My best friend Emily is an anomaly. She grew up in a healthy, loving household with proper anger/crisis/problem management tactics and dutifully turned into a happy, healthy, fully functioning adult. However, while her Norman Rockwell childhood served her well in most areas of life, it proved to be a hindrance in the workplace when, a few years back, Emily found herself fully unprepared to deal with an insane, nutball, probably-ate-cat-fetuses-for-dinner boss.
"I just don't know how to deal with this," Emily cried one weekend after her boss had yet again pulled a Baby Jane on her. "I was raised by kind, loving and decent people — I don't know how to function in this shit!"
Luckily, I had a more dystopian childhood and, due to working in media, a chaotic career – so I walked her through it.
The fact is — unless you work for and by yourself, you will most likely have to deal with an asshole at some point.
Unlike my friend Emily, who only had to deal with one unpleasant personality, I (until recently) have had the anti-pleasure of working with several colleagues and bosses that run the gamut from nutball to asshole. I've found, after much trial and error and one official nervous breakdown, that everything I ever needed to know about working with and for assholes, I actually learned back in college when I was a nanny. After all, aren't most simply overgrown, noxious, and badly behaved children? (sidenote: I have no children). Treat them as such — with humor, love, and a healthy dose of lice powder.
And so, I present a completely unscientific yet eerily accurate list on How To Deal with Assholes At Work:
They like cake - literally and figuratively.
I had one boss who, every time his blood sugar would get low, would start freaking out and screaming non-sequitur questions like, "WHAT COLOR UNDERWEAR DID (insert source name) HAVE ON WHILE HE WAS TALKING TO YOU!? THIS CAN'T RUN UNTIL I KNOW!" or "NOBODY KNOWS WHAT A PIÑATA IS, DAMMIT!" Having a donut or Snickers bar on hand always calmed him down.
Then there is the figurative cake – because in this age of overindulgence and supreme flattery, people have come to expect some serious sweet-talking. "Hey little Billy, that macaroni and cat vomit collage thing you made me during your last sugar fugue should be in the Met!" is now: "That story you commissioned on 'Do you wad or fold? What your toilet paper habits say about your dating life' was a real game changer! You're the best boss ever and I learn so much from you!"
Wait out the tantrums (Tire them out.)
My friend Brittany worked in television production for a while and had a boss who would just go into the "red zone" at the drop of a hat. As in foaming, growling, screaming – you name it. "I would just go limp," Brittany said. "I'd wait it out in limp ragdoll format until she literally tired herself out and left. It always worked."
I also had a screamer. He liked to drag me in his office every couple of months or so for a perceived infraction ("How dare you put your twitter handle at the bottom of your email signature!") and let 'er rip, tapping into some weird inner well of rage. This guy would keep at it until you cried actual tears. It became so predictable that I learned to summon a tear on demand (I can still cry on demand). And the one time I couldn't fake a tear (I'd had a rough night the night before and was a little dehydrated) he sent me to HR saying "You're not taking me seriously!" He called to apologize that evening, but I'd already begun crafting my resignation letter.
Set Guidelines/Rules. (They will be broken so you will have to reset them constantly — set them anyway to hold onto your last shred of dignity).
I actually had a job where rape jokes, porn viewing, and "chick" jokes were the norm. I ignored it at first, but after a while, it gets to a girl. The "no more rape jokes/porn viewing/chick jokes" was a hard rule to enforce, but eventually it stopped. Or at least they didn't do it in front of me. Other rules I've had to enforce include as follows:
"No, I will not stay at the office with you every night until nine. Just because you don't want to go home to your family doesn't mean I have to work 15 hours a day,"
"Please don't put your hand on my knee – I really don't like it when you touch me," and
"Seriously, you can NOT talk to me like that."
Don't forget dinner table conversation: Ask them how their day is.
Most assholes like to be acknowledged. They probably feel pretty invisible in their actual life so before, during or after a snit, giving them a little, "Hey – how was your meeting with X," "That color really brings out your eyes," or "How's your mother?" goes a long way to say to them "you matter!" On second thought, don't ask about their mother. They probably blame her for everything in the first place.
Empathize (to a point).
My friend and current coworker Sid Lipsey says: "During a summer internship at a financial firm, my immediate superior took an instant and lingering dislike to me. I had no idea why until a few weeks later, when my boss could contain herself no longer and let fly with her issue with me: "Do you have to be so... happy all the time?" I seriously thought she was joking but she was dead serious. "I don't know," I responded. "I'm... sorry?" For the rest of the summer, I actually found myself putting on a dead-straight poker face whenever I had to see her lest I risk offending her with my sunny disposition.
