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It can be a real zoo at work
Author Charles Mallory classifies the
difficult people you encounter through business
by six animal names and offers strategies to deal with them.

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

Charles Mallory wants to help you deal with difficult animals in the workplace -- the two-legged kind who are your employees, colleagues and maybe even the boss.

The U.S.-based career counsellor classifies the aggravating people we all encounter by six animal names. For example, room-filling egotists are peacocks. Sneaky attack artists who badmouth you behind your back are vipers. And there are snails, tigers, koalas and skunks.

Mr. Mallory's recent book, It's a Jungle Out There -- Dealing with Difficult Behaviour in the Workplace (American Media Inc.) explains the conduct of these creatures and offers strategies to deal with them. He spoke recently with reporter Margot Gibb-Clark.

What was your aim in writing the book?

"I wanted to help people deal with difficult co-workers, primarily by understanding and controlling their own emotions," Mr. Mallory says. Altering the way you respond to these various people can reduce their incentive for behaving in difficult ways, he argues.

How did you come up with your animal categories?

"I looked at previous research on difficult people and laid out a grid of types. There seemed to be six pretty clear categories and I wanted to find labels that would be easy to understand."

What makes a peacock?

They want to be the centre of attention regardless of whether they are qualified, he says. If they have incredible skills, it isn't so annoying -- they just seem to be braggarts. But many peacocks exaggerate their small accomplishments because of this need for attention.

You advise letting them believe they are No. 1. Why?

"I don't suggest you actually tell them they are No. 1," just don't try to disabuse them of the idea. "It takes so much energy that it's not worth it." Peacocks are perhaps the most challenging office animal to handle because they can be both incompetent and forceful, he says.

What makes a snail?

They aren't lazy, Mr. Mallory says. Their primary characteristic is that they don't like making decisions, either because they are afraid of conflict or of disappointing others.

There are many strategies for handling snails. Be specific with them. Describe the work that needs to be done and get them to agree to a deadline. Or ask them for a detailed plan that outlines the steps necessary to complete a project

What are the characteristics of a viper?

They can't address issues directly. They have a tendency to be passive-aggressive, sniping from behind the scenes instead of openly disagreeing about something.

This is one case where you can actually change their behaviour. Confronting them bursts the balloon. They may try sniping again to test you, but it won't go on forever if you have made it clear you won't tolerate it.

The natural tendency is to pretend you didn't hear a viper's remarks, but this can make you look weak, especially in a group.

Who are the tigers?

Their primary characteristic is aggression and the ability to use it to their advantage. Often, they have been successful as leaders. They have a need to feel they are right, and they have no sympathy for hurt feelings.

Sometimes, particularly if they are under stress, tigers move from being dominant but benevolent to running over other people. Tigers expect you to prove yourself or suffer their disrespect.

What is the best way to deal with them?

Be direct and calmly stand your ground, Mr. Mallory says. Without whining, state specifically what bothers you about their behaviour or what is not working.

If they yell at you in a meeting, quietly ask to see them for five minutes afterward -- but don't make this request in front of everybody. Then make it clear that their approach diminishes your ability to get your work done.

If the tiger is a boss, as they often are, try to find a mentor at a level between the two of you to help work things out, says Mr. Mallory, who once used that approach himself.

If there is nobody you can turn to, then take care of yourself and try to reduce other stresses in your life. Tigers can drain your emotions more rapidly than almost anything, so keep control of your energy as much as possible.

Who are the koalas?

They are the overly agreeable people who want to be popular. They are very sociable and generally well-liked, but they don't stand their ground.

Encourage them to be assertive, clearly express your expectations and then hold them accountable. Always take a non-threatening approach. Koalas don't respond well to threats; they just become fearful, and fearful people aren't productive.

What makes a skunk?

They "reek of complaints and negativity." One thing that can make a skunk is a long track record of bad luck, although, of course, they are not the only people to have negative experiences. They have been repeatedly disappointed by others and they focus on their losses.

Their negativity will be less noticeable if your organization is energetic, has a good reputation, competitive pay and fair performance appraisals.

What is the best way to deal with them?

Walk a fine line, be positive but not a Pollyanna. Show that decent outcomes are possible in specific cases. Also, keep them off balance by changing your strategy toward them until you find what works. If you've been silent, become more verbal or vice versa. Give them a chance to create successes, then offer reinforcement.

Copyright © 1999 The Globe and Mail