Field guide to the modern office: The 6 creatures you'll meet

Business jargon, outdated fax machines—the modern office can be a complicated place to navigate. Luckily, you’ve got an anthropologist to give you a field guide to the six coworkers you’re most likely to spot around the water cooler. So if you’re finding yourself stumped trying to communicate clearly with the various species you encounter in ‘the wild’ (a.k.a. the cafeteria), we’re here to help.


Anxious Adrian

If there were an award for sweaty palms, this guy would win it (although the trophy might slip right out of his hands). He stutters so much during presentations people start counting his “like’s” and “um’s.” This is all in spite of the fact that he has great ideas and is always a reliable co-worker. Giving Adrian materials in advance can help ease his nerves at meetings. High-quality images can jog his memory during PowerPoint presentations, and can help do some of the talking when he’s got a frog in his throat.


Slacker Steve

Steve is fun, charming—everybody loves Steve! Until you actually do a project with him and realize he never does any work. He’ll pitch in a couple of killer ideas, and then sit back and watch the rest of the team handle things. To deal with Steve types, brush up on the reasons why people slack off, and consider redesigning projects or teams to keep people motivated. Good visuals, including infographics and photos of actual consumers, can help to show Steve why it matters when he pulls his on weight.


Bob the Boss

He may not actually be the boss, but he thinks he is. A notorious “mansplainer,” he begins most sentences with, “Well, actually… “ It seems to you like Bob has a major ego, and you don’t want to mess with the broad-shouldered dragon underneath his booming voice. Still, it wouldn’t be right to let him walk all over the rest of the employees. Instead of pointing fingers, explain to Bob that his way of talking over people actually makes him less heard by others. Subtly incept his brain by making sure some stock photos of “a boss” also challenge his perception of who should be in charge. Get experts from other fields to come in and talk, and have them use visuals and videos to back up their points. These visual clues can help Bob to recognize others’ prowess.




Do-it-all Daria

You never have to remind this woman to respond to an email or meet a deadline—she’s on top of it all. Always eating lunch at her desk, she prefers perfecting her spreadsheets to after-work drinks with the team. You may not think this is a problem—she seems to like working really hard—but it’s worth probing deeper to find out if there’s an underlying reason why she always picks up the slack. Is there someone on her team who isn’t doing her part (ahem, Steve) and Daria’s just too polite to say anything? Is she concerned about getting a promotion or losing her job? Once you have a conversation with her, you can use some of the above visual tactics to get the message across to others–not just in PowerPoint presentations, but also in Word documents. 


Karin the Complainer

It’s like a little raincloud is permanently perched above her head. Nothing seems to go right for Karin, and she lets the world know it. She’s quickly become that team member no one wants to work with because she and her cloud of negativity are bound to rain on your parade. Dealing with people like Karin can be tough, because you never know what might be breeding the negativity in the first place. While it may not be appropriate to ask personal questions, it may be worth asking Karin what she does like about the job, and how she works best (alone, in large groups, remotely…). Visual images also make a big impact on our mental health, so consider using some royalty free photos and free clipart images to brighten up your space. Being proactive will give Karin the opportunity to voice more serious concerns, and allow everyone the space to feel honest, rather than cynical.


Soft-Spoken Sven

Sometimes you feel like it’s pointless inviting him to conference calls—sometimes he’s so quiet you forget he’s in the room. But while he sits in the back corner in meetings, he secretly loves being at work and around co-workers. Pay close attention to his eye contact and facial expressions—if something makes him smile or furrow his brow, it may be worth asking for his opinion in a low-pressure setting (i.e., not an all-company meeting). If you use presentation images, they’re an easy way to get people to engage in topics they’re unfamiliar with. Anonymous feedback surveys (again, with visuals!) are another way of getting a pulse from co-workers that are more reserved.



The secret to all navigating a workplace dynamic with all of these characters comes down to one thing: Intelligent Communication (or, IC). While IC is a term I just made up, the concept of social intelligence or emotional intelligence has been around for years. It’s all about knowing your audience, and using a communication style that resonates with them.

Workplaces are like ecosystems, and keeping them in balance can be tricky. You need to think about individuals as species in that ecosystem that are going to react differently to different pressures from their environment. When you tailor your communication style through written and verbal language and visual images, you can get your point across and stay alive in the jungle.



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Who wrote this?  

This was posted by Anneli L. Tostar, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and artist, originally from Portland, Oregon. She now lives in Stockholm and is studying urban planning and design. Anneli speaks five languages and understands none of them. 

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