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In the Land of Difficult People24 Timeless Tales Reveal How to Tame Beasts at Work
By TERRENCE L. GARGIULO GINI GRAHAM SCOTT
AMACOMCopyright © 2008 Gini Graham Scott and Terrence L. Gargiulo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWicked Wolves and Other Aggressive Beasts
In folktales and fairy tales, the wolf is considered one of the most dangerous beasts. Although it may be crafty like the fox, it is primarily associated with being a ferocious, aggressive, hungry predator out to destroy its prey. One of the most popular classics of the genre is the story of Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf lurks in the forest to find out where Little Red's grandmother is so he can eat her as well as Little Red, and in some versions of the tale he does. Another example is in the story of the Three Little Pigs, where the wolf destructively seeks to blow their houses down. Sometimes the wolf is even associated with evil or images of the devil. He (and most always the wolf is a he) is considered wicked, not to be trusted, luring his prey into danger, and then ready to pounce when the prey is most vulnerable. Although the wolf is often a loner, he can become even more dangerous when traveling in a pack with other wolves.
So how do you fight back against the wolf and other such aggressive, dangerous creatures? Generally, in the tales, the victims who survive escape his clutches by getting out of a trap and running away, like Little Red in many of the Red Riding Hood stories; by finding or building a place of refuge strong enough to ward off the predations of the wolf, as did the third little pig who built his home of bricks; or by using some trickery, so the wolf is trapped or killed (as in some of the Little Red stories). But it can be very hard to tame or control the wolf, so it is usually better not to try.
The workplace parallel is the boss who is literally a tyrant and hard to approach about anything. Sometimes a boss may become this way because he is acting defensively from fear, to cut off any resistance and prevent any challenge to authority before an employee raises any questions. It's a way of using command and control, sometimes by rooting out and destroying potential opposition to silence it and stay in command. In some cases these bosses are just naturally aggressive and seek to assert their power. They love the rush that comes from threatening others and keeping everyone in line. And you may also find some coworkers can be this way. They aren't bosses yet, but they act as if they are, and if they do take charge, they may be apt to exercise their newly-found power in the same aggressive way, especially when they are new to the position and fearful of any challenges to their authority.
Such bosses—and other workplace wolves—typically like their employees or coworkers to be submissive and deferential, all the better to take advantage of them and get them to do their bidding. And then, at the first sign of a challenge, they are likely to attack. So it's no wonder that they are hard to get along with and are often loners. Like the prowling wolf, they may find it hard to work with other wolf-types as well, since they are all so aggressive. But if they consider you part of their pack, beware: Things may seem fine at first, but when they get angry they may try to push you out.
The following tales illustrate how these wolf-types operate and the best way to deal with them if you find them where you work.
Tale #1: The Wolf and the Goat (Russia)
Once upon a time there was a goat that built herself a little hut in the woods and lived there with her kids. She often went deep into the forest to look for food, and whenever she left the hut the kids locked the little door and stayed inside. When the goat returned she would knock at the door and sing: "My little baby kids, unlock the door and open it! I, the she-goat, have been in the forest; I have eaten soft grass and drunk spring water. Milk flows down in the udder and from the udder to the hoof and from the hoof into the damp earth." The kids would at once open the door and let their mother in. Then she would feed them and go again into the forest, and the kids would lock the door very tight.
The wolf overhead all this. Once when the goat had gone to the forest he came to the little hut and cried in his rough voice: "Hey, little kids, hey my dear ones, unlock the door and open it! Your mother is back and has brought you milk aplenty." But the kids answered: "We hear you, we hear you, but yours is not our mother's voice! Our mother sings in a soft voice and sings different words." The wolf went away and hid himself. Then the goat came and knocked at the door, singing: "My little baby kids, unlock the door and open it! I, the she-goat, have been in the forest, I have eaten soft grass and drunk spring water. Milk flows down in the udder and from the udder to the hoof and from the hoof into the damp earth." The kids let their mother in and told her that the wolf had come and tried to devour them. The goat fed them and when she left again for the woods gave them strict orders not to let in anyone who might come to the little hut and beg in a rough voice saying other words than she said. As soon as the goat was gone the wolf ran to the little hut, knocked at the door, and began to chant in a soft voice: "My little baby kids, unlock the door and open it! I, the she-goat, have been in the forest, I have eaten soft grass and drunk spring water. Milk flows down in the udder to the hoof and from the hoof into the damp earth." The kids opened the door and the wolf ran in and ate them all; only one little kid escaped by hiding in the stove.
