The culture of phony corporate nice insists on respecting your cubemates and offering them endless second chances when they misbehave. Don't be a sucker -- there are other ways to thrive even while stuck in a horrid, open-office plan with the Cubemate you hate.
Playing nice won't deliver results. Trying to patch a cubemate's damaged personality will only backfire and waste your time. They cannot be saved. They are one of the Ten Least Wanted. Your only hope: Make certain they don't ruin your career.
He's a Minute Man!
Though seemingly harmless and often downright friendly, Minute Man infests many companies like dry rot under the floorboards of a house. If he happens to be within earshot, he can be deadly to your productivity. He will just want a minute of your time. Then another minute. And yet another minute. He chats your ear off about last week's quarterly meeting, the upcoming company picnic, or his favorite idiotic reality show. If he's literally your cubemate, the first tactic is masterful silence. When pressed for a response, answer with a polite, "I've got a lot of work to do."
Step two, if it's not a fireable offense at your company, is to wear headphones and turn up the music when Minute Man approaches. When moving about the office, imagine you're downtown in a big city after dark. Minute Men, like purse-snatchers, prey on the slow and frail. If he catches you off-guard in the lunchroom or at the water cooler, and there's no escape, surprise him with generosity, "I've got a couple of minutes," but let him know you've got a hard stop: "But I've got to make a call at 11:00."
She's a Stop Sign!
She is always friendly and agreeable...except every time you have an idea. Then she unfurls the red flags, sapping your initiative and enthusiasm with a simple, "The company will never do that," or "That's interesting but it would cost too much," or the devastating, "That would be a clever idea but it would never be practical." The Stop Sign derives enormous pleasure from throwing cold water on your every ambition.
Your first move: Stop sticking your jaw in front of her jabs. Don't ask the opinion of a Stop Sign unless you need a daily smackdown. When Stop Sign tosses out unsolicited advice, ignore her. Silence does wonders. But when Stop Sign tries to halt your progress in meetings or before colleagues, tougher measures may be required. Your next move: Instead of acknowledging the putdown, reverse it. "Well Jane, you must know that innovation experts have proven that the way to come up with a genuinely new idea is to have lots of ideas."
Then move in for the coup de grace. "So what's your idea, Jane?" Jane rarely has any -- since her default setting is to short circuit them -- so the Stop Sign will quietly go away and stay away, for fear she'll be asked to add (instead of subtract) from future sessions.
He's a Flimflam!
One of the trickiest cubemates is the Flimflam. He's often smooth and has managers or bosses in the palm of his slippery hand. Why? Because he cons you and other unsuspecting cubemates to do his bidding. He makes it all sound so easy: "Just a phone call or two... This project report needs a quick polish...Jump into this one client meeting." Next thing you know, he's got you doing his job!
What makes combating Flimflam even more challenging is that he often flimflams management, who are impressed at "his" productivity. You can't always just tell him to stick it in his trashcan. Instead, try temporarily becoming another of the Ten Least Wanted proven to neutralize Flimflam's powers: The Spreadsheet. When he asks for your help -- reply with a request for a page on the project. A detailed written estimate of the time required. Serious data. Don't shoot down his scam. Just strangle it with your reasonable request that he provide all the necessary background. This often works like a burglar alarm. You've let him know you're no easy mark, so he'll move on to a more gullible and vulnerable neighbor.
If none of the preceding examples sounds like your "Cubemate from Hell," chances are that he's one of the other Ten Least Wanted. Does the bombastic Bulldozer seem familiar? Or maybe the false-fact-spewing Know-It-None? Figure out which of the archetypes he is and develop a couple of simple steps to disarm him before he drives you nuts.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon.