April 8, 2012
Every workplace is required by federal law to employ at least one individual who is spectacularly irritating. That's an incontrovertible (made-up) fact.
Whether you're a decorator or a litigator, probably even if you're an alligator, there's someone around to tax your nerves and, through bullying or back-stabbing or micromanaging, drain your will to live.
I have a name for these people, but it's quite long and contains profanities that haven't even been invented yet. Al Bernstein, a Portland, Ore.-based clinical psychologist, has a considerably better name: emotional vampires.
"They are everywhere," Bernstein said.
The good doctor first published "Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry" more than a decade ago. He has an updated version coming out soon and is working on a new book that focuses on workplace vampires, the living dead who haunt our days.
Behind many of these faux-fanged fools, Bernstein said, there is likely some form of personality disorder.
"When we talk, we try and represent what the actual truth is or what's going on inside," he said. "But people with personality disorders are always trying to elicit an effect. They're always thinking, 'What will it take to get you to do what I want you to do?'"
While tales of glamorous bloodsuckers are all the rage, forget everything you've read, as most companies have a policy against splashing annoying co-workers with holy water. To combat office-dwelling emotional vampires, you need to know your enemies.
"You have to know how they act and how to protect yourself from them," Bernstein said. "The whole idea in dealing with emotional vampires is if you just respond emotionally to what they're doing, you're toast."
Here are come common workplace vampires:
Antisocial vampires: The simplest and most dangerous kind, they fall into two categories: bullies and con artists. The bullies are always itching for a fight. And Bernstein said the con artists "create an alternate reality, like a stage hypnotist. They're good at figuring out what it is you want to hear; they'll make promises and lure you into doing exactly what they want because they seem so nice."
Histrionic vampires: These are often very peppy and positive, yet unwilling to listen to any form of criticism. "The kind of bosses who think attitude is everything," Bernstein said. "If you complain about anything, you have a bad attitude. They think this is the greatest company in the world and we're No. 1 in everything, and anyone who says different, there's a problem with that person." They gravitate toward people who agree with them and shun those who speak their minds.
Narcissistic vampires: These can be people who never actually accomplish anything, yet are legends in their own minds, or actual superstars who do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. A quick example would be corporate leaders who make huge cuts in staff while granting themselves big bonuses. "The attitude is, 'It's OK for me to use other people because they're not as important as I am,'" Bernstein said.
Obsessive-compulsive vampires: These are the micromanagers and control freaks who drain us dry. They're driven by fear of making a mistake. The worst thing you can tell them is, "It's not a big deal." To them, everything is a big deal.
Once you identify a workplace vampire, learn how to drive a metaphorical stake through its heart.
"Everything these emotional vampires do follows a pattern," Bernstein said. "For example, when somebody is yelling at you, what they expect is that you'll either fight back or run away. What you need to do is recognize the pattern and step out of it, do the unexpected. Say, 'Give me a minute to stop and think.' It completely breaks the rhythm. To further step out of the pattern, ask questions that require the vampire to stop and think. Ask, 'What would you like me to do?' When you ask someone that, and they have to stop and think, you're a step closer to negotiation. You haven't done what's expected; they can't follow their pattern because you haven't followed it."
With a con artist, you first have to recognize and not buy into their cajoling. Ask yourself, "What does this person actually want from me?" And then make a rational decision whether you want to do the vampire's bidding.
With histrionics, sadly, you must learn to speak their language.
"When you ask a histrionic something, never imply that they're doing anything wrong," Bernstein said. "You want to get them thinking. The only way you can do that is by asking them questions that will lead in the direction you want to go. They've got to discover it for themselves."
Narcissists can never be trusted. Unless you have an agreement in writing, it's unlikely they'll ever do anything to help you unless it benefits them.
Obsessive-compulsive vampires just need lots of care and feeding.
"Do what it takes to reassure them," Bernstein said. "Take notes when they give you their incessant lectures. Give them more progress reports than they could possibly need. That will keep them thinking, 'Oh, he's taking this seriously, I don't need to worry about him. I'll go bother somebody else.'"
The big question I had after my vampire-hunter boot camp was, "Does the battle ever end?"
Sadly, it does not.
"Typically, these people are not going to change," Bernstein said. "All you can do is be aware of what they're like, and never assume they think like you do."
So keep your eyes peeled and your neck protected. And maybe carry a crucifix.
Just in case.
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