How to Read Coworkers

Life advisor Suzannah Galland has written a number of pieces for us about how to read a potential lover, giving us smarter ways to navigate romantic relationships. With summer vacations behind us, and the full force of fall office energy upon us, we asked Galland to talk about business relationships. Below, she explains how to read—and handle—the trickiest players you’re likely to encounter around the office, without getting caught up in the (exhausting) game.

Office Politics

When it comes to office politics, women too often have a tough time “playing the game.” We’re told to be tough and carve out agendas to equal the playing field. But few women enjoy the hardball approach, and attempting to follow it can leave many of us hating our jobs—and ourselves, for showing up as less than authentic.

In truth, the actual work you’re doing should always come first, above the emotional and political landscape. People get dried up when they focus on “the competition,” and can become afraid for their jobs. Indeed, some of the smartest women I know refuse to dance to the beat of peer pressure, and don’t let themselves get caught up in the game at all. How do they get around it? They know how to be their best on their terms—or, how not to play the game as written. Nothing is more powerful.

It’s extremely hard to not let office politics affect us. But there are ways you can successfully navigate the politics without becoming a slave to the game:

Identifying the Problem

My client Angie is a music producer. She’s great at what she does but she feels held back by office politics, which have left her struggling to make sense of her career.

“I’ve dealt with politics a lot,” Angie told me. “I think it’s because I’ve been very successful at what I do. And I’m relatively young. My boss, Sandra, is at least twelve years older than me. She has huge budgets to achieve, and she’s failing miserably. With her, I feel like I have a target on my back.”

Angie was in a meeting with her boss, Sandra, and two guys from the industry who had come to pitch their ideas. “Sandra sat back and listened to them and gave me a reassuring look occasionally. They pitched an idea, and at one point, she turned to them and said, ‘You shouldn’t really be talking to Angie, she doesn’t have anything to do with this, and I’m the one who makes the decisions.’ They said, ‘Oh, so sorry,’ and looked at me with an embarrassed smile. They then just assumed I was a personal assistant.”

Angie wanted to discuss the issue with Sandra, and asked for some face time with her; Sandra refused. “I wanted to get on the same page with her.”

What do you do when you can’t have a conversation, and everything you suggest is dismissed? Nothing changes and nothing gets resolved. This is just one example of how office politics can suck the cheer out of what’s supposed to be your livelihood—and it can happen whether you’re working for a boss or running the show.

Nothing is more powerful than not playing the game and knowing how to be your best, and on your terms. But reaching that point often requires a better understanding of the people in your office environment who stand as roadblocks in your path. Getting a quick read on who’s who will give you the smarts to respond to the most critical of demands or circumstances—so you can turn your focus to the work, and shine.

The Players: How to Read a Room

To know people, you have to watch them silently. It’s what people don’t say that tell you the most about them. The more you watch, the more you begin to notice all the subtle movements they make. In a short time, you can learn to anticipate who’s likely to do what, and with whom. You achieve far more by working with people, rather than working against them.

Not everyone you work with has an agenda. In fact, you can meet some of your best friends through work.

But I have come up with three profiles of the kind of people most likely to be mired in office politics. Use this information to keep your eye on the ball through times of stress.

Self-Important: I Know Everyone Except Myself

Self-Importants need to have their independence. For them, leadership feels easy, and while they may like to pretend they’re on your side, the prospect of nurturing another human being is nauseating to them. On the other hand, they are never too worried about being rejected, as they’re rarely put in such a position. Holding back is how they play. They are famous for making up new rules and expect others to be in full accordance with them, whether they know what the rules are or not. They are bullies. They’re often hard to spot until you get bitten by one.

How to Deal with the Self-Important

They like and expect abuse; don’t try and please them. And don’t try and sort out problems with them either—that will backfire. Always give them plenty of praise and let them do the talking. Making them feel acknowledged and respected can go a long way, but don’t kiss ass, which they hate that. Try not to talk about real-time problems or explain how something should be resolved. They don’t like truth, unless they have made a point to own it. They’re sadists and enjoy seeing people suffer. If only we could flip them right side up.

Desperado: Oozing Desperation

To the Desperado, the simplest thing becomes an allergy. Battered with fear, they’re terrified of being fired and every micro detail is a big deal. Change is overwhelming. They crave acknowledgment. Often, they’re scared of life and hide behind their jobs.

The Desperado often sends conflicting and confusing messages. While they expect constant assurance from their peers, their priorities are always changing. They need to feel good about themselves, at someone else’s expense. They can quickly devalue themselves when things don’t go according to plan. While they may appear open and trusting, they are actually quite the opposite. They are constantly overwhelmed and can at times suffer from bouts of depression. This can be agonizing and exhausting for anyone dealing with them. Often unqualified for their positions, they play a game of Russian roulette, just to serve the hierarchy, and at your expense. Much of this comes from a place of hopelessness—they accept the “fact” that things won’t be any better. 

How to Deal with a Desperado

Ask for a minute and say something like: “I know you’re busy; you’re doing so much.” Give them plenty of acknowledgment. Whatever you do, don’t let them think it’s urgent. Try not to talk about your boss or anyone else in your office. Their job is their life, and their main concern is to favor what their boss wants. Don’t underestimate them; they are not on your side. For the Desperado, it’s all about the calm.

Name Dropper: Ass by Association

At a distance, a Name Dropper would seem to be a confident, assured person. They may have some swagger and bravado. When there’s a problem, they’re sure it could never be them. How lucky are they to have hired someone like me. I have an MBA. Don’t they know I’m the real deal? This confidence can be a thin skin. What is less apparent is a Name Dropper is in dread of being overlooked. Name Droppers will do anything for admiration. They want something for their investment: You owe me something! They’ll use coworkers just to connect with the hierarchy. This character doesn’t really fit in, no matter what. By nature, they’re lazy, tend to self-sabotage, and thrive on gossip. They have frequent outbursts over nothing and, two minutes later, are fully recovered.

How to Deal with the Name Dropper

What the Name Dropper really needs is simple support. They prefer not to talk, unless it’s fast and sharp, or they are charming you up for something. Try educating the Name Dropper and see if he or she is open to prioritizing matters using a 1–10 approach. If anything, do this for yourself before you deal with him/her. If you find the Name Dropper is not getting back to you with the resources or the support you need for your team, try asking him/her to follow this three-step priority system:

Priority red alert, 10: Urgent
“Do you have a minute? It’s a 10. I need to know blah blah by this deadline.”

Priority 5: Fairly important but not immediately so.
Acknowledge him or her, and say: “I need to have this by Wednesday. It’s priority 5. What do you recommend? If I don’t hear from you, I will send a quick reminder.”

Priority 1: They’ll get this one.

Bigger Picture

Playing the game is not about sabotaging other people, it’s about redefining leadership. Great teams are not just groups of people who work together, they are groups of people who trust each other. Office politics erode trust and can make being at work highly stressful. Knowing these personality types can help you establish trust with even difficult people. Trust is earned through human connection—so make an effort to genuinely want to know how someone’s week has been, what challenges they are facing, how their weekend was, and so on.

Create something meaningful out of your work, take pride in it, and let the work speak for itself. Trust, transparency, and timing are critical in business relationships—be tactful but speak your mind when it’s appropriate to do so. Build a circle of influence around your ideas and your work to build momentum. And be human. We have lost a lot of touch with our humanity in business by thinking we need to “act like men,” or play hardball, when the qualities of nurturing and caring and being collaborative are needed more than ever to help the world navigate through some of its greatest challenges. Don’t back down—but use what you know about the characters to play your own game.