Jody J. Foster’s mother was appalled.
Can you imagine the embarrassment? Her daughter, the doctor, so impressive: chair of the psychiatry department at Pennsylvania Hospital; vice chair for clinical operations in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Health System; professor of psychiatry at Penn; Wharton MBA.
And what did Jody Foster do that so embarrassed her mother?
Foster wrote a book with the word schmuck in the title — as in the Yiddish word for penis. The meaning is closer to other synonyms for penis not normally used in polite conversation.
But then, polite language doesn’t always describe some of the people Foster and co-author Michelle Joy, also a psychiatrist, write about in their book, The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work.
The schmucks are the plagues of every workplace: the cheaters; the liars; the paranoid; the life-sucking perfectionists; the narcissists; the overly emotional drama kings or queens. In their book, published by St. Martin's Press, Foster and Joy describe them and provide strategies to help workers cope, whether the schmuck is an employee, a colleague, or the boss.
“Michelle and I are professionals,” Foster said. “But it’s obviously not an academic text. My father thought it was funny. My mother thought it was crass.
“We wanted to get a title that was going to make people think,” Foster said. “We wanted to get the book off the shelf and into somebody’s hands.”
Foster had years of training in psychiatry in which knowledge of behavioral disorders was taken for granted. But when she enrolled in a Wharton School MBA program, she found her fellow business students were endlessly fascinated by workplace dynamics. They wanted her to explain why the office “schmucks” – their word — acted the way they do.
Why are some people so cruel, willing without any remorse to betray their coworkers? Why do some paranoid colleagues see a dark side to every company initiative? What about the passionate, enthusiastic superstar who burns bright, but then crashes in an emotional tangle that turns the office into a soap opera.
And then there are the garden-variety problems: the drug addicts; the senile; the distracted attention deficit disorder folks who can’t get their work under control.
Each gets a chapter and a strategy for coping.
Some schmuckism can be positive, Foster and Joy pointed out. For example, Foster said, “you have to some healthy narcissism" to have enough self-confidence to accomplish work assignments. But that self-confidence taken to a pathological extreme at the office leads to arrogance, credit-grabbing, disparagement, and a constant need for praise.
Foster studied doctors with “disruptive behaviors” and “they are absolutely loved by their patients,” she said. “There might be a narcissistic doctor, and his perspective is that he’s the best. He tends to advocate very strenuously for his patients, and that makes them feel very cared for.”
Businesses hire her to deal with office schmucks, and “I have to spend a lot of time educating the referring body.” Sometimes, Foster said, small tweaks to office procedures or communication methods can resolve problems easily. But she declines jobs if she’s being used to get somebody fired, she said.
Empathy helps. Many times, Joy said, “when people are frustrating you, chances are they aren’t setting out to make a problem for you. They are probably dealing with their own anxieties.”
However, don’t avoid the problem. “It’s also incredibly important to call out [disruptive behaviors] in a timely manner before things go awry,” Foster said. “Your language should be as clear and concise as possible.”
In dealing with schmucks on the job, start by looking in the mirror, they advise. Try to understand why the schmuck is able to push particular buttons that annoy or frustrate.
“The workplace is made of relationships," Joy said. "Your relationship with the schmuck is simply another relationship, and you are bringing your own [issues] to the table.”
Maybe, they said, the schmuck is you. Yes, you.
Examine yourself to see if you experience recurring problems when changing jobs or supervisors. Recognizing the problem is half the battle.
Being psychiatrists, Foster and Joy believe that people can change and are motivated to do so ”when their personal qualities become uncomfortable for them and when they start not to like parts of themselves,” Foster said.
Incentives help, said Joy. It could be a carrot – a promise of a happier work life.
Or, she said, it could be “something like keeping a job.”