Q. What is up with mean people? It doesn't take any longer to be friendly than nasty. I've tried being kinder to a male co-worker who always...

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Q. What is up with mean people? It doesn’t take any longer to be friendly than nasty. I’ve tried being kinder to a male co-worker who always acts horrible, and he just acts worse. Is there some secret formula for shaping up workplace jerks?

A. The secret is that people learn in childhood to repeat what gets rewarded. If having tantrums, being insulting and intimidating others gets results, the child becomes an adult who thinks acting badly is an interpersonal skill.

Parents, teachers and others are often frightened by a child who acts mean. Co-workers, bosses and customers are also scared of mean adults. Inadvertently, many of us reward people who act badly by looking the other way, being nicer or giving them what they want quickly.

Be aware that all of us are natural students of human nature. We repeat behavior that gets results and cease behavior that creates pain for us. Most of us care less about the process we use than the outcome we get.

If you want to be effective with people who use mean behavior, you have to look at the results they’re getting. If others around your co-worker are reinforcing his meanness by giving him what he wants, then his current approach may be upsetting but you have to admit it works.

The secret formula for handling mean people is to ask yourself how you can stop rewarding their bad behavior. What can you do and say that will create pain for your co-worker or not give him what he wants when he acts poorly with you?

If he throws a fit to get you to do his report, calmly tell him you can’t offer help when you are frightened. If he tries to intimidate you into giving him a plum project, give the project to another co-worker. If he yells at you, tell him you’ll finish the conversation when he lowers his volume.

If you set a limit, take away what he wants and neutrally disengage, you’ll notice two liberating changes will occur. Your co-worker will notice that he better shape up with you or experience pain. Your other co-workers will notice he does shape up with you and consider following your example.

Perhaps we should change the common bumper sticker that says “Mean People Suck” to a more useful bit of advice, “Mean People, Don’t Reward Them!”

The last word(s)

Q. I had a vivid dream about calling an old friend who told me about a great job in his company. Can you get career advice from a dream?

A. Yup. The only way to know whether the dream was indigestion or intuition is to make the phone call.

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., is an executive coach, trainer, therapist, speaker and author of “Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything” (Hay House, 2006). She can be reached at 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., No. 2845, Issaquah, WA 98027-7001; by e-mail at interpersonaledge@comcast.net; or at www.interpersonaledge.com. Sorry, no personal replies. To read other Daneen Skube columns, go to www.seattletimes.com/daneenskube