Book Review

April 4, 2006
From The Wall Street Journal

Cubicle Culprits

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that "Hell is other people." And he worked from home. Imagine if he had been one of the millions of us who are forced to navigate the psychic mine fields of the modern corporation. There we daily run into the many archetypes who inhabit our own particular version of hell: the Credit Stealer, the Cynic, the Boundary Buster and -- most horrifying of all -- the self-appointed Entertainer.

All these office antagonists, and more, are taken on in "Working With You Is Killing Me," by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster. In fact, the book embodies an archetype of its own: the Self-Help Business Book. Written by consultants for a general audience, it is built to be read during the average plane trip. It has a single worthy goal -- in this case, to help people improve bad relationships at work. In place of analytical density and graphs, the authors present anecdotes (using first names only) about difficult office workers and the people they routinely torture, sometimes intentionally. The book contains checklists, sensible suggestions, short questionnaires and crisp chapter summaries.

Ms. Crowley and Ms. Elster, calling themselves "undercover business therapists," intend to show us how to cope on the job with difficult personalities, including our own. The key, they say, is to "unhook" emotionally from whatever troublesome situation we find ourselves in. First we must recognize when we are hooked, and the authors include a list of warning signs. These range from clenched teeth and feelings of anxiety to more alarming symptoms, like "spasms" and "facial twitches." (Your boss may not be winking at you, after all.)

Sadly, the people encountered here will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever captained a cubicle. There are the time-wasters and the noise-makers, the snoops and those odd souls who simply smell bad -- all examples of co-workers who won't respect boundaries. Then there are more subtle threats, posed by people who are somehow able to lure you in and suddenly pull off their masks to reveal a psychotic wreck. Ms. Crowley and Ms. Elster call this seduce-attack dynamic "Fatal Attraction," during the final stage of which "you look and feel like a prisoner of war." (The authors themselves have a fatal attraction to hyperbole.) There are also chapters on dealing with difficult employees and bosses, including the always popular shoot-the-messenger type and the dreaded Charming Cheating Liar.

How common are these devils? In their extreme form, probably not very. But in milder shapes, they certainly creep up from time to time in every corridor. The authors' examples back up their belief that "many people play roles they are not even aware of." As it turns out, we are many different people all at once and responsibility for changing our toxic relationships sits squarely in our own in-box.

The specific techniques suggested by Ms. Crowley and Ms. Elster include breathing deeply, understanding our role in the problem, focusing on solutions and -- only as a last resort -- writing a memo. They emphasize taking responsibility and acknowledging clear-sightedly that the other dingbat will probably not change -- not now, not ever. The one occasion in which the authors explicitly recommend polishing up the résumé is when we run into a manager who steals credit for all our ideas.

"Working With You Is Killing Me" is certainly lucid enough. The concept of unhooking makes sense, as do the authors' simple suggestions. Instead of storming out or sulking, they say, try taking a time out at your desk. Get real with yourself. Say something true. And if those efforts don't work, re-read your job description: It will remind you what to concentrate on (like, say, selling) and what to ignore (the urge to counsel co-workers). The most interesting chapter looks into the roles we ourselves can fall into at work and how they hinder us. We may think, for instance, that we're fostering really, really good communication when we're just playing a Daytime Emmy-Worthy Martyr.

Clever title aside, this book shares the weaknesses common to its genre. The authors have a passion for Capitalized Nouns. They have a tendency to state the commonplace as though they were unlocking the Da Vinci code. "We've discovered that there are really two kinds of management in business," they reveal at one point, "Managing Down and Managing Up." OK. And if they mentioned one more time the "thousands of people at hundreds of companies" they have helped, I was going to develop a facial twitch. Still, one person's cliché is another person's epiphany, and there is no denying the truth of Ms. Crowley and Ms. Elster's premise: The best place to start when we have problems with others is the last place we look: the mirror.