Office environments are, when you think about them, curious and unusual. Throughout human history, most work/occupation has been of a physical nature. Things were made, or transported, or fought for, or grown.
But then the industrial revolution happened, and then mass literacy happened, and now most of us are useful in an administrative/planning/thoughtful sort of way.
So the human body has become generally confined to an ergonomically-designed chair on casters – and the weather gods have lost ground to the vagaries of Microsoft Excel and the tempermental SSL interface of our mail clients.
It’s enough to make us go crazy.
And offices are filled with the crazy. The dangerous crazy.
Men who should be soldiers? They’re trolling around and issuing orders on commodity exchanges. Clerics that were once shunned? They wield the power of hiring and firing with their spreadsheet projections. Courtesans that once danced with popes and cardinals? Still climbing the ladder with their fickle affections*.*I’ve been marathon-watching The Borgias. In case it wasn’t clear.
Anyway – some of the power-play is fine. Especially when delicately well-executed.
But a lot of it is heavy-handed. And that’s uncool.
The Unimaginative Manipulation of Amateurs
1. The Sweet and Innocent Doe-Eye.
Yes – the very attractive who predicatably fall back on their looks. It works on their partners – so they try it on you. The “Don’t hurt me – I’m sweet and lovely. Why would you hurt me by not doing what I want?” approach to life.
Suggested response: “Ah – no. You’re a big person now. You managed to work yourself up to this point, not so? So please – get on with it. If I’ve got spare time – it’s mine, and you can’t have it.” Alternatively, I’d lie, and claim to be overburdened.
And if I ever were accused of lying… “Well of course I’m lying. But that’s because I’m trying to be polite and not point out that I’m not going to do your job for you, see? But if you’d prefer outright honestly, we can do that… I’m actually very on board with that. I like to cut through things.”
2. The Shamer
This is the type of colleague (or boss) that somehow implies that you’re a terrible person when you don’t do what they want. It’s characterised by “I am SO disappointed!!!” and exclamation points and question marks in abundance. Shamers tend to surround themselves with the vulnerable – and you can often spot them by the hours (work environments with crazy long hours – generally run by Shamers).
Personally, I take deep offence when a work task turns into a personal reflection. You’re “disappointed”? Why on earth should that be relevant? The work is either good, or not good, or needs improvement. Declarations of your feelings are nonsensical.
Suggested response: sometimes, it helps to call the person out (because I think it’s worth drawing a line). But generally, respond with derision (although not necessarily vocalised). Because this type of abuse is pathetic and evil. For more, I’ve actually written about Shamers before – Office Politics: The Devil in Prada
3. The Derider
“I just don’t understand how you can be so useless.”
Suggested response: as I understand it, this is usually the attitude of the deeply insecure who spend a lot of time feeling useless and/or have suffered at the hands of bullies like themselves (and now they’re just seizing the moment). In these moments, I’m a fan of documentation trails. Where you keep lists of what you’ve done, and lists of what was said. Good for two reasons: firstly, it makes you aware of just how stupid the “useless” observation can sound when placed into the appropriate perspective; and secondly, it provides you with all the ammunition for that moment when you sit the derider down and dispassionately tear their observation apart. Preferably, with witnesses.
4. The Bolshy Delegator
“Hi – please do this. I need it by 4. Thanks”
Followed by hourly emails, smses and phonecalls to establish progress and corral you along.
Suggested response: when you realise who this person is, and what their standard mode of operation looks like, it’s important to spend 5 minutes thinking about how you’ll deal with the situation when it re-emerges. The trouble is that we’re not used to dealing with demands as though they’re optional. We prefer requests. But the delegator bypasses that optionality by dispensing with questions and assuming that you have the time and that you’re free. So when you’re faced with it, I think it’s important to do some bypassing yourself. Respond immediately with “Sorry, I can’t.” and leave it there. Perhaps they’ll be put out – but you’re making it clear that slavery has been abolished, that employment has limits, and that respect is mutual. You need it to turn into a discussion/negotiation – because then that’s appropriate. If you’re going to do someone a favour by prioritising their task – then they need to acknowledge that you’re doing them a favour. Period.
5. The tantrum thrower
Do what I want or I’ll scream! Okay, now I’m sulking.
Suggested response: let them throw the tantrum. Sit back, enjoy, maybe applaud at the end (likely to result in an encore).
6. The Barely Veiled Threatener
“Well I’ve spoken to so-and-so and they say you have to…”
This is usually the first response of the Bolshy Delegator after you tell them that you can’t do it.
Suggested response: “Great – let’s call so-and-so to check.” The line of authority does not need anyone to mediate it, thanks. And because you’re the one calling to clarify instructions, it means that the opening manipulation gambit is yours. “Hi so-and-so. Sorry to bother you, but I’ve got <threatener> here, and she/he says that they’ve spoken to you and they’re telling me to immediately drop this task that I’m currently working on in order to do <instruction> for them. I’m almost done with what I’m doing/this project needs to be completed for such-and-such-important-reason – and I just wanted to clarify that you’d prefer <threatener’s> project to take priority here?”
7. The Key Word abuser.
Usually the self-important-phrasing of the sycophant that’s sure of the affections of the powers-that-be.
Suggested response: “How interesting. But you’re wrong. I think that’s a fairly false assertion. Empirically speaking, most things are negotiable. Especially when you apply it to time – because some things are negotiable in the long term, but not in the short term. Although I suppose it depends… But I think I’m confusing myself. And now I’ve forgotten what you were saying. Did you ask me to do something? Because I’m really busy right now. But I can probably have something with you by Wednesday. How does that work for you?” And just like that, you’re in control of the conversation, they’re on the back-foot, and you’re negotiating. Lawyered.
I had a longer list, but I’ve run out of morning.
As a final observation, I just wanted to say that many people seem to be concerned by the fear that fighting back against manipulation in an overt way can leave you with a reputation for being difficult, or unhelpful, or lazy.
Frankly, it is that fear that allows you to be manipulated.
Being overt and clear may make some people think that you’re difficult (mainly the deeply manipulative, who are used to getting their way). But mostly, I think it just makes you clear, principled and open. It also means that you tend to work through things in a way that you see fit – which makes you reliable and solid. Those are not bad adjectives. In practice, those tend to be rare qualities.
So fear not.