Parasite Coworkers

Some time ago Scott Adams published the following text on his blog. I have been a fan and a regular reader for some time but this one really struck a nerve. I could write a book on the subject. For some reason this post disappeared or was lost during the move but I was able to save a cached version and now I can’t even find that anymore, so it could be the only copy on the whole internet. I am probably violating some law by reposting it here but I think this post will ring a bell with many of you.

Pain Leveling (by Scott Adams)

Tue, 2008-03-18 07:46

Back in my corporate days, I had a coworker who seemed to be happy almost all of the time. He didn’t do much actual work yet he was paid well, and he didn’t let the little things get to him. The interesting thing about him is that when anyone asked how he was doing, he’d always say things were awful. In fact, he had a handful of sayings he used almost every day.

“I’d complain, but no one would listen.”

“I’m putting out fires all day long.”

“I’m just jumping on hand grenades.”

“I’m slogging through the swamp.”

“I’m up to my ass in alligators.”

“It’s a rat race and the rats are winning.”

For a long time I thought the complaining seemed dishonest. It was only years later that I realized how brilliant he was. He understood the concept of pain leveling.

The way pain leveling works is that when one human encounters another who is in a different level of comfort – either higher or lower – they reflexively look for ways to transfer some pain from the least happy person to the most happy, until the pain is more level.

For example, when you run into a friend who is down on his luck, you listen to his story of woe until he feels some relief in telling it, and you lose some happiness in listening to it. Or you might offer to help in some way, with time or money. At work, this effect translates into the overworked person transferring some work onto the less busy and happier employees. My ex coworker understood this principle and used it to his advantage. In every social exchange, he tried to establish himself as the person in the most pain. This caused other people to become reflexively extra nice to him, to try and ease his burden.

It was a fine balance because he was always somewhat upbeat about the “mountain of work” he was under. He seemed noble – soldiering on despite all that work. None of it was real. Sometimes his entire day consisted of walking around with a coffee cup, chatting with people, and making a few phone calls.

I was reminded of this the other day when I overheard a kid bragging about something that was going well for him. The other kid reflexively called him a bragger and did a few other tricks to level the pain. I think this instinct is built into our DNA.

You can use this natural phenomenon to your advantage. Try to establish yourself as the least lucky person in every social encounter. If you see a friend coming toward you with a new ankle cast and crutches, grab your side and start rolling on the ground yelling something about internal bleeding. If you sell it, you can get the cripple to carry your groceries and drive you around.

Do you have coworkers who start their day with getting a smallest mole hill and spend their day building the largest mountain out of it, constantly suffering from self-inflicted pain out loud?  Do you have coworkers who make a point of diminishing everyone else’s work while constantly requiring help and attention? Do you have coworkers who refuse to remember something you showed them hundreds of times and continue to ask you the same exact question day after day? Do you have coworkers who want your input on everything they do, when both of you know that they already have the answer and just want to share responsibility just in case? Do you have coworkers who involve management in every minuscule task periodically saying into the phone “I have my manager standing here” to make themselves sound important? Do you have coworkers who are full of fake irony and sarcasm and say things like “oh, so-and-so worked on this, now I have to redo everything from scratch” making so-and-so look like a complete moron for no reason? Do you work with people who can never log in, their passwords always fail, their programs crash, computers hang, batteries die, and software conspires to annoy them for no reason? Do you work with people who make every bit of their exaggerated suffering known to you, even though you are doing fine, you don’t need managers to deal with your problems, your computer works, your passwords are current and you can handle anything thrown at you without getting hysterical? Do you work with people who annoy you so much that you consider their day off one of your own?

Go pour yourself a shot of whatever you drink, you deserve it!