16 February 2011

Reality check: It's not my fault that you have a personality disorder.

I've been thinking a lot about personality disorders lately. Narcissistic personality disorder is a perennial favorite among nonprofit professionals, but all due credit should be given to histrionic and dependent personalities in the workplace.

Of course, it would be fair to say that these aren't really diagnoses; they're terms of convenience, listed in the DSM and used to give insurance providers the comfortable feeling that the human condition is understandable, and to help them process coverage claims.

These terms also make great insults. Feel free to categorize any anonymous, curmudgeonly bloggers you know as passive-aggressive. Guilty as charged.

At any rate, I'm really tired of hearing, usually in subtextual ways, from my colleagues about how they just can't get a break, or about how the focus of the workplace should really be on their problems, needs, and wishes.

For example,
  • A job interview is not a good conversation for asking for support in dealing with unresolved feelings about your parents.

  • A professional networking event is not a good setting for talking about how you can't find a job.

  • A senior management meeting is not the right moment to complain that you can't get a date.

  • A meeting to hammer out a coalition of nonprofits with similar missions is not a good place to talk about how you're being harassed by your landlord but can't seem to get motivated to find a new place to live.

  • A phone call from one of your organization's clients is not a good opportunity to discuss your dysfunctional work environment.
I can't believe that I have to spell these things out, but apparently I do.

Now in many cases, these are real problems with external causes - such as a terrible economy, or a truly toxic group of coworkers. However, working at a job is not the same as entering a competition to be the most needy, ineffectual, self-absorbed person in the workplace.

I can co-exist with needy, ineffectual, self-absorbed people most of the time; indeed, you could say that I've had years of training in doing just that. What is really getting on my nerves are the nonverbal cues that seem to communicate that I should take on your personality disorder as an assignment. I'm sorry, but I can't devote my time to changing your attitude (not that there's much hope), making you feel better (ditto), or actively solving your personal problems. It may seem to you that the latter is actually possible, because I seem to lead such a well-ordered existence. It's not especially true - it's that I'm focused on doing a competent job while I'm at work. Years ago, I dropped out of the competition to be the saddest sack in the room, and stopped assuming that every professional conversation was really a pretext on your part to talk about me, me, me.

Before you drape yourself over me, and explain why your life is broken and in need of fixing, please bear in mind that the organization hired me to address its mission and solve its problems, not yours. Come to think of it, they hired you to do that, too. They weren't seeking to hire the walking wounded, and you're not making yourself more desirable company by presenting yourself in that light. "Dependent and vulnerable yet winsome" is not in your job description. There are already enough problems posed by clients, funders, regulatory agencies, and the rest of the world. I'm not asking you to believe this, because that's probably a lost cause. I'm just asking you to set aside your personality disorder and act like a professional in the workplace.


Shava said...

My dad was executive director of a nonprofit (translated from "My dad was the minister of a Unitarian Universalist church"). He taught me something about nonprofit *boards* that I always found a good point of reflection. He said:

"Many people get on nonprofit boards because no one would trust them with authority in their workplace."

Perhaps a corollary to this might be: "Some people [not all by a long shot!] take lower pay in nonprofits because no one would trust them by awarding them the same job in a more pay-competitive environment."

Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people in social service agencies have only two conversational speeds: silence and group therapy.

Anonymous said...

Curmudgeon, I'm reminded of the old saying that the reward for a difficult job well done is another difficult job. Your reward for being a competent professional is to attract needy, vulnerable, and dependent co-workers who hope to be rescued by you.