The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work

The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work


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The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work by Jody Foster, Michelle Joy

"This is a timely must-read for managers and anyone who has ever had to deal with a difficult coworker; it addresses a ubiquitous problem in a proactive, positive manner that should get the desired results." - Publishers Weekly

Everyone has a “schmuck” in their office—-a difficult, disruptive person who upsets the workplace, confuses coworkers, and causes concern. It’s hard to understand why schmucks act the way they do, but one thing is certain—-they seem to come in all shapes and sizes. . . .

- Narcissus—-the condescending attention-seeker who carelessly steps on everyone’s toes

- The Flytrap—-the bringer of chaos whose emotional instability causes an office maelstrom

- The Bean Counter—-the orderly perfectionist who never gives up control, even when it’s full-steam-ahead to disaster

- The Robot—-the unreadable stone wall who just can’t connect

Sound like anyone you know? These are just a few of the more prominent types of difficult people at work. In The Schmuck in My Office, Dr. Jody Foster explains the entire spectrum of people we may think of as schmucks, how they can decrease productivity, destroy teams, and generally make everyone else unhappy. Along with nailing down the various types, she looks at personality traits and explains how dysfunctional interactions among coworkers can lead to workplace fiascos. She helps readers understand schmucks as people, figure out how to work with them, and ultimately solve workplace problems. She also makes readers consider the most difficult thing of all: despite where your finger may be pointing, sometimes you are the “schmuck”! Let Dr. Foster teach you how to make your workplace a happier and more productive one.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250075673
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 407,797
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jody Foster, MD, MBA, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Vice Chair for Clinical Operations in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital. She attained her MBA, with a concentration in finance, from the Wharton School.

Michelle Joy is currently a forensic psychiatry fellow at the University of Pennsylvania interested in the intersections between clinical medicine and the humanities.

Read an Excerpt

The Schmuck in My Office

How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work

By Jody Foster, Michelle Joy

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Jody Foster, M.D., with Michelle Joy, M.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8711-4


Meet the Schmuck


When I was in business school, a classmate came to me with a disturbing story about his office. "Some guy, we think we know who it is," he said, "goes to the bathroom every day, takes a dump, and after he's done, smears his dirty toilet paper on the door of the stall. A little z pattern. What IS that?"

I received questions about behavior all the time in business school, though I'll admit this was an unusual one. In a class full of aspiring bankers and hedge funders, I was the psychiatrist. I became the person whom everyone came to with questions ... questions about fights between coworkers, about intolerable bosses, about relationships, and, yes, about bizarre behavior. I enjoyed answering them, offering my insight about potential causes, possible solutions, interesting explanations. I looked forward to hearing what anecdotes my classmates would bring me and how my explanations and recommendations were received.

As a psychiatrist, you quickly get used to witnessing all sorts of seemingly extraordinary behavior. You work in psychiatric hospitals, in emergency rooms, in clinics, on the medical floors. You grow accustomed to interacting with people who think they're immortal, with people who think the devil is after them. Your days are filled with people who try to cut themselves, hang themselves, suffocate themselves. You hear horrendous stories of abuse — sexual and physical — some beyond your wildest imagination of what a person could do. Or endure.

I once had a patient who believed he had a bionic ear implanted by the government, in order to transmit classified information about impeding intergalactic war. Another one who tried to shoot an airplane out of the sky. But, believe it or not, what seems unbelievable can almost become expected. The atypical becomes typical; the horrific can seem routine. Your friends and colleagues are other psychiatrists and psychologists, and everyone has stories like this that fill their days.

Already a psychiatrist when I started business school, I was suddenly surrounded by people who found even commonplace interactions compelling. They were fascinated by their coworkers, and it was fun for me to explain the various permutations of office drama. I loved seeing how bent out of shape they got about people — their bosses, their coworkers, their direct reports — even their spouses. They came to me with tales of people they called real schmucks: those they neither liked nor understood. A quick explanation from me, and they were suddenly very relieved, very grateful. I realized how little people knew about why people acted the way they did and how seemingly simple insights could be extremely effective. Sometimes people wanted to know what to do about a coworker, but at other times they seemed to want to know why the coworker acted a certain way. More than anything, I realized that just a little bit of understanding goes a long way in helping someone empathize and even deal with the schmuck in their office. Going to business school provided an avenue for me to really see what other people said and thought about their work environments. Instead of being surrounded by people who were trained in, worked in, and inundated with understanding and analyzing behavior, I was now the one and only one with that skill set. And I liked it. It was from this experience that I realized just how much I wanted to use those abilities to help others in their workplace environments.

* * *

From those classroom discussions came a career of helping others understand individual and group dynamics at work. While I continued in more typical areas of psychiatry — running locked adult inpatient units and eventually becoming chair of the department of psychiatry at the nation's oldest hospital — I also combined my mental health experience with business training and those eye-opening classroom discussions. I worked as a consultant assessing entrepreneurial teams for venture capital companies. While in this role, I helped investors make backing decisions by allowing them to better understand the people in the company they were about to invest in and how they functioned together. Ultimately, I offered investment advice that was based on understanding personalities and relationships. In the morning I would see people suffering from schizophrenia, and in the afternoon I would help instruct and manage business, financial, and employment decisions using the same, albeit adapted, skill set of observing, asking, and figuring out what makes people tick.

