Unhappy Co-Worker Taking the Office Down

Dear Vicki: My brother Ted is having trouble with a co-worker who appears very hostile toward him. They work with a group of people in an accounting firm where no one has private offices. Everyone has cubicles, so most sound carries. Ted takes his job very seriously, and is really good at it, but he’s also a pretty caring guy who likes to socialize with his co-workers. The problem is that whenever he talks to anyone, this particular co-worker (I’ll call her Ann) gets furious that he’s making noise. Ann apparently wants the whole office to be deathly quiet so she can concentrate, but Ted says it’s bringing the whole place down. Do you have any suggestions regarding how Ted can he handle this situation? Signed, My Brother’s Helper

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Dear Brother’s Helper: Bravo to you for stepping up to help Ted. Office dynamics are always interesting because, within reason, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way for co-workers to interact. Some offices have company events and encourage socializing, others much less so. But outside of the tone set by the company itself, how people get along at work really can depend on their elemental personalities. After all, a relationship is a relationship!

It sounds to me like Ted is a primary Metal personality who has a strong secondary Earth personality. This means he will be great at precision (thus his success as an accountant) but will also value relationships with his fellow co-workers. Whether standing around the proverbial water cooler chatting, or laughing at jokes with others, this form of connecting will be important to Ted. On the other hand, I suspect that Ann is a primary Wood personality. Wood people value doing the best they can and getting ahead. They also rarely like to socialize unless it serves a significant purpose. But what her secondary elemental personality is will also matter.

We can assume that Ann’s secondary element isn’t Earth or Fire, because either of those elemental personalities would be interested in socializing. So, she is either a secondary Water person or Metal person. A Wood/Water personality mix would probably not last long in an accounting firm because Water people don’t value the structure it takes to be a good accountant. The fact that Ann is an accountant strongly suggests that she has a secondary Metal personality. This Wood/Metal combination would make her very structured and fits well with her apparent approach that work is for work, not any kind of play.

So, what happens when a Metal/Earth person (Ted) relates to a Wood/Metal person (Ann) professionally? One would think they should get along well because they both have Metal in their personality mix, right? Well, as Ted and Ann have shown, that’s not always the case, especially at work. If we look at how their primary elemental personalities relate in the Five Elements model, we’ll get a good sense of why this is the case.

Ann’s primary Wood personality is all about personal success and achievement. For her, the office is a place to accomplish work and anything that stops that will be frustrating for her. Ted’s socializing makes noise, which distracts her and gets in the way of what she is trying to accomplish. The fact that Ted has a primary Metal personality will make the whole situation much worse for Ann because, in the Five Elements model, Metal controls Wood. This means it’s likely that Ann feels Ted is personally trying to get in her way. It’s irrational of course, and even Ann might admit that if asked, but we all feel the effect of Controlling Cycle energy at subtle – but very real – levels in our relationships.

Another issue Ann probably has with Ted is the fact that any degree of socializing at work isn’t going to feel appropriate or necessary. Wood people usually want to focus on getting ahead, so the socializing and connecting that matters to the Earth part of Ted’s personality probably seems like a waste of time to Ann. Add to that the fact that, in the Five Elements model, Wood is what controls Earth, Ann’s Wood personality will naturally want to suppress Earth if she feels there’s too much of it around.

Even worse for this situation is that too much Earth energy can affect Ann’s ability to concentrate. The reason is that, in the model, Earth and Metal elements relate on the Nurturing Cycle, with Earth feeding Metal. And while being fed is important, we all know that too much of a good thing is bad. Excess Earth energy can suffocate Metal energy making it harder to hold mental concentration. This means having too much Earth socialization around can and will affect Ann’s ability to focus on the myriad details of accounting.

So, is Ted doomed to an uncomfortable relationship with Ann? Maybe. I can guarantee you it’s not going to be naturally easy for Ted and Ann to get along at work. But the Earth part of Ted’s personality will want to make things better so that the office is one big happy family. To that end, here are a few suggestions for your brother to try.

First, Ted will do well to be conscious of how much noise he makes near Ann. He shouldn’t let it control him, but he could think of it more as a courtesy, something easy for an Earth person to embrace. Second, Wood people value individual accomplishment, so any positive comments Ted can make to Ann about her work successes will be important. The Wood part of her personality will appreciate the positive attention, but he must be genuine – Wood personalities can sense idle flattery a mile away. Third, small amounts of inclusive Earth energy directed at Ann will feel good to her because, as we said earlier, Earth does feed Metal in the model.

If Ted can tap into the Earth part of his personality to be complimentary and inclusive with Ann, plus use his Metal personality to be genuinely kind to her (Metal people are notoriously kind), he might be able to shift the dynamic between them. And if he does, I suspect the whole office will send him a thank you card!

Bottom line, this particular Metal/Earth/Wood relationship mix isn’t naturally an easy professional combination. Metals and Woods are both very serious about work – even competitive – and from that perspective, Earth just gets in the way. But a little Earth greenery can bring a connectivity and caring to the office in a way that makes work nicer and more productive for everyone. It just has to be the right balance. Tell Ted good luck!

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