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Irrational Behavior at Work: An Interview with Mark Goulston

By: Connie Blaszczyk 

Whether it's a bullying boss or a manipulative co-worker, you've likely encountered some irrational behavior at your workplace, and unfortunately it can have a damaging impact on mental health and productivity

As a psychiatrist and crisis counselor, author Mark Goulston has managed seriously delusional behavior, which has given him the perspective that crazy or irrational behavior is a problem that most of us face every day. 

Mark joins us now to disseminate some of the findings from his book called, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal With the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life. It's published by AMACOM Books. 

Mark Goulston, author of Talking to Crazy: How to Deal With the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life Talking to Crazy: How to Deal With the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life by Mark Goulston

Monster: Mark, thank you so much for joining me.

Goulston: Happy to be with you today.

Monster: This is a topic that obviously touches every aspect of our life, from our families to our relationships, but it seems to me that the workplace is probably tailor made for irrational behavior. Would you agree with that?

Goulston: Absolutely. In fact, when people hear the title they invariably smile and I say, "What are you smiling at," and they say, "I think I do this every day."

Monster: When you bring that into a confined workplace context, with people who you did not choose to work with but you're given to work with, it can probably become pretty complicated very quickly.

Goulston:  Yes. In fact, over time, just the mention of their name, just a text message, an email or seeing their name written causes you to feel either a pit in your stomach or a lump in your throat and that's because you're thinking to yourself, "I wonder what this is about. Here we go again. What preposterous thing are they going to be asking me," and so they trigger what we call anticipatory anxiety over time. You want to avoid it and often you can't.

Monster: Let's start if we could by defining that word "crazy," because you use it quite a bit in the book and it can be a loaded term. Can you define what defines common every day crazy?

Goulston: I make a distinction between crazy and mental illness. I am a psychiatrist and I have great compassion for people who are mentally ill. To me, people who are dealing with a serious mental illness can't help but act the way they do until that mental illness is helped or until it's treated. 

Whereas crazy people are the people that drive us crazy and they could choose to not act that way and actually in different settings. For instance, someone who manages up very well but manages down poorly; to me, the crazy people I'm referring to are the people who could act differently but choose not to.

Monster: That is probably because we're creatures of habit.

Goulston: Absolutely, we're creatures of habit, but there are people who are creatures of opportunity. There's a saying I've heard that people who don't know how to seize opportunity or take advantage of opportunity find a way to take advantage of people.

Monster: That's interesting, people who can manage up and then have a problem managing down. What are some of the other types of irrational behavior you've most commonly seen in the workplace, or what are some of the more notable types of behavior that stand out?

Goulston: I think the most notable irrational behavior that I think drives managers and leaders crazy is drama. When people overly dramatize their point to try and get it through I think that often drives employers crazy. 

In fact, I work with a number of entrepreneurs and I spoke to a group of them, over 100 of them a couple of weeks ago and I said, "I just realized the single word that you dislike more than all other words in business." They looked at me and they said, "What?" I said, "You can't stand the word people, because it always feels like it's going to be followed with some excuse for poor behavior." They all laughed and I said, "Got you."

Monster: To me that’s an example of a two to tango kind of idea, where you're bringing presumptions to the context of working with others before anything even happens.

Goulston: That is totally true. If you're anticipating someone to react or respond poorly you're already a little bit uptight and often these people are these irrational people will sense that and it escalates. 

By the way, I make a distinction between irrational and non-rational. We talked earlier about mentally ill people. I see them as more non-rational. Meaning that they're just not able to summon being rational in a situation. Whereas the focus of Talking to Crazy is on irrational people -- meaning that they almost seem to have an ulterior motive.

Something that's also very common in irrational people is they often approach situations this way because they feel this is the way for them to get their point or to get out of a situation where they might be blamed for something. Actually to them it's not irrational. I think they believe that if they can either manipulate someone or overwhelm them that the other person is not going to ask them to do something they don't want to do or is not going to hold them accountable. 

The reason for that is that nearly all these people get the better of employers and managers because when they drive managers and employers crazy what happens is the manager or employee is putting energy into keeping a lid on their frustration and exasperation and from wanting to react in a way that might not be that productive.

Monster: You talk about one of the methods of dealing with irrational behavior is to lean into that person's irrationality, which is probably pretty much the exact opposite of what most people would be inclined to do. I'm wondering if that is a technique that would be appropriate for the workplace.

Goulston: I think it very much is, because if you think what underlies someone who is acting irrational or crazy, that underneath what they're talking about is something else and usually it's fear of something. 

If you can realize that there is something underneath the way they're behaving, if instead of reacting to them, if you first of all expect these people to act this way because these people have a track record of doing it, hold a little bit of yourself back, and then when you act that way let them finish -- and then pause, and lean into what they're saying and with a proper tone, a tone of inquiry wanting to hear more. 

You can say to them, "I can understand that you're frustrated. What's really going on?" They'll say, "What?" You can say, "No, I understand that you're frustrated. What's really going on?" 

I like using the word frustration because most people will own up to frustration without getting defensive. Whereas if you say, "I can say you understand that you're angry. What's really going on," people may take offense if you're calling them angry.

Monster: Right.

Goulston: When you lean into that, and if your intention is that there something else going on, they will open up. What will happen is, if you're steadfast, they will open up and you'll usually find out what's really going on.

