How to Deal With a Happiness Leech

“Just this once,” asked Dave.

He used those words so often it was a joke around the office. In fact, Dave himself was a joke. He barely did any work at all — yet somehow managed to keep his job — probably because he sucked up to the boss better than anyone. When it came down to his assigned tasks, he avoided them at all costs, bullying others to do the work for him.

Dave needed to be at the center of every employee gathering — staff meetings, birthday celebrations, and retirement parties. He made ‘jokes’ about others — especially women — who often excused themselves and retreated to the bathroom to cry. No no one ever stood up to him so his behavior continued and gradually eroded the fun-loving culture of the department. Over time, employees dreaded coming to work and reduced interactions with each other for fear Dave would jump in and ruin the conversation.

Things came to ahead with the retirement of Jane, a beloved employee of thirty years. Her official retirement party happened at the office and, as expected, Dave treated it as a roast, grabbed the microphone, and made several backhanded compliments about her time at the company. The rest of the department knew this would happen — so a secret happy hour was arranged sans Dave. Somehow he caught wind of it and showed up anyway, ruining that too by getting drunk, insulting others, and singing karaoke.

Employees were at their wits’ end. Someone had to do something. I decided that someone was me. I would wait for the right moment and confront Dave. I collected several stories to use as ammunition when talking to him.

There would be no more bullying. No more crying in the bathrooms. No more disrespect.

It all ends today.

If you have ever worked in corporate America, there’s a good chance you have come across a Dave at the office. He’s the guy (or gal) that ruins the fun for everyone and — if left unchecked — slowly erodes the culture until everyone else either starts acting like Dave too or flees the department and/or company. It never ends well when a Dave takes over — especially if he is the boss.

I worked for a Dave at a prior job and he was just a terrible person. He would stab you in the back at every turn to make himself look better. He acted like the smartest person in the room — even though he wasn’t. I was on pins and needles around him, never knowing how he would react to any given situation. There was no consistency in how he managed — we never knew where we stood and feared his wrath.

I ended up leaving the organization to get away from Dave. Several years later, I heard he installed cameras outside his office to keep tabs on his employees. He didn’t get the top job when it opened and he was eventually fired by the new boss. I cracked a smile when I heard about his fate because he finally got what he deserved.

In her book Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin describes Daves as ‘happiness leeches’ and references a paper about ‘bad apples’ by Will Felps, Terence R. Mitchell, and Eliza Byington. There are three types of happiness leeches:

The grouches, who are chronically unhappy, pessimistic, anxious, irritable, or needy. Because negative emotions are more catching than positive emotions, and persist longer, one grouch can drag down a whole group very quickly.

The jerks, who show no respect for others, who constantly challenge or find fault, behave rudely or cruelly, spread malicious gossip, embarrass others, indulge in mean teasing or pranks, boss others around, unfairly claim credit, without necessary information, or dominate the conversation. Their behavior undercuts trust and makes people feel belittled, defensive, and resentful.

The slackers, who don’t do their fair share of the work. This unequal effort makes others feel resentful and ill-used. Sometimes slackers practice intentional incompetence, when they do a bad job on purpose, or postpone undertaking a task to force someone else to take over. One type of slacker constantly demands attention or assistance — “Could I get your help on this one thing?” — so that he or she distracts and exploits others.

It’s bad enough when there is a Dave running around the office, but the saddest part is when their bad behavior begins to spread. The author calls this the “spillover effect”:

When we see others act like grouches, jerks, and slackers, we’re more likely to imitate them — both because that kind of behavior is on our minds, and because our inhibitions have been lowered. Research shows that the group member who scores lower on conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability often sets the tone for a whole group.

There are some strategies to counter the effects of a happiness leech:

Avoid being alone with the happiness leech. The presence of other people often dilutes his or her power.

Communicate through email, if possible. I find it much harder to control my emotional reactions to people when I’m face-to-face with them. Email allows me to react more calmly.

Keep a sense of humor. Over and over, I see that levity helps diffuse practically any difficult situation.

Instead of contradicting pessimistic or negative statements, acknowledge them. Happiness leeches are often less emphatic when they feel that others recognize their views.

Act the way I want to feel; behave the way I want to behave. Too often, when I find myself around a happiness leech, I ape that behavior — complaining more, making sharper criticisms. I want to live up to my own standards.

Most important: Mind my own business.

Have you dealt with a happiness leech? If so, how did you handle them?

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