If People Had Warning Labels

As I walked down the street today I noticed a boldly emblazoned message on the front of a T-shirt. It said, “Don’t even talk to me ‘til I’ve had my coffee!” It would be nice if everyone at work wore a similar shirt warning of potential political and sociological pitfalls.

Almost everything that we come into contact these days is labeled with some kind of warning. Coffee cups from your corner latte pusher are likely to state, “Caution: Contents Hot!Prescription drugs have so many warnings that it is often difficult to find the instructions for use. And the food and beverage industry must label every ingredient of every product with ingredients, nutritional information, and allergy alerts. However, people come with very few warnings. Misjudging their status can be hazardous to your health not to mention your career.

Here are a few of the ones I would like to see labeled:

Passive Aggressive – Non-participant will claim to be on your side, but secretly plots to put you under. This pitiful pest is best handled through transparency and open communications. Keep all members on your team up-to-date on program milestones and ask for reports to the group. Group members who drag their feet quickly become apparent, and must report to the group. Remember: communicate, communicate, communicate, but not necessarily in that order.

Town Crier – This person is Gossip Central. You might as well send a broadcast memo with color pictures to all of your coworkers. Every workplace (except ACS) has at least one gossip, so be careful who you tell your secrets, or they might not stay that way. Turning tables on a gossip is easily done by telling everyone that you know who they are. You can also learn from the military and cut off their supply chain.

Microcontroller – Will swoop into any project at a moment’s notice and rearrange all processes to fit their needs, or at least to the way that they would have done them. If this is a supervisor, the solution can be challenging. This may be best handled by simply stepping out of the way. If you allow them to focus on the process that obsesses them so, can you work on other aspects of the program to produce a better product? If you can’t step aside, can you isolate their pet-peeve, so that progress is not delayed on the rest of the project? Either way, look for an opportunity to take advantage of their skill-base while also preserving a role for yourself.

Empire Builder – Caution: this person may claim credit for your work, or steal resources out from under your nose. Your advantage will be their paranoia. These folks tend to plot their evil plans in isolation and are frequently worried about those around them. After all, they have probably double-crossed or stepped on most of them while climbing to the top. They can be defeated through coalitions. Identify allies working for the better good, and pool your resources. Also, establish distance between you and the dictator de jour. You don’t want to be underneath them when they fall lest they take you with them.

There are many other people in the workplace that can help or hurt your career, and this is not meant to be a complete listing. However, it is my hope that you will look for representative people in your institution’s cultural structure. By figuring out their roles, you will be in a better position to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of everyone’s personal strengths.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Development and Management.

3 Responses to If People Had Warning Labels

  1. Real hard to believe you are the same author that wrote “Gift of Gab … ” Not being well trained in psychology, psychiatry, behavioral sciences, and the like, I find the mounting pressure over the past several decades for scientists and engineers to become political animals something to resist. Many in the generation just before mine went around talking about how “uncool” it was to put labels on people. The ACS and its members spent a great deal of time and money trying to convince many of the same people that Chemistry could be a “good thing.” Now it sounds like you are suggesting that we turn the tables around and profit from labeling individuals in the work place. Like something right out of “Ugly Betty.”

  2. Dear Frank,

    Thanks for your comment. In retrospect, I did not construct this article as well as I should have. It needs a stronger and clearer introduction to point the reader in the right direction. However, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that stereotyping or pigeonholing individuals is a good thing—it’s not!

    In reality, I have been each of these “people”. In the past, I have displayed passive aggressive tendencies, I have gossiped about things that were not my business, I have poked my nose into processes that my staff could have well handled on their own, and I have attempted to build my own empires. In the end, I learned that these were wholly unproductive behaviors. Conversely, I have worked with or for people who have displayed these behaviors. Either manifestation is unproductive and stifling.

    The objective of the article was to point out that people generally give signals prior to derailing a project or process. If we pay attention to the signals, potential pitfalls can be avoided. Open communications about misgivings also go a long way toward solving problems. Although obvious, too many people, especially those entering the workplace, fail to read the warning signals that others display, thereby, placing their futures in jeopardy.

    Other missing pieces of the argument are that people are generally helpful, that malicious intent is rare, and that people behaving badly are not always aware of their effects on others.

    I hope that this helps to clarify my position and my intent. I also hope that you will continue to read this column, and that you will correct me when I go astray. After all, we are all in this together.


  3. RaiulBaztepo says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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