Lately, a question my readers have been asking A LOT is, “how do I deal with the psychopath / narcissist at work?” especially since these people are demanding, draining and difficult.
This question has inspired me to create a book recommendation video and article of Robert Sutton’s brilliant and highly readable new release: “The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt” because it’s easily the most comprehensive, well-researched and exhaustive compilation of strategies I’ve ever come across.
Follow this advice and you’ll have implemented an iron-clad, no arsehole clause for life.
In fact, the guide so comprehensive that if you’re dealing with a “jerk at work,” you might even find it a little daunting to implement everything you learn within its pages. Therefore, I’m going to focus on Sutton’s suggestions for “distancing” strategies here and in particular, his excellent advice on: “Asshole Avoidance Techniques: Reducing Your Exposure.”
The chapter starts with this central piece of advice:
“Don’t engage with crazy”
Strategy #1 – Keep Your Distance
In the 1970s, researcher Tom Allen came up with the “law of propinquity,” which showed that physical proximity lead to more communication; in fact, we are four times more likely to communicate with a colleague who sits six feet away than one who sits sixty feet away. Once people are more than 150 feet away, communication becomes rarer still, even via email and phone. Ideally, Sutton suggests to be on a different floor or even another building altogether if you want to avoid the arsehole as effectively as possible.
If physical distance isn’t possible, then creating emotional distance is a second option. There are three levels of emotional detachment or disengagement with progressively greater levels of intensity.
Strategy #2 – Tune Out During Downtime
At the lowest level of emotional distancing is the ability to mentally switch off and disengage from work after hours. Use the commute as a symbolic ritual of shifting from work state to home state and at home, Avoid repetitive thoughts, worries and rumination about work. This is the healthiest mode of creating distance.
Strategy #3 – Detach Or Tune Out Just During The Worst Times
The second level of emotional detachment is to respond to bad experiences and people by giving as little of yourself as you can. When dealing with assholes, Sutton recommends just going through the motions, thinking about better things and dealing with assholes in perfunctory ways. You can block, think about something else – or just act like a “machine” – only doing what you have to do. Behave in the most boring and superficial way you can.
You might find this strategy useful, which I call: “How To Make Your Bad Boss Disappear (Without Actually Killing Him).”
Then, when you’re in the company of more civilised people, switch your Empathic self back on again, giving them your full self and talents.
At this level, you’re starting to wade into the shallow end of dangerous territory because coping involves shutting yourself down, which has negative consequences in terms of your quality of life, as you will see in the highest level of emotional detachment.
Strategy #4 – Tune Out As Much As You Can, Most Or All Of The Time
The third and highest level of emotional detachment is the most natural, instinctive coping strategy to adopt if you’ve been bullied for more than six months.
At this level, you’re just short of becoming emotionally distant from everyone and everything in your life. Sutton recommends that this intensity of detachment is to be reserved only for a workplace that’s so hostile it “feels like a prolonged personal insult;” where the abuse comes from every direction relentlessly.
This coping strategy is also known as “presenteeism” and it’s where you’re so totally disengaged, your performance will be perfunctory at best and likely to suffer a significant decline. As a result, this strategy may cause significant damage to your self-esteem, especially with regards to your confidence in your own competence.
Like Adam Sandler in the movie “Click,” your life will pass you by, which is a recipe for unhappiness. On your deathbed you may even experience these top five regrets of the dying, as Australian nurse, Bronnie Ware discovered in her research:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
- I wish that I had let myself be happier
Extreme detachment has a lot of negative consequences. For one, it’s likely to generalise to other areas of your life and it may turn you into a “working zombie.” Those who resort to this strategy are absent more often, quit at higher rates, are the least proud of their company and the least productive. Zoning out leads to lacklustre and even downright lame efforts. You become the “working wounded” and struggle day after day to survive an ugly circumstance.
If you can relate to what you’ve just read, then you need to search for a better job ASAP.
The other danger of extreme disengagement is that it doesn’t change what happens to you or others, it only changes how you think about your circumstances. It can blind you to the extent of the abuse by making you believe it’s OK to tolerate it.
Also, it disables your ability mobilise your resources to battle, defeat or drive out bullies. If you must use it, have it only as a last resort and a temporary one at that.
Sutton recommends using this strategy like a Class B restricted drug. He suggests:
“Use with extreme caution in cases of prolonged, extreme or unlawful abuse including but not limited to sexual harassment, overt or intentional racism, threats of physical harm, sexual assault and other violent or physical harmful acts. Side effects may include dangerous denial of and no actual reduction in objective abuse.”
In conclusion, distancing, both physically and emotionally, is a useful strategy only if you use it at its lowest intensity. It doesn’t however, provide you with the tools to fight back. If you want to fight back, consider Sutton’s advice, with which I fully concur: “I believe in doing battle when you have a decent chance to win, or even when the odds are low, but only when the people you take on have neither the means nor the inclination to do you serious harm. Alas, sometimes it’s wiser and safer to lay low, to say nothing, and to wait for the opportunity to get the hell out.”
If you want a smarter way out than extreme disengaging, I invite you to receive help and support from your fellow empaths in my Facebook group: “Empaths At Work.”
Let’s continue the conversation there – I’m looking forward to meeting you and giving you the encouragement you need to deal with the work stress from dealing with psychopaths and workplace bullies on a daily basis.