I also developed a publicly offered "professionalism program" and, in that role, continue to help health care organizations create and maintain professional working environments. I began by consulting within my hospital system but now see individual consultations from all over and make recommendations to others on how to set up similar programs. Much like my function in those early business school conversations, I analyze how workers can better function alongside one another. In efforts to preserve safe and satisfying workplace environments, I assess problematic situations and develop plans to improve their functioning.

In these roles, I aim to figure out how difficult people and disruptive workplace behavior can be best addressed. No matter where people work, they bring their personalities with them, and oftentimes those personalities seriously, negatively affect the workplace environment. Bullying, micromanaging, and being entitled are all common problems at work, but thankfully they are all troubles that can be successfully addressed. Solutions can include everything from coaching to talk therapy for disruptive individuals to structural changes within the workplace environment itself.

As we will see, early and direct intervention really does work best. By the time I see referrals for troublesome behavior, the disruption has progressed pretty far. The smearer, for example, might have found new and even more disturbing uses for his evacuations. No one wants behaviors to get to this point. Instead, his coworkers could have learned to recognize his passive aggressive remarks and figured out what was bothering him before he started smearing feces. And by writing this book, I hope to show readers how to take the important steps toward identifying and rectifying disruptive behaviors before they get too unprofessional, uncomfortable, unsafe, or, in the case of this poor fellow, unsanitary.

And that idea is where the title of the book comes from. So many calls to me quite literally begin with, "I've got this schmuck in my office, and I should've called you about him ten years ago." The supervisor often had the unrealistic hope that the bad actor would simply stop causing trouble. But as the problems worsened over time, the supervisor felt increasingly ineffectual and avoidant, and the referral arrived laden with anger and resentment. The individual in question is most often not a schmuck at all. She's just being herself and no one ever really told her that her ways were causing problems.

The title thus refers to the frustration and annoyance that so many of us feel when we just don't understand someone or why that person is behaving in a way that doesn't make sense to us. It's easy to get angry and label someone a jerk or a schmuck. It's much harder to try to understand the underpinnings of why he or she approaches the situation that way. But we must try, and in so doing we will learn about our colleagues and ourselves and create a safer, healthier, better-functioning workplace.

Realizing what people do and don't know about how people function, I realized that I could yet again bring my psychiatric expertise into the workplace. In particular, I began to understand the power that being able to identify types of dysfunction can have in emboldening us to make better workplaces. From those business school discussions to my consulting experience and frequent conversations with friends and family members, I decided to help people understand workplace problems. I want people to know why the workplace can become disruptive and what can be done about it.

Just as disruptive behavior can and does show up anywhere and everywhere, this book can and should be read by anyone who works with other people. I will explain how interactions among coworkers can become maladaptive by examining the basics of personality traits, their development, and how they contribute to impaired performance and overall stress in the workplace. I will explain how to identify problematic behavior, how to explain it by understanding the personality traits behind it, and how to remedy it. Sometimes this can mean taking a look at ourselves and understanding our own role in creating or maintaining the behaviors. And at times it may mean getting someone help either within or outside the organization.

This approach, however, requires a change in the way we approach disruptions around us. People are uncomfortable with things that are unpleasant — whether fear, sadness, anxiety, or illness — and try to avoid them. That evasion takes many forms. People avoid confronting those who upset them. People avoid bringing up their feelings or stay away from people that make them uncomfortable altogether. People think that systems can't change, that coworkers won't listen. People are afraid that they will get in trouble. People feel that they should be expected to endure things that are making them uneasy in the workplace. People think that certain positions of authority allow people to behave inappropriately.

People are wrong.

I'm writing this book to start a conversation. I'm on a personal crusade to get people to talk to one another, directly and honestly. Miraculous advances in technology have improved communication and efficiency tremendously, and yet they have added layers of separation between us. It's even easier now to avoid things, since there's a mode of communication customized to everyone's level of tolerance for intimacy. In many ways, this is great because most people can find a way to comfortably communicate. But we still have conflicts, and they still upset us, and we still need to address them. Oftentimes, conflicts cannot be avoided. Understanding when and how to handle them appropriately is the key to a better workplace for everyone.

In the following chapters, I will make broad generalizations about people and group them accordingly. I will describe anecdotes that you will recognize, because they are ubiquitous. My goal is for you to understand that the associated behaviors are of a type and are usually not driven by malice. There is great benefit in categorizing, because by understanding types, what drives them, and what works best to manage them, you will develop the skills to work well with anyone. This book is not intended to diagnose and no reader will become an expert in psychiatry, but it will give people a way to figure out the people and behaviors around them.

