Have you ever had a coworker so loud, so self-involved, so irritating or so oblivious to their own obnoxiousness that you were tempted to leave a baby pacifier on their desk anonymously in the hopes they’d take the hint to shut the fuck up?
That happened recently, according to an advice column called Ask a Manager from workplace mentor Alison Green. But the admittedly hilarious prank didn’t have the intended effect: The pacifier recipient took a victim stance, admitting to talking loudly sometimes, but was mostly just hurt and confused for being called out. The childish prank made the prankster look like a jerk.
So, in spite of how satisfying such paybacks might sound, they’re hardly the best course of action for dealing with the biggest workplace pains in our asses. Instead, try asking yourself this simple question next time you encounter a workplace gargoyle: Why? In other words: Why are they so awful? What makes them act this way? What’s the motivation for this terrible behavior? And why is it getting to me?
Yes, asking why sounds ultra zen, even new age-y in its prescription for curiosity (and, unfortunately, eventual tolerance) over knee-jerk hating. After all, despising your most vile coworker isn’t only easier than trying to understand them, but if you can find a friend to join you, it’s also extraordinarily more fun. And it’s often difficult to imagine why some people are so bad at sharing a space with others. While some coworkers are personable and polite and understand boundaries, others are wildly inappropriate in every way. The internet is full of stories of them in their oversharing, tattling, kiss-ass glory.
Sadly, most of us need jobs and would like to be good at them, maybe even succeed a little. So we must all try to work with the lesser humans among us, and the only way to do that is by building empathy. That’s the argument Rebecca Knight pushes at Harvard Business Review after speaking with experts on workplace engagement, who tell her that the only way to survive coworker irritation is by trying to understand them as actual people.
One thing is clear: You can’t do that if you’re always reacting to them. CEO Rich Fernandez, head of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, tells Knight that empathy is the only way to tolerate difficult people, and empathy is only possible if you “depersonalize the situation.” In other words, stand back, take a beat and try to actually assess the situation on a human level. Maybe, Fernandez adds, the coworker is just “reacting to things going on in their lives.”
Annie McKee, author of How to Be Happy at Work, tells Knight that you should also ask yourself, “What’s causing me to react this way?” The idea here is that maybe the frustration you feel is about you, not them.
Maybe! If the coworker is a new parent, maybe they’re experiencing nightmarishly sleepless nights, and it’s making them late to meetings. Maybe someone is going through a divorce, experiencing burnout, dealing with a sick parent, fresh off a breakup or even just had a terrible fight with a significant other that morning. You’re just an innocent bystander in the drama of their lives, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Generally speaking, if we assume that 99 percent of what other people do in the world has zero to do with us, we would be in good shape, and work is no different. The asshole in traffic who cut you off because he was texting isn’t out to get you; he’s just in his own head. Likewise, the jerk in your meeting who spends the entire time talking about himself isn’t a reflection on the quality of your contributions; he’s just insecure. Accepting that other people can suck, and suck for valid reasons that aren’t about you, is a cornerstone of being a halfway decent human. (This was kind of the entire point of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water,” the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.)
If you can see that most things aren’t about you, then maybe you can stop reacting to them as if they are. Knight says this way we can avoid something called “amygdala hijack,” where our rational brain goes a little nuts, and instead, calm down and breathe through it when a coworker decides to call a client at high volume in an open plan office on speaker phone again. Maybe they just want everyone to know how great they are with clients.
Of course, that doesn’t mean your coworker isn’t still really, really annoying. And just disengaging is only part of the solution. Here’s the harder part: After trying to understand them, you’re supposed to then be kind toward them. McKee’s example is instead of sarcastically saying, “Nice of you to join us,” in a meeting where the coworker is late yet again, to say, “Welcome. Get a cup of coffee before you sit down, and we’ll get you up to speed.”
Of course, this may humanize the situation and encourage better behavior, but it may not. Not getting worked up about it is great, but if the behavior is still something that prevents work from getting done, you may still have to have a heart-to-heart with your shitty coworker. You may have thought you should go to your boss about this person, but that doesn’t always go well, either, and some issues should be resolved amongst yourselves.
Not to be cynical, but if it were so easy to be compassionate and open in a productive way with other people, we’d all be doing it. We also wouldn’t need to leave pacifiers on people’s desks. The approach laid out here by Knight isn’t bad in the slightest, it’s just more evolved than most people seem capable of.
Perhaps the better way to think of it was in a tiny little gem buried near the end of Knight’s article: McKee notes that, as annoying as other coworkers are, we should all be aware of the fact that from another perspective, the really annoying coworker might actually be you. “If they drive you crazy,” she told HBR, “chances are you drive them crazy, too.”
So if leveling up doesn’t work, maybe the only other thing that will make us all act better toward our fellow coworkers is realizing that somewhere in some prankster’s desk is a pacifier with your name on it.