Monster: You just have to be willing to deal with whatever that opening up is. [laughter]

Goulston: Absolutely. It's something that I talk about in my book, Just Listen, which proceeded Talking to Crazy, and it's called "conversation deepeners." 

The steps for people who are listening or who are going to be reading this should follow is to identify the people who are most likely to act this way. Second step is don't expect them not to act this way in a conversation that starts to escalate. Third, wait for them to do what they are going to do and don't feel blindsided by it.

The next step is let them finish whatever they're saying, but make note of the words they use where they have emotion attached to it. If they use words like awful or horrendous -- or their inflection goes up, or they say, “ We really need to take care of this,” pause, let them finish and lean in. 

A conversation deepener would be, "Say more about the horrendous." When you are with them, when you can even detect this on tone on a phone, they're going to say, "What?" -- because you're changing the dynamic. You can say, "Say more about the horrendous situation, because that seems like something we need to find out more about and find a way to deal with that." 

What will happen is you'll find yourself centered in the conversation, you'll find yourself taking charge of the conversation, without being controlling or judgmental, and you will actually notice them kind of get a little befuddled and they will start to cooperate more.

Monster: I'm going to play devil's advocate here a little bit; I can imagine a manager doing this of an employee who is exhibiting irrational behavior, but how well would this work for an employee to do it with their manager? There’s that sense of, “you're above me, you have more authority than I do” --  without aggravating the person even more?

Goulston: When you're dealing with a manager who's irrational, or a bully, a good word to use in business, within companies is the word important, because many people who act up act up and act out -- for some reason or another they feel treated as unimportant. 

That’s when you can say to someone, "There's something very important in what you're saying, and I want to make sure I don't miss it, or “I'm getting distracted because of other things you're saying are distracting me, so I don't miss it can you tell me exactly what that is?"

Monster:  So you're sort of removing the intensity of the situation to try to get to the essence of the message? 

Goulston: Absolutely. It's what I call listening into the eye of the hurricane. There often is an eye of a hurricane. Inside most people that are not dyed in the wool dysfunctional, there is a desire to get better results. The whole basis of the book is instead of reacting that way, what to do differently to deal more effectively with these irrational people.

Monster:  Right. Let's talk about the hiring process and how this might work in that context. For instance, when an employee is assessing a potential new hire,  how can they assess them for the health of their overall rational behavior?

Goulston: There's a mnemonic that we use or an acronym that we use in the book, it's called FUD crud, F-U-D crud. 

What FUD crud stands for is frustrated, upset, disappointed. 

You can ask a candidate, "In your last job talk about a situation in which you felt frustrated, upset or disappointed -- give me an example of that, and what that was about and then what happened." 

What you're looking is for people who can take responsibility for their participation in things that go wrong, because every day we have hiccups at work; and if the person, in answer to that question, is always externalizing, "Well, they did this, and they did that, and they let other people do such and such," there's a good chance you're dealing with someone who, at very least, externalizes responsibility, but could also be a blamer, can also be a finger pointer and could be someone you'd want to avoid.

What you're really looking for is for them to own up to their participation in a situation. If they’re really blowing it, and we call it FUD crud because if they just externalize it, what they're demonstrating is someone who's not going to be willing to be accountable as much as someone who takes responsibility. If they blow it you can say, "Well, what was your responsibility in the situation in terms of causing it and then what happened?" and then see how they deal with it.

Monster:  Sometimes employers struggle with employees who have some of this irrational behavior and it becomes difficult at times to distinguish between the crazy making behavior and what could be more significant issues going on. Any advice in that territory for employers?

Goulston: I think what you're alluding to is how do you tell when someone is just crazy-making behavior versus someone with a significant mental illness. 

Monster: Right. 

Goulston: I think it's something you identify over time. When you're dealing with someone in which every conversation seems to trigger their defensiveness, taking it personally and you're saying to yourself, "Boy, their imagination is running wild with them," or you can even if you're a layman, you can say, "I think they might be paranoid." Often you need to see that over time, and if it's a repetitive pattern. The more repetitive the pattern, the more it's likely to be ingrained with them, as opposed to something that situational.

Monster: That certainly is a very Zen point of view to take in that kind of situation.

Goulston: That is Zen on steroids.

Monster: To get to that Zen place the book does include some exercises that people can ask of themselves, "What is my modus operandi and what are the things that drive me towards irrational behavior?" Is that something that you would advocate certainly for managers and higher-ups should do for themselves?

Goulston: Absolutely. In fact, I think the more effective and more evolved manager or leader will do that. I know you interviewed Bill George about authentic leadership -- I'm a huge fan of him. I think the more aware you are of yourself, and how you may come across, and how you might want to correct the way you come across if you’re not getting you the results you need, I think the more authentic leaders and managers understand the power of that. People will feel, "Boy, it's an honor to work for you."

Monster: Mark it's been great to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Goulston: Thank you so much for having me on.

Author Mark Goulston is a psychiatrist, crisis counselor, consultant and business counselor. His latest book is Talking to Crazy: How to Deal With the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life .published by ANACOM Books.

Learn More:

Toxic Deflectors at Work: How to Change Enemy into Frenemy
Read an excerpt from the book, Talking to Crazy. 

Monster Hiring Podcast: Managing Difficult People
Listen to our podcast interview with author Mark Goulston.