We will cover arrogance, distraction, social inadequacy, obsessiveness, manipulation, and simply weird people. I will suggest strategies for interaction and, if necessary, interventions to improve relationships. Know, however, that people are by no means one-dimensional. We each display many, many types of personality traits, and they all come together to make each of us who we are. These descriptions are not meant to lead you to overdefine or pigeonhole the people around you — they are simply presented to guide you in understanding and handling aspects of your relationships with them. Perhaps most important, in beginning to understand people, you can feel more empathy for their situations and why they may act as they do.

What Is Disruptive Behavior?

Disruptive behavior can take many forms. Yelling, throwing things, and assaulting people are pretty obvious ways to be disruptive. Making comments designed to condescend, belittle, intimidate, undermine confidence, or imply inadequacy or incompetence is common. Using one's authority, be it one's leadership role or even one's physical size, to take interpersonal liberties is yet another way to be difficult in the office. Choosing to "do your own thing" and not engage with your team can even be a problem for others. Being afraid to complete a task and taking steps to avoid it can cause trouble. The potential for difficult behavior is everywhere.

Sometimes difficult behavior is easy to spot. It's hard to miss people yelling obscenities or throwing things around the office. Sometimes, however, difficult behavior can be more insidious or passive. An employee who fails to give appropriate credit or withholds needed information, for example, may be disruptive, and so can forgetting how to do tasks or constantly misplacing needed materials. On the other hand, an individual who repeatedly speaks up about ways to improve the workplace or gives constructive negative feedback may be viewed as disruptive, when she actually is not. In some ways, the more egregious behavior is easiest to deal with because it is the simplest to spot and often has a straightforward solution through the reporting or management process. However, it is the more insidious behavior that creeps along, ruining hours or days of others' time, seemingly without recourse.

So how do we define this behavior that so easily throws off the workplace? Often, describing it is the hardest part. We bring our own experiences and biases to the table, and they affect us each differently. What totally irritates someone might be valued by someone else. The situation might be so subtle that we feel that something is wrong, but we don't know what it is. We need to examine the potential for difficult behavior anytime we walk away from an interaction feeling unexpectedly confused or negative. We might feel embarrassed, angry, sad, or frustrated. These emotions all have various causes, but in the workplace, they are flags for potential interpersonal problems. If the interaction continues to bother us, keeps popping up in our mind, comes up in our dreams, or interferes with other parts of our day, we should investigate further.

In some sense, I have to say that you'll know disruptive behavior when you see it. You'll know when it happens to you. How? You'll feel it. The feeling will be idiosyncratic: clear or confusing, but catered exactly to you and the type of person you are. Its level of importance to you, the extent to which it affects you, the intensity with which you'll feel something must be done about it all come later. Step 1 is having the confidence to recognize it and know that it's wrong. Step 2 is recognizing that change may involve some dedication to understanding and accommodating the situation, even if you find it largely located in another person.

But you may not want to simply take my word for it. So I'll do my best to give you a little more information on just what exactly this disruptive behavior is. In the end, though, I trust you may only truly understand it when you have experienced it. And chances are, you already have.

It is also important to note that many companies have their own definitions of and policies about difficult behavior, so it might be interesting to look at how they are defined in your workplace setting. This is particularly true when deciding when to refer up for additional help, as will be discussed in future chapters.

* * *

Much of the professional understanding of so-called disruptive behavior originated from scholarship on how children act. This parallel serves as a historical point of comparison on understanding the schmuck in the office. It is also a way to introduce thinking about the behavior of others from a more empathic place of understanding.

The literature on disruptive behavior in children is straightforward about what is considered a problem. The behavior of children is said to be disruptive when it violates the rights of others or major societal norms. We can similarly apply this standard to working adults.

Another important point is that problematic behavior is significant in children when it is observed in multiple settings. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders advises clinicians that the behaviors will be witnessed by parents, teachers, peers, coaches, and others. The same is true for adults. When someone is being disruptive in the workplace, they are likely to be disruptive in other settings, as well. By looking at workplace interactions, we can often see patterns of how individuals will interact with their significant others, with their family members, and with their friends. If it's only happening with you, pardon, but it may have more to do with you than with the other person. Any information on how an individual interacts with others — from their coworkers to their grandparents — is data to better help us understand what the problem might be and how to address it.


Excerpted from The Schmuck in My Office by Jody Foster, Michelle Joy. Copyright © 2017 Jody Foster, M.D., with Michelle Joy, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I:


What is Disruptive Behavior?

Why Do We Care About Disruptive Behavior?

Disruptive Personalities

Types of People, and What to do About Them

How Do I Really Use This Book?

The Disclaimers

Part II: In the Spotlight: Drama Kings and Queens

Dramatic, Emotional, and Erratic: Character Pathology introduction


The Flytrap

The Swindler

Part III: Distraction, Disorganization, and Delays at the desk

Cognition at Work introduction

The Bean Counter

The Distracted

Mr. Hyde

The Lost

Part IV: Can’t Put a Finger on It?

Cultural Sensitivity introduction

The Robotic

The Eccentric

The Suspicious

Part V: Conclusion

Am I The Schmuck in My Office?

Workplace Philosophies



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