If work is driving you nuts, it's because the office is a stew of irrational behaviour that is always on the brink of bubbling over. At least that's how Albert J. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, sees things. Dr.. Bernstein offers 101 solutions for surviving office insanity in his new book, Am I the Only Sane One Working Here? The secret to staying above the fray, he says, is quite simple: accept the craziness for what it is and learn to use it to your advantage.
Why is everyone at work so crazy?
People are behaving based on what they believe and on instincts. Say you're being chewed out at work and obviously it's just not your fault. Your boss is saying you did this and you did that. What your instincts will tell you to do is immediately explain yourself. What that will do is make your boss angrier. The trick to dealing with crazy people is knowing to deal with them from their point of view.
So the best way to deal with people's insanity at work is to accept it for what it is?
Yes, to accept it and understand how it works.
Is it hard to become an amateur psychologist?
I don't think so. But nobody likes an amateur psychologist who diagnoses. You have to know it and respond to it. But any statement that begins with "you are" and doesn't end with "wonderful" is going to be taken as an attack.
What are the basic rules of staying sane at work?
The No. 1 rule is think before you speak. Don't fly on automatic pilot when you're at work. The essence of being businesslike is always thinking about "what do I want to happen, what are my priorities and what are the best ways to make those things happen?" Especially when the situation is stressful, never ever say the first thing that comes into your head.
How do you define people acting crazy?
When their speech or behaviour gets them the opposite or something different than what they hope it will get them, and also when it gets in the way of other people doing work. It's like the micromanaging boss. Usually, the harder you pressure people, the worse their performance.
How would you deal with, say, a passive aggressive co-worker?
First of all, [realize that]the reason they're being passive aggressive - they're not lying to you about being angry - [is that]they're lying to themselves. So don't believe at any point that you can get them to see that they are angry and attacking you. Then you have to figure out what kind of personality they have. They are typically people who need attention. So what you need to do is give them attention now or you will have to give them more attention later. If they like you, passive aggressive people will have a harder time giving you a hard time.
Of all the workplace types you cover in the book, from liars to passive-aggressive people to control freaks, do you find there's one that is the most common?
At the risk of being stereotypic, a female co-worker is more likely to be passive aggressive whereas a male co-worker is more likely to have authority problems. Those are your co-workers. Above, at the boss, what you have is a lot of narcissism. That I define as people who divide the world into people who matter and the nobodies.
How do you deal with a narcissistic boss?
When a narcissist wants something, he will make all kinds of promises or implied promises. So first of all, never believe anything until you get it in writing. They expect everybody to be acting in self-interest, so they're not going to be offended if you act in your self-interest.
In any workplace that's really crazy, eventually you might end up yelling at someone. What do you do when that happens?
Stop yourself as quickly as possible. If you lose it, don't apologize. That just makes you look weaker and what you're trying to do is show strength and control.
There's a sense in the book that the workplace is one big lab experiment and you need to know how to make the mice take the cheese.
Oh, yes. Everything that happens is based on contingencies. Whatever contingencies you have control over, those are the things that you use to get what you want to happen.
And at the end of the day, because you can't control other people's craziness, you have to go with it and react appropriately?
Sometimes you're lucky and you can come up with enough of a contingency that you can get what you want. But really, the way to stay sane is to understand what's going on and do your best not to let it get to you. The worst thing you can say to yourself is, "It shouldn't be this way. People should be different." People are the way they are, and the better you understand it the more likely you are to stay sane.
Making it work
Stuck in a nutty office? No problem, says Dr. Bernstein. Here's a few ways to avert a workplace disaster:
Problem One of your peers is constantly lying about the progress he's making on a team project.
Solution "If you don't have control, get it by becoming a Jewish mother," Mr.Dr. Bernstein advises. "Schedule progress-review meetings to which you always bring something to nosh. A schlemiel … who's never around when something needs fixing, would have a hard time eating your food and bringing nothing to show."
Problem One of your co-workers complains about everything and it's getting on your nerves.
Solution "Practise creative ignoring. Even if you're surrounded by a crowd of people who are screaming and yelling for someone's head, just sit there. This response is much more thoughtful than automatically doing what everyone else is doing."
Problem Your boss is a micromanaging control freak.
Solution "Give progress reports before she asks for them. Nothing allays a control freak's fears like excess information."
Problem You need to show a better attitude, even if you have to fake it.
Solution "Have a professional appearance;" "be pleasant;" "accept direction and criticism;" "do your job as if it were worth doing;" "know your bosses' priorities and follow them." "A good attitude is like pornography: It can't be defined, but people know it when they see it."!