The goat came back, but no matter how sweetly she sang, no one answered her. She came closer to the door and saw that it was open; she looked into the room and saw that it was empty; she looked into the stove and found one kid there.
When the goat learned of her misfortune, she sat down on a bench, began to weep bitterly, and sang: "Oh, my baby kids, why did you open the door to the wicked wolf? He has devoured you all, and left me with great grief and sadness in my soul." The wolf heard this, came into the hut, and said to the goat: "Ah, neighbor, neighbor, why do you slander me? Would I do such a thing? Let us go to the forest together and take a walk." She replied, "No, neighbor, I have no heart for walking."
"Let us go," the wolf insisted.
They went into the forest and found a pit in which some brigands had recently cooked gruel. There was still some fire left in it. The goat said to the wolf: "Neighbor, let us see which of us can jump across the pit." The wolf tried first, and fell into the hot pit; his belly burst from the heat of the fire, and the kids ran out of it and rushed to their mother. From then on they lived happily, acquired wisdom, and eschewed evil.
This tale about the wolf and the goats from Russia has parallels with the Little Red Riding Hood story. As the tale indicates, there are two ways to survive an encounter with a wolf: hiding and escaping like the baby kid; or appealing to his pride and getting him to do something that will bring about his destruction, like the mother did.
Similarly, in the workplace, the wolf may be the boss or a coworker, who is out to put down or otherwise hurt the people who work there. Wolf-types show off their power and keep others in place. Too, like the wolf in the story, this kind of boss or coworker might go prowling for information he could use against others, from eavesdropping on conversations to looking at e-mails on someone's computer. Then, just like the wolf used the information from the mother goat to open the door, the dangerous boss or employee will use that information in nefarious ways, such as to damage someone's reputation or to berate or fire an employee who shows resistance or is not submissive enough.
In the folktale, the wolf literally eats up the children. But you can imagine many ways in which a controlling, domineering boss or coworker would figuratively eat up others, such as by draining their creative juices, or killing their motivation and joy of work. Such a person is like a psychic vampire who destroys others who are on the path, particularly if they seem to be in the way. In some cases, when a wolf at work is behaving this way out of fear, he may actually be self-destructive and seeking to take as many victims with him as he can. An example is a paranoid wanna-be film producer, who managed to put together a crew for a film; but then, one by one, she ended up having confrontations with the group. Eventually, people fled, leading to the total demise of the project and with it the wolf's power over everyone in the group.
Take That—What to Do
What should you do if you are dealing with an overly aggressive and controlling wolf-type at work who you feel is threatening to harm you or others? How do you avoid the danger—or possibly turn the tables to get rid of the wolf? Here are some tips. Choose and adapt whatever works best in your own work situation:
Physically avoid the wolf as much as possible; and shield yourself psychologically. For example, find ways to reduce the amount of time you work together; do what you can without any input from the wolf; and if the wolf tries to brow-beat you, just tune her out.
Avoid snooping wolves. Lock your drawers and turn off your computer when you leave the office. And provide a wolf-boss with as much information as he needs. That way, he'll have less reason to snoop around.
Find safe and strategic ways to turn the tables on the wolf. Show her in a bad light to her boss, by leaving a door open when she's unjustly yelling at you or a coworker; or by "mistakenly" forwarding a copy of an insulting email.
If things get bad enough, seek help from someone in authority, such as your boss's boss or someone in HR. They may be able to confront the wolf, putting an end to the abuse and the hostile work environment.
Tale #2: Aniz the Shepherd: An Uygur Folktale (China)
Once upon a time a landlord hired a shepherd boy whose name was Aniz. He was very well liked. What people liked most of all was to listen to him playing the flute. His flute looked very simple, no more than a length of bamboo, but in his hands it became a wonderful instrument. Whenever they were free, people would sit around Aniz and entertain themselves by listening to him play. The landlord was heartily sick of both the boy and his flute. He was constantly finding fault with him and scolding him, "You little wretch! Do I pay you to sit there playing the flute?" In point of fact, Aniz's flute-playing did not interfere with his sheepherding work in the slightest.
One day the landlord found some reason to give Aniz a beating. That was not enough; he was not content until he had driven him out and trampled his flute into little pieces. "Good! I should like to see you play the flute now!"
Poor Aniz left the landlord's house and, with tears trickling down his face, wandered through the streets. He chanced to meet an old man. "What's the trouble, young fellow? Why are you out here all on your own, crying?"
