Hate Your Co-Workers? How to Cope

The ?I Hate People? PrincipleABC News Photo Illustration
A new business book, "I Hate People: Kick Loose from the Overbearing and Underhanded Jerks at Work and Get What You Want Out of Your Job," offers a suggestion on how to deal with awful co-workers: Duck and cover.

I've written a number of columns about dealing with toxic colleagues and managers at work. The tips experts and employees in the trenches have offered on the subject have been all over the map:

Kill them with kindness. Baffle them with backhanded compliments. Tell them you're onto them. Tell H.R. you're onto them. Bake them cookies. Don't bake them cookies. Bake them cookies laced with laxatives so they're out of commission for the rest of the day.


A new business book, "I Hate People: Kick Loose From the Overbearing and Underhanded Jerks at Work and Get What You Want Out of Your Job," offers another suggestion: Duck and cover. Do everything in your power to steer clear of the people annoying, oppressing and sabotaging you at work, and you'll not only get more done, you'll likely shed a few layers of stress and enjoy your job more.

"You can't change anyone else's behavior but yours," said branding expert Marc Hershon, co-author of the book with journalist Jonathan Littman. "Unless your job description includes social worker, you're wasting your time."

Instead, these self-professed people-haters advise becoming a "soloist" -- a lean, mean productivity machine impervious to all those office oafs out to kill your creativity and throw a wrench in your workflow.



Stave Off the '10 Least Wanted'

Rather than being a mere cog in the "team-infested" corporate wheel, the authors suggest embracing your inner entrepreneur, even if your biggest innovation is simply learning how to deflect the "10 least wanted" of the workplace -- aka, your time-sucking, idea-quashing colleagues.

Take the "stop sign," the co-workers who've elevated playing devil's advocate to an art form and genuinely believe they're being helpful when they say, "We can't do that."

"You don't want that stop sign early on in a project when you're brainstorming ideas," Hershon said.

Instead, tell them, "You don't have to be there yet. We really want your input when we get a little further along," he said.

If you do find yourself in a meeting with a "stop sign" who's raining on your parade, say, "Those are great points. How about you let us get our ideas out first and we save the last 10 minutes of the meeting for the issues you're raising?" Hershon suggested.

Then there are the "flimflams," the smooth-talkers who try to stick you with their work at every turn. Because flimflams are notorious for glossing over the details about how much of your time they'll need, your best defense, say the authors, is to press them for details -- in writing.

That's what Bridget Quigg, a Web content editor in Seattle, does.

"When dealing with the pawners, I say, 'When do you need this by? Who will be reviewing this? Can it wait until next week?'" she said. "Anything to slow people down and force them to think a bit more before they walk away smiling, with their hands empty."

Dig Your Own Cave

You, of course, can't ward off each of the "10 least wanted" archetypes in quite the same way, Hershon said. You may be able to charm a "spreadsheet" (tireless enforcer of the rules) into green-lighting a deadline change, gently prod "sheeple" (those so mired in groupthink they're afraid to speak up) to contribute during meetings, or tell a "minute man" (the person always asking you "just one more question") that you're late to yet another meeting.

But subtleties won't work with the office "bulldozers," who like to "bang their fists on the desk and yell into a speakerphone," Hershon said. (Instead, the book suggests preventing bulldozers from dominating a meeting by asking point-blank, "Do you have a recommendation?" or defusing their temper tantrums by pointing out that they're yelling and then exiting the room.)

Still, bobbing and weaving your way through the workday can be exhausting.

"The easier way to deal with any of these types is to minimize your contact with them," Hershon said. In other words, become a soloist and retreat to your cave.

"It's about scoping out which conference rooms aren't being used, so people don't know where you are and you can get some work done," Hershon explained.

Other suggestions: piling the guest chair in your office with books so people don't feel welcome to stay, wearing big headphones (not earbuds), sitting with your back to the door, walling off your cubicle with a curtain and blocking out some meeting time on your public calendar so you can actually work.

"The average office worker is interrupted more than 70 times a day," Hershon said. "Some scientific studies say that if you look busy, people will tend not to bother you."

Jessica Seck Marquis, who works in higher education in Phoenix, has managed to save herself an hour a day from unwanted interruptions.

"On the small whiteboard I've placed outside my cubicle, I have written 'Forward-thinking zone: no gossiping, complaining or other forms of stagnation past this point,'" she said via e-mail.

"I get fewer visitors now and a lot more work done -- and those who do come by know that the conversations we will have will be productive, positive discussions only."

Rewrite the Rules

Unfortunately, the "10 least wanted" of the workplace are often those in positions of power. For this reason, Hershon and Littman champion flying solo in the office whenever possible (what they call "solocrafting") and operating like a leader, a renegade even -- even if it means acting first and apologizing later.

Thinking he had nothing left to lose, Phil Buckley, a Web developer for an East Coast newspaper, took that approach.

"The past year or two have seen drastic cuts at a time when what we've needed is more work being done to entice new readers to our Web sites," he said.

Buckley and a co-worker had a handful of interactive Web features they wanted to develop to better serve readers, but they were fairly certain the company's experimentation-phobic "stop signs" and "spreadsheets" would shoot them down. So they formed a black ops group of innovation-minded colleagues from various departments (what Hershon and Littman call an "ensemble").

"When we reached about a dozen people, we started implementing some of our ideas with no official OK," Buckley said.

Buckley's ensemble was elated at the success of their first unauthorized release -- a "read similar stories" link that ran alongside articles, which readers ate up. But the powers that be were livid, asking, "Where did this come from? Who approved this?" It took many months, meetings, ruffled feathers and terse negotiations before the black ops group won the support of a newspaper VP, then an executive at the corporate office.

"Last month, we started a new weekly meeting about how to fundamentally change our Web sites," Buckley said. "It includes four VPs, four directors, [the co-worker Buckley started this endeavor with] and me. Even though we've only met four times, I think we have shown them that we need to think like a startup because that's the only way to survive."

Obviously, going rogue like Buckley and his colleagues did isn't for everyone. But you can still take baby steps to shut out the naysayers and time wasters each day.

As Hershon put it, "The more productive you are when you're a soloist, the more people are going to say, 'Let's not bother him or her.'"

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.