Why Your Co-Workers Act like Children

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Is your boss a bully who needs to feel important and boosts his ego by withholding important information from you? Or maybe you work with someone who is so fearful of argument or criticism that problems go unsolved because she won't discuss them. And then there's that guy down the hall who's constantly annoying everybody with his dumb practical jokes and loud banter. As the recession sends stress levels into the stratosphere, does your colleagues' weird behavior seem to be getting worse?

If so, you're not imagining it, according to Sylvia Lafair, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology whose book Don't Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success (Jossey-Bass) was released in March. Lafair's research shows that, much as we like to believe that our behavior is entirely rational and governed by our conscious mind, our thoughts and actions are often driven by the roles we learned in our families as children. And under pressure, we tend to revert to old patterns. That fellow standing at the watercooler telling tasteless jokes at the top of his lungs, for instance, probably comes from a family saddened by some painful event (a serious chronic illness, an early death), where his job as a child was to try to cheer everyone else up. The teammate who will do almost anything to avoid confrontation or criticism most likely grew up hearing way too much of both.

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"When a co-worker tries to one-up you and make you feel stupid, you may suddenly find yourself reacting to the older brother who always put you down. Or when your boss demands that costs be cut, suddenly he is your parent who could never make ends meet," says Lafair, adding, "Reactions happen in milliseconds. The trigger is usually stress. As anxiety rises, people's ability to respond in a mature manner goes down." If you've ever witnessed a colleague undergo a complete psychic meltdown over a minor setback or mistake, you know exactly what she's talking about.

In her book, Lafair describes the 13 personality types she's identified — including the persecutor, the avoider, the clown, the martyr, the rebel — and explains how they got that way, how to work with them and, perhaps most important, how to tell if baggage from your own distant past is weighing down your career. It's certainly possible to reach the top in business without ever facing your inner demons, and we've all seen some pretty loony CEOs. But Lafair contends that lasting success is built on self-knowledge. "It's an illusion to think you can be a stellar leader without introspection," she says. For a lot of stressed-out managers, Don't Bring It to Work might be a good place to start.

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