN mortals have the power to sink hearts and sour moods with lightning speed. The hysterical colleague. The meddlesome neighbor. The crazy in-law. The explosive boss. A mélange of cantankerous individuals, they are united by a single achievement: They make life miserable.... Psychologists call them “difficult people.” ... an industry of books and seminars has sprung up, not to help the difficult change their maddening ways, but to help the rest of us cope with them... there are scores of seminars, workbooks and multimedia tools to help people co-exist with those they wish did not exist... numerous resources are already on the market, including the succinctly titled “Since Strangling Isn’t an Option” by Sandra A. Crowe.

Next month... Duke Law School will for the first time offer a workshopcalled Dealing With Conflict and Difficult People. In September... Harvard Law School... will present a seminar called Dealing With Difficult People and Difficult Situations. And the Graduate School, United States Department of Agriculture... has scheduled more than half a dozen seminars entitled Positive Approaches to Difficult People for this year.

The lessons include common sense (talk it out and put yourself in their shoes), character by character tactical road maps and something that the victims of the difficult don’t want to hear: they might be the problem.

Nan Harrison, the vice president of training resources and publication sales for CareerTrack, which every month presents more than 50 public “difficult people” seminars across the country, attributes the increased popularity of such workshops to a desire to improve workplace skills in a time of corporate downsizing and a more competitive job market. “I think the stakes have gotten higher for everyone,” she said.

Other conflict-resolution specialists suggested an unexpected reason for the increasing interest: A post-9/11 desire to make peace, even if it is merely with the wet blanket in the adjoining cubicle.

Whatever the reason, “difficult people” gurus are in demand. That is perhaps because everyone knows at least one person who can set the blood boiling. They can be found in corporate offices, on co-op boards, in church choirs and on university faculties....

...Difficult people are not harmless. The impact of slowing productivity or creating unhappy customers and vendors is immeasurable, unknowable and often a company’s biggest cost, said Ms. Harrison....

Yet, some scholars say, the problem is not the difficult people themselves. It is you.

“There’s a good quote from the Talmud,” said Bruce Elvin, an associate dean and the director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Duke Law School. “ ‘We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.’ That really in my view sums this topic up.”

He and others say that rather than seeing the office curmudgeon or the post office nitpicker as the sum of their most wretched behavior, it is better to think of them as full people, even to empathize with them, if only to maintain some sense of control.

Easier said than done. But psychologists say people exhibit difficult behavior because they have a need that is not being met. Understanding that need ­ a colleague may be snappish, for instance, because his personal life is in turmoil ­ helps take the sting out of his or her actions, they say.

“Some people really are bad people,” said Mark I. Rosen, a social scientist at Brandeis and the author of “Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People,” “but I don’t think the percentage is as high as people think it is.” Instead, he said, “most people fall into the category of incompetent or oblivious.

Several authors think it is useful to characterize infuriating people into types and prescribe ways to deal with them, as Robert M. Bramson did in 1981 in “Coping With Difficult People,” one of the first popular books on the topic. Its overarching lesson is to find a way to communicate with these people because they are not going away.... after categorizing the difficult behavior, you can take steps to rein it in. For example, Dr. Rick Brinkman, a seminar leader and an author of “Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst,” calls one category Whiners. These people rattle off an endless loop of complaints and must be coaxed into problem solving.... “You have to keep asking them what they think they should do,” Dr. Brinkman said, to press for resolutions. You might finally say something outrageous, like “What if we were to kill everyone in the other department?”

The literature on difficult people often focuses on the workplace, but business scholars say that neither your department nor “the other department” has a corner on the difficult people market. Rather, as Richard Freedman, the distinguished service professor of management at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University, put it, “Difficult people are distributed evenly throughout society.”

“Having somebody who is really difficult can actually be good for the workplace,” said Jo-Ellen Pozner, a researcher in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. “If everyone really hates this one person, it becomes the basis of social bonding for the rest of the group.”

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