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In any workgroup or social gathering, it seems that there’s always one person who is difficult and disruptive. Prima donnas behave as if they’re in a parallel universe in which they alone make the rules.

Dictionary.com defines obnoxious as: annoying or objectionable [behavior] due to being a showoff or attracting undue attention to oneself; an obnoxious little brat. We might not be able to define obnoxious behavior (but like obscenity) we know it when we see it.

We know it by the way it makes us feel: belittled, betrayed, embarrassed, and singled out for reasons other than to celebrate our worth. The obnoxious are childishness personified: vengeful, mean-spirited, backbiting, and always on the lookout to take the opposite stand. If someone else is receiving positive strokes, they immediately turn the spotlight on themselves by doing the following: (1) ignoring that person’s achievement; (2) talking about their own self-perceived merits; (3) insulting the other person; or (4) engaging in putdowns.

Why do people at work behave in a manner that’s hurtful?

One reason could be lack of shame, or an inadequately developed conscience. They simply fail to feel guilt (or in some twisted cases, actually experience self-righteousness) in condemning their compatriots. They haven’t been taught (or have chosen not to learn) how to solve problems in an adult fashion – in a manner that respects the personhood of their peers.

Another reason could be a profane sense of self-confidence – the kind that knows however they behave, “it’s all good.” In her tape “A Tale of O,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes a clan composed of the majority, whom she refers to as “the old X network.” They are a cohort who will circle the wagons and attack the intruder to protect their perceived enclave.  

Could obnoxious behavior be a cover for a sense of inadequacy, or jealously toward a coworker? The only time that some individuals become aggressive is when they feel diminished by another’s achievements. Dissing you in their minds “levels the playing field” by making you look small in front of your peers. If the only time that someone interacts with you is when they have an audience, that’s a dead giveaway they’re a performer. They desire to be the center even if it comes at the expense of those around them. The obnoxious prefer to remain who they are and lose the relationship instead of yielding to expected norms.

Obnoxious acts can of course be clandestine, as when someone tries to detract from their failings by complaining about you behind closed doors. It’s covert when anonymous feedback is used to harm you through hurtful comments or ratings that are unreasonably low.  

If you’re one who engages in unruly behavior, realize that everything you do is a reflection upon yourself – on your self-concept, your manners, your breeding, and on your stature as a human being. Trying to make another look small actually defines your own diminutive status. Instead, try being the bigger person, and interacting in ways that are uplifting to other people. You will enhance your own status in their eyes.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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