10/07/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Taking on the Minor Petty Tyrant at the Office

You know the person at work who can walk in and derail a meeting, get way under your skin and drive you to distraction, or inflicts fear/loathing in others? If you do, you may have a minor petty tyrant ("MPT") for a colleague, and it's good to understand your choices for peaceful coexistence.

Way back in time -- okay, the '70s -- Author Carlos Castaneda coined the phrase "Minor Petty Tyrant" to describe, in anthropological terms, "Tormentors who are fearsome and inflict misery, but do not hold any real power over life or death of others." Anthropology is an apt way of looking at office life -- which, after all, is the tribal village with a 401(k) and a chieftain in the corner office.

In the modern tribal setting of the workplace MPTs are far more prevalent than we might expect. As I coach leaders at many levels, a fair number of my clients express challenges dealing with their local minor petty tyrant. They can be a client, colleague, boss, or direct report.

Often polarizing, they can bring out the best and worst of us. At our best with them, we gain strength by practicing boundaries, healthy choices, detachment from ego and empathy for the pain of others. At our worst, they fuel our distraction, ongoing stress, frustration, anger, fear, dread, loathing, etc.

Your Choices

1. Abuse is not okay, and you can (and maybe should) move on

You can walk away from any job or situation that you find abusive, overwhelming, or damaging to your well-being. I'm in no way recommending you adapt to a bad situation if it would be better for you to leave. You always have options, even if it doesn't seem that way. Nothing is permanent.

If, on the other hand, you otherwise love your mission/work and want to stick it out for healthy reasons, consider the following:

2. Empathize, rather than objectify them

Yes they are a complete pain-in-the-ass. It's thus easy to look at them as this "pain-generator thing" versus as a wounded soul. Yet they are in deep pain, or they wouldn't have to inflict it on others. Their annoying behavior reflects their own struggle, and it's truly sad. The best way someone described the MPT's self-image as: "I'm the biggest piece of sh*t the whole world revolves around." It's helpful to know that in your bones. See their pain and empathize with it to the point you are sure their behavior isn't about you; it's about them -- and your empathy can lead you to feel more grounded and stable around them.

3. Detach from ego

Escalation with an MPT -- responding to their bad behavior with your own -- is never a good idea. It depletes your own power and doesn't solve the problem. Yet it's our ego that wants to play that game. Going toe to toe in a calm, clear way is strength, while escalation is only going to make matters worse. Finding peace with yourself when faced with their stormy bad behavior is a skill worth developing.

4. Create healthy boundaries

Get to know their specific behavior patterns that trigger you to become stressed, angry, or fearful, and master your own ability to be aware of those triggers in real time. When it happens, you can change the narrative of what you tell yourself to something like, "They're under my skin (again), but I am not in danger. This feeling is not a fact, and I can let it go."

5. Ask for help, as needed

Help is good. When you are at a loss, feel trapped / unable to deal with the situation in a healthy way, you MUST remember to ask for help from a trusted adviser, coach, mentor, friend, or someone else you think might offer a different perspective and help you make good choices.

* * *

Thinking through several clients, and my own career experience, there's usually someone very annoying down the hall. We can learn from them, whether we choose to stay or go. Yet the biggest trap is to imagine we are backed into a corner and have no options. That's a feeling, not a fact -- a reminder that your power is to find calm and strength whenever dealing with the MPT in your tribe.