How to Deal with People Who Suck

by Jennifer Miller on January 27, 2011

in Workplace Issues

Do you work with a human hooverPeople are programmed to help each other out. Social psychologists call this socialized behavior reciprocity and it’s evident in all human civilizations. In the United States, we have familiar phrases to describe this aspect of human behavior: “he gave as good as he got”, “one good turn deserves another”, and “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.  

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has studied the topic of influence extensively and he says that reciprocity is one of six fundamental psychological principles that drive the way humans influence one another.  In his book Influence: Science and Practice, Cialdini says that most people are in tune with the intricate dance of give-and-take. They realize that there can’t be lopsidedness to the exchange of favors and helpfulness. To over-extend one’s requests is to risk being negatively labeled by our social group. Cialdini says, “Because there is general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered a moocher, ingrate or freeloader.” (p. 22)

All in all, this social protocol is a good thing. It helps people maintain a productive, friendly society. In the workplace, reciprocity is vital to getting things done. Teamwork wouldn’t exist without a healthy dose of reciprocity, so it makes sense there’s evidence of it throughout workplaces across our country.

But there’s a shadow side too. There are those few people for whom reciprocity seems a foreign concept. They’re like the Human Hoovers of the workplace—sucking up all they can manage to get in the name of self-interest. Vacuums are a very effective appliance to use at home, but a real pain to have to deal with as a co-worker.

So why do some of us let these Human Hoovers (“H.H.”) get away with it? That’s where it gets interesting. Cialdini’s research suggests that the power of reciprocity is so strong that people will comply with requests even if the requester is intrusive, as long as the request is perceived to be a small one. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. It sort of sneaks up on you—“hey would you mind getting a second copy made for me while you’re at it?” “I’m swamped, could you just help out this one time?” A civil society (not to mention all those Successories teamwork posters) urges us to comply. Before you know it, you have been sucked in (pun intended) and the requests are getting bigger.   Of course, when you ask for a favor in return, these human “takers” aren’t quite as quick to respond in kind.  “Dude, I’d love to, but I’m swamped. Maybe Vicky can help you?” Here again, the H.H. completely misses the point of the whole “give-back” aspect of reciprocity.

The next time you feel like you’ve been asked a favor by someone who most likely won’t respond in kind, simply say, “I’d love to, but I’m swamped”. Turn the tactic back on the Human Hoover and see how it works. Or, if it really is inappropriate to deny helping him or her, then negotiate an agreement that’s more palatable for both parties. Chances are, the H.H. might not be nearly as put off as you might think.  By you setting a few boundaries, it’s possible that your Human Hoover may actually get the message.  Or, at least, go find somebody else to mooch from.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Jo Asmus January 27, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Jennifer, hmmm…..I’m not quite convinced that the tactic of “an eye for an eye” works well for setting boundaries. First, it could be deceptive (if it isn’t true) or passive aggressive, and second, it doesn’t get at the root problem. I’d like to suggest a conversation with H.H. instead, where you civilly and with great respect, tell them the situation, behaviors, and impact of what they are doing and then listen to their response. It seems more honest to me to be open about what you see happening and it provides a chance that H.H. will get it.

Jennifer January 27, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Mary Jo,

Hi! Normally, I’m not in favor of an eye-for-an-eye approach either. In this scenario, I envisioned a person who has had opportunity in the past to “get it” and hasn’t seized upon that opportunity. For example, I’ve had situations in which I’ve attempted to set boundaries with a person on more than one occasion, only to have that person feign contrition and then revert back to the old ways.

There comes a point in time when a bit of self-preservation kicks in. I know you’re a huge fan of getting things out in the open and in many cases, so am I. In my opinion, the Hoovers of the world aren’t about to change their stripes. Perhaps I should have stated it more clearly in the post: people shouldn’t feel “obligated” to reciprocate just because someone asks them to do so.

Art Petty January 28, 2011 at 9:38 am

Jennifer, I truly enjoyed this post! It fits nicely with my own theme of “dealing with difficult people” that carried through in my own writing this week.

I am in serious danger here of potentially ending up somewhere on the opposite side of one of my favorite leadership writers, Mary Jo, in her comment above. Or, perhaps it’s just a more aggressive form of her “talk about it” strategy.

After an appropriate period of due diligence and appropriate courtesy…and giving more than you get, I have no qualms indicating to the Human Hoover (aka Ill Mannered Idiot) to politely go pound sand. Hmm…did I say that, or just think it? Perhaps I might tone it down a bit to reflect some direct and specific feedback on this individual’s abuse of my kindness and expectations for professional reciprocity. Some people are takers, and we all have the option to quit giving once the equation is grossly out of balance.

Thanks, Jennifer. I enjoyed this so much, that it is one of my favorite three posts in today’s “Management Week in Review” feature.

Best, -Art

Jennifer January 28, 2011 at 10:53 am


Thanks so much for stopping by The People Equation and for the feature in your Management Week in Review; I’m honored.

It’s interesting that you mention the “equation” being out of balance. One of the metaphors I considered when writing this post was that of a balance or a scale. As you say, it’s up to the individual to determine when “enough is enough” and find an appropriate way to end the cycle.

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