Here's my secret for dealing with personality conflicts at work: just remind yourself that very few people are difficult for the sake of being difficult. Remember that, just like you, they care very deeply about doing a good job, succeeding in their career, and providing financially for themselves and their families. Yes, some people are mean and "backstabby" about it, but at the end of the day they're being motivated by the same things you are."
Don't Take It Personally.
This has always been hard for me, so I will let Linda (not her real name) answer this one: "I had a boss who made everyone cry. She was mean, and the shots she took were often personal. I was the only person unfazed by her. Everyone would ask me how I did it. It was simple: Because I didn't respect how she treated people, I just couldn't be bothered by her behavior — I couldn't take it personally. Why would I care what someone like that thought of me?"
Crazy People Are Only Scared of Crazier People.
My mother, a born and bred New Yorker who accidentally got stuck in Cincinnati, Ohio, always used to tell my sister and I: "If you're ever attacked by a crazy person, just act crazier than they are. The only thing that scares a crazy person is a crazier person." And she was right. Just like the schoolyard bully, the workplace bully will only leave you alone if you just pop him one right in the face. Or do guerilla tactics. I once worked with (yet another) self-avowed misogynist who, every time I would speak, he would play barnyard noises loudly. I kept telling him to quit it, but the noises would just get louder and he and the people around him would laugh harder. Until one day I walk over, ripped the cord out of his computer and said, "One more fucking chicken noise and I will strangle you with this." It stopped.
There are consequences for bad behavior (write it all down).
Back in the day I worked for a woman who was a piece of work. She would introduce major inaccuracies into my stories, berate people, and then if you tried to state your case would scream, "I'm your boss. Don't talk back to me!" Five people quit before I did, but when I did, I walked in to her boss' office with a stack of papers and said, "Here are all the stories I did in the past month. The red lines are inaccuracies that she introduced. And by the way, you never gave exit interviews to (the five people who'd quit) – you might want to call them because three other people are planning on quitting next week." She was gone within the month.
Stockholm Syndrome is real, people.
Jo Piazza, co-author of the upcoming book "The Knockoff," says: "Being in a negative work relationship like that becomes an untenable kind of co-dependency. You crave their positive attention so that the negative crushes you even more. My coping mechanism in the beginning was to become a "yes man." I took it all in and internalized it and did what I was told. Then I hit a breaking point. It was late one night when my boss had forced me to hang out with her after we finished a series of late work. I could have gone home, but she wanted a drinking buddy. I couldn't handle the intensity of her anger and emotional instability anymore. I stood up and I walked out. In the subsequent weeks I did my job, but I wouldn't play her game. Like any true tyrant she demoted me and I quit, Jerry Maguire style, making a scene in the office. Having a terrible boss, one of the worst bosses you can possibly imagine, the kind that makes you cry in the bathroom stall on a daily basis is what I credit 100% for being a good boss today. I think, on a regular basis, 'What would blah blah do?' and then I do the opposite."
Brush It Off
"I once had a superior who looked through me completely," Brittany says. "I'd talk and her eyes would glaze over. The truth is, she probably just didn't like me. So instead of playing her game, I played mine. I continued to kill it at work, and even asked her for advice from time to time. The truth is, I had a lot of learn from her. She would never congratulate me on my successes and instead attempted to ignore them. As I was riding high, she was the one bogged down with hate. Who's the real winner?"
At the end of the day, having a crazy boss or co-worker will drive you bananas. Multiple studies have been done about how stress manifests itself in your body and can take over your life. By all means, try to change the situation. Get transferred like my friend Emily did, or wait until others cotton on to the craziness and the offending party is disposed of (or quits). I don't care - but end the situation – ie, GET OUT.
Linda says, "I had a boss who didn't even pretend to care about the work he did. He was lazy and pretty miserable, if you ask me. Every day, he would say, "We're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, so why bother?" When someone tells me I'm on the Titanic, I get off. I got a new job. He didn't. Three weeks later he was fired."
And remember: most crazy people are just terrified, little children acting out. So until you can leave them in the dust, treat them as such.
If only Liz Garvey had Paula on her speed dial to cope with working with idiots, crazy people, and meanies. Babylon, a new series by Danny Boyle and co-created by Peep Show's Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, stars Brit Marling as PR maven Liz Garvey who, fresh off of her hit TED talk, arrives to transform Scotland Yard and learns a thing or two about how to win the war of stupidity, insanity, and bad behavior.
Paula is sharing her experience as part of a sponsored series by SundanceTV to introduce the series Babylon. Share your story about workplace mishaps or in the comments below or on our site at .