Career Advice

Thriving Alongside Dead-Enders


Every company has them. You know the type: complainers, excuse peddlers, and hermits. They've worked here forever, seen and done it all, watched bosses come and go. They follow routine and resist change. In essence, they're killing time and collecting a check.

In business, they're called dead-enders. They arrive late and leave early—and no one dares challenge them. Forget facts and logic: They crave innuendo and conspiracies. They gossip, bellyache, play games, and create drama. As a result, they consume valuable time, energy, and morale.

Sadly, dead-enders are often clustered together, a clique feeding off one another's misery. Of course you didn't know this when you joined them. But your reality quickly becomes self-evident. When you step up, they view you as a threat: the person who creates more work or secretly acts as management's spy. But when you follow their lead, you're swept up in their rancor or entitlement.

Obviously, managers have the leverage to keep dead-enders in line. But what happens when you're on equal footing with them? What can you do when you're outnumbered and exposed? Consider these strategies:

Stay Focused This department may be a good starting point, but it's not where you want to finish. Sure, their antics will tempt you to dash over to management or human resources. But remember: It's management's negligence that allowed the dead-enders' mentality to fester. They cemented it in the first place.

No, your sanity will come down to remembering the bigger picture. You obviously joined the department for a reason. Whether you're boosting your technical skills or exposing yourself to new markets, set timelines and benchmarks. Focus on what you need to learn and then move on.

You're no different from a distance runner, all alone, clicking off mile after mile. Like any runner, you should visualize your destination to help you endure the soreness, fatigue, and doubt. Your co-workers may annoy or sidetrack you, but it's your commitment, day after day, that ultimately makes or breaks you.

Watch Your Behavior They're snarly or snarky, quick to point out everyone's faults. Unfortunately, attitudes like these can quickly rub off on anyone. To avoid slipping into naysayer mode, consciously focus on how you think, work, and act. Keep your guard up, knowing what you could become once your will is broken and discipline lost.

Character is often forged in trying times. A losing atmosphere can suck the life out of some. For others, it steels hunger and resolve. In this case, you can use these conditions to consciously master vital soft skills: composure (tuning out distractions), stress management (remaining upbeat), self-discipline (staying above the fray), and planning (executing a personal development strategy). As you climb the ladder, you'll inevitably encounter the same bullies, liars, blamers, and eunuchs. Preparing here just reduces your chance for error when the stakes rise later.

Be an Example Let's take it a step further. Sure, you start by channeling everything inward. But self-reliance has limited value to others. And why blend in when you need to excel? No, you want to turn everything outward—all your passion and knowledge—to make a difference. And that means stepping up and becoming an example (and a target).

Start by reaching out personally. Be the person who brings homemade brownies or organizes potlucks. Learn about your peers' families and interests, always looking for what you have in common. Go out of your way to be nice and always nonjudgmental. At the same time, carefully measure what you say. Minimize what you reveal about your personal life: It can be used against you later. Don't make negative comments of your own; just change the topic, feign ignorance, or slip away. You'll only toss gas onto the fire when they drag you into their grievances.

Similarly, look at how you manage your time and your own persona. The walls have ears: Are you projecting a can-do vibe when you team up with clients or other departments. Your cube is likely part of the traffic flow. Are you focusing on your job or slipping off to eBay (EBAY) or Facebook? Raise the bar. Contribute in meetings, conduct training sessions, and manage initiatives from start to finish. There's nothing like competition to amp up the energy level. By going against the grain, maybe you can tap into their long-dormant instincts and raise expectations.

Understand the Root Causes On some level, you sympathize. You can almost imagine these dead-enders on their first day at work. They were bubbling with enthusiasm, harboring the best intentions, determined to leave a mark. But then the years took their toll. Maybe they grew weary from always being ignored. Maybe their anger swelled when they evolved into the company dumping grounds, first blamed and last funded. Or maybe they gave up, posing only token resistance to a "see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil" culture.

Now they're albatrosses, and you're stuck with them. You watch them go through the motions, without vision, viewing themselves as powerless victims. And they wait for their "good enough" lives to somehow improve, afraid of the unknown—and losing the little they have left.

What does this mean to you? Chances are, they view you as a newbie. Their jibs and jabs may be meant as helpful warnings about a dysfunctional culture. Often, their intent is to shield you from disappointment. You can understand their sentiments, but don't adopt them. Instead, always look to draw them away from the past and embrace those hidden opportunities in the present.

Make Connections It's tough to stay upbeat when there's little support around you. To get through, start cultivating a support network of your own. Look for allies who can champion you—or help you maintain a positive outlook. Cultivate a mentor who can monitor your attitude and redirect those negative energies. In return, always look for ways you can bring value to these individuals, too.

Turn the Other Cheek Sure, they might trash you behind your back. They have to validate their cloistered worldview somehow. Still, ask yourself: How much are they damaging my future job prospects? And do I need them to get my work done? Maybe your best bet is to treat them like spoiled children, ignoring their rants. Let them pout or shun you. In the end, they'll take far more from you than they'll return. It's a test of wills; you just need to outlast them.

Or Call Them Out You've played nice and bit your tongue. Still, their asymmetrical attacks are taking their toll. But you already know that appeasing bullies only whets their appetites. In the end, they only respect power.

On rare occasions, consider burning a bridge so you're not tempted to retreat. What does it mean? When the petty becomes personal, take action and set boundaries. Privately clear the air with the offenders individually. Cite examples of what is inappropriate and set expectations going forward. If that doesn't work, put them on the defensive. Challenge them to find another job if they're so unhappy. Expose their cowardice and shame them for it.

Sure, you'll face some fallout. They'll deliver their sob story to their peers (if not your manager). They may even plot retaliation. So be it. You want their respect, not their phony camaraderie. Anything less is a dead end.
Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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