Coping With Difficult People At Work

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Vicky Oliver's book, Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots, comes at the right time. Until a year or so ago, "retention" was a mantra for HR officers. Now the shoe is on the other foot: It's employees who obsess about retaining their own jobs. So a tool kit for coping with difficult workplace personalities falls on fertile soil.

In an ideal world, productivity and teamwork would reign everywhere, so office politics wouldn't exist. But the real work world is filled with personalities and situations that regularly test one's will to cooperate and one's ability to produce. Oliver's book is a compendium of counter-productive personalities accompanied by advice for coping with each.

Published in September 2008, Bad Bosses... is designed as a handy reference volume, rather than for reading cover-to-cover. "There's no need to spend one moment on any chapter that doesn't apply directly to your situation," Oliver says in the introduction. But it's also highly readable. It's written in a chatty, humorous style more typical of the Web.

The book contains 44 chapters grouped in three major sections: Bosses From Hell, Colleagues From Purgatory, and When the Problem Lies Within. Each chapter in the first two sections describes a particular personality type - "The Predator," "The Sheltered Sultan," "The Veteran Hack" - followed by five problematic behaviors and a concise solution for each. The third section presents 10 self-defeating work attitudes or habits (compulsiveness, intellectual conceit, moodiness, and the like) and three problems and solutions for each. The structure evokes Oliver's well-received earlier book, 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions.

Who Are the Author's Sources?

For the situations and solutions in Bad Bosses...., Oliver drew on a base of some 5,000 contacts who run the gamut in terms of professions, industries, skills and life stages. For the third section on self-diagnosis, she also interviewed people who had lost jobs repeatedly, as well as psychologists and career coaches.

How solid is the advice? Dealing with people isn't an exact science, so opinions will differ. From my own experience and subjective perceptions, some of Oliver's tactics sound right on the money, while others seem dubious.

For instance, in Chapter 40, "I'm Too Smart For This Job," the initial problem (getting guidance on a project your boss is clueless about) shows Oliver at her best. Her solution is to network inside: Find someone else in the organization who knows the task and pick his brain, taking notes if necessary so you won't have to bother him a second time. But the solution to her next problem, how to get out from beneath a claque of mentally challenged supervisors, left me shaking my head. "Work diligently to get your boss promoted," or even recruited away, Oliver advises. "Talk him up to the higher-ups. Wax rhapsodic about his achievements."

Making your boss look good - covering for him, letting him take credit for your work - is a standard strategy for getting ahead. But talking him up with the specific goal of getting him promoted is just asking for trouble. In every organization I ever worked for, an employee who either praised or criticized their boss to higher-ups without prompting would be viewed with suspicion.

Even if a higher-up solicits your opinion, wholeheartedly praising your boss might set you atop a land mine: Rather than promoting him, the brass may be looking to get rid of him, and aims to discern where your loyalties lie. So if asked how you like your boss, the safe response is, "I have no complaints."

Remember: The higher-up who posed the question would never have risen to where she is if she hadn't mastered the knack of answering questions without tipping her hand. Demonstrating you're equally Machiavellian should help you survive and prosper in any organization, regardless of your boss's standing.

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