"I am a shepherd. My name is Aniz. The landlord beat me, drove me out, and trampled my lovely flute to pieces ..."
"Don't cry, Aniz," said the old man kindly. "Come along and stay with me!" He took Aniz to his home. There he made him a new flute and taught him how to play it. After a few lessons, Aniz could play more beautifully than ever. This time it was not just people who enjoyed his playing; even the animals of the forest came and sat round him. As time passed, Aniz and the animals became close friends.
One day the landlord summoned his sons and said, "Last night I dreamed of a beautiful rabbit, white as snow, with a black spot on the top of its head. You must try your to catch it for me in the forest."
"Father, we have never even heard of such a rabbit!" his sons replied. "Where can we go to catch it for you?"
"You hopeless creatures!" cried the landlord in a temper. "Go and look for it. Whoever finds it will inherit all I have when I die."
The eldest son said "Brothers, let me go! I fear no danger, if only I can make father happy!"
He set off on his way, looking around carefully, and after a while an old man came towards him and asked, "Young man, where are you going?" The eldest son told him why he had come.
"Go to the forest then," said the old man, "and look for the rabbit! Aniz is tending my cattle there. Tell him what you want and he'll help you."
The eldest son went into the forest, found Aniz and asked him for his help. "Of course!" Aniz smiled, "I can help you to find the strange rabbit. But you must bring with you a thousand strings of cash to pay for it."
The eldest son reckoned, "Compared with the property I am going to inherit, a thousand strings of cash are nothing!" He returned to the forest with the money and found Aniz sitting on a tree stump, playing his flute. Animals were squatting round him entranced, pricking up their ears to listen to the music. The eldest son saw the white rabbit with the tiny black spot on the top of its head.
Aniz saw the rabbit too. He put down his flute, stretched out his hand, took hold of it by its long ears and handed it to the eldest son. "Here you are. Hold it tightly! If it escapes, it's none of my business."
The eldest son paid the money, thanked Aniz and set off home with the rabbit. He was about to leave the forest when he heard Aniz playing the flute again. As soon as the rabbit heard the music, it hopped from his hands. The eldest son searched and searched but could not find any trace of it. In the end he gave up and went to see Aniz again.
"The rabbit has run away. What can I do?" he asked.
Aniz answered, "There is nothing I can do about it. I instructed you to hold it tightly. It's no use blaming me."
The eldest son had no alternative but to go home empty-handed and tell his story.
The second son said, "Father, don't worry. I'll go and catch it tomorrow." Next day, the second son went to try his luck and met the same fate as his elder brother. On the third day, the youngest son went, but he fared no better.
It made the landlord very angry to watch his three sons lose three thousand strings of cash like this, without so much as a piece of fluff to show for it.
"You fools!" he cried. "Tomorrow I shall go and catch it myself!"
So the following day he went into the forest. Before the landlord could open his mouth, Aniz took out his flute and began playing. All the wild beasts of the forest came and encircled the landlord. Terror drove the last drop of color from his cheeks. He fell to his knees in despair and entreated Aniz, "Save me!"
"Landlord! Do you remember Aniz? At one sound from my flute, these animals will eat you alive!"
"Don't treat me as once I treated you!" He lay prostrate at Aniz' feet and sobbed, "I promise to give you anything you want. Don't let them eat me."
"Very well. I will spare your life. But you must never bully poor folk again! If you don't turn over a new leaf, I won't be so easy on you next time."
This tale about the young shepherd Aniz and his landlord is another example of the way a person who has been bullied is able to turn the tables on his tormentor. In this case, however, the tormentor has the opportunity to learn from experience and improve his behavior.
A parallel to this situation is the bully boss, team leader, or co-worker who beats people up, not physically, but with his words. Such a person is free with insults and put-downs. He's always ready to find fault in others, but never in himself. He may also be stickler for rules, like the landlord, insisting things be done a certain way even when they could be done another way. Such a person may resent the warm relationships a person develops with others or the times people take to relax and socialize, seeing these as threats to his own power. So even if such socializing and relaxing contributes to good morale, like Aniz playing the flute, it doesn't matter. He wants such activities to stop. If he's the boss, he'll decree it. If he's a coworker without the authority to issue orders, he'll do whatever he can to undermine the goodwill, often by complaining.
Excerpted from In the Land of Difficult People by TERRENCE L. GARGIULO GINI GRAHAM SCOTT Copyright © 2008 by Gini Graham Scott and Terrence L. Gargiulo. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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