The 3 Scripts of Difficult Co-Workers

comfortDifficult co-workers are running their “programs for comfort” (to paraphrase Thomas Keating) with too much priority. We are all running one of these “daemons,” but in the best case, they share urgency with the classic, cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. Keating identifies the daemons as 1) safety and security, 2) power and control, and 3) affection and esteem. They define our comfort zones everywhere, but especially at work where our egos typically have the most to gain and the most to lose.

Each program aims to get a legitimate need met, but when that need has not historically been addressed, a debt can build up and the payments can be steep – hence the increased urgency. Those running safety-and-security want everything to stay the same. New proposals threaten them. The power-and-control people need to keep everything in front of them and moving slow enough so that they can either buy in or make changes. Exercising power reminds them that they exist and they matter. Affection-and-esteem folks frequently need to be reminded that they are worthy and good, and so will go out of their way to engineer or claim a stake in favorable moments.

Yes, all of these people are terribly ego-centric, but only because they do not have a strong, resilient and confident ego in the first place – just the opposite of what you might expect! When seen as maladaptive attempts to self-comfort, these programs can evoke compassion from those whose comfort is more deeply installed.

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Compassion for Difficult Co-Workers

Why is that co-worker so … (obstinate, devious, boastful, greedy, aggressive, et cetera)? The question is usually posed at the water cooler and is rhetorical, meant to solicit an affirmation of your judgment (“I must be right in thinking that so and so is bad because my friends agree”). Gossip is not so much about telling secrets as it is about group reassurance. But why, really, is that person behaving in a way that seems dysfunctional for the larger team and/or the business?

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Depression, anxiety and stress are obvious possibilities. A legitimate personality disorder is a more difficult burden. Ruling those out, what is up with the normal neurotic (i.e. everybody and anybody)?

All of us are striving to be relevant and effective while staying within our comfort zones. This struggle is played out with the highest stakes in the workplace, the milieu in which we are applying our highest, most valuable skills. At the job is where our self-esteem and our very identities are on the line. I suspect that the more advanced you are in a trade or a profession, the more this is true. The business and teamwork are nice but I’ve got to prove that I matter! Otherwise I don’t have a meaningful narrative for my existence, which everybody needs.

When you observe your co-worker being difficult, get out your compassion heart-lens and see the person in a desperate struggle to matter. Win your victories with humility and never induce shame in your rivals.