I Just Work Here
June 3, 2013
Good news. The vampires are back!
About a year ago, I introduced you to "emotional vampires," a term created by a West Coast clinical psychologist to describe all the nasty, terrible, irritating people who drain our will to live.
Albert Bernstein has taken his clever psychological construct and applied it to the workplace, publishing a book called "Emotional Vampires at Work: Dealing with Bosses and Coworkers Who Drain You Dry."
Bernstein's descriptions of narcissistic managers and approval-seeking co-workers are spot-on, but what's invaluable is the book's pragmatic strategies for handling the humanoids who drive us nuts.
Central to the emotional vampire idea is recognition that lying sales reps and bosses who manage via motivational aphorisms are not simply annoying — they likely have personality disorders. That means your hopes of pointing out their flaws and encouraging them to change are useless. What you must do, Bernstein says, is understand — and outthink — them.
In the book, he writes: "Emotional vampires themselves are not necessarily aware of the irrational needs that animate them. Like young children, they don't do much self-examination; they just go after what they want. This is the area of vulnerability you must exploit. If you know the need, you know the vampire. If you know what to expect, then you can defend yourself."
We have natural emotional responses to all types of vampires — the narcissist makes us angry, paranoid people make us defensive.
The key is to bypass your gut reaction and slow down your thinking.
"When somebody does something we don't like, our urge is to fight back or run away, and neither one of those works particularly well when it comes to dealing with these people," Bernstein said in an interview. "We have to think about people in a different way than we are programmed to think of them. You're not going to be able to change their view of the world or their personality. So approach them from the standpoint of what they believe."
For example. Say your boss is what Bernstein calls a "histrionic" emotional vampire — an extrovert who spouts managerial catchphrases and is unfailingly optimistic but doesn't know how to manage.
It's easy to get swept up in this vampire's charms and reassurances that everything will be fine. But that will get you nowhere. This personality type wants its proverbial butt kissed — so give in, with your eye on a specific goal.
Listen to the boss attentively, be a positive voice. That'll help you gain favor. Sound like sucking up? It is, but as a means to a more positive end.
By responding in a way you know the histrionic vampire will like, you can guide him or her into ideas that make sense for you, the team or the company.
I asked Bernstein whether this sort of manipulation might transform regular people into opportunistic vampires themselves.
"What I'm teaching people to do is to manipulate, but to me that isn't a dirty word," he said. "You do it in a way where you think, 'What is it that you want to happen.' It's different from manipulating people to take advantage of them. What I'm doing is getting people to manipulate people into doing what they're supposed to do. Like getting a manager to manage for a change instead of giving a motivational talk."
As he writes in the book: "Manipulation itself is neutral. Moral judgments apply only to the way manipulation is used."
The book provides an array of vampire-specific strategies, but there also are sensible tactics that can be applied to any difficult boss or co-worker.
•Don't say anything! Like the modern-day sexy vampires on TV who feed on the blood of attractive people, so do emotional vampires feed on emotional reactions. Deny them the meal of your gut response.
•Stall them. Workplace vampires expect interactions to unfold in a certain way, so your goal is to alter that pattern. Ask the person to explain a point in greater detail or say you need to think about the issue some more. It's like wearing a necklace of garlic.
•Keep your eye on the prize. Don't let your desire to prove your co-worker wrong or knock your boss down a peg distract you. You want to work with or around this person to achieve some goal — focus on the best way to make that happen.
None of this will be easy. But it's an infinitely smarter approach to dealing with difficult people than fighting with them, praying for their untimely demise or just being miserable.
I asked Bernstein whether he thought we'd ever rid the working world of these blood-suckers. Sadly, he predicts the nightmare is here to stay.
"All of these people with personality disorders, they aren't going to go away," he said. "They're going to find their place."
And so we must find ours, as workplace vampire hunters.
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty awesome title to have.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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