Mince pies, mischief and malice – The dark side of the office Christmas party

December 18, 2013

In last month’s blog, I discussed the ‘shadow side’ of personality, i.e. those bits of ourselves which we normally keep hidden but which emerge when we’re too stressed, tired or drunk to keep up a polite façade any longer. I described three broad trends – under pressure some of us move towards others, some move away from others and some move against others. This month I thought I’d explore the individual characteristics within those broad categories. In this festive season, what better way to do that than to see how they play out at the office Christmas party of a company which has had a bad year and is facing an uncertain future………

The moving towards types

Dillie Diligent can be relied upon to do a really thorough job, so she was asked to organise the Christmas party. Nothing has been left to chance and she’s really nailed all those details – even the serviettes are the colour of the company logo. Things fall apart for Dillie when some people won’t stick to the seating plan and her strict timetable starts to go awry. Completely losing sight of the fact that people are already having fun in their own way, she doggedly insists that it’s 9pm so people should start playing charades right now.

Julian Dutiful is a loyal company man, who doesn’t like to upset anyone, particularly not someone in authority. He was looking forward to relaxing with his team at the party but yesterday his boss asked him if he’d drive the Chairman home afterwards as “you live in the same neck of the woods”. Actually it’s a 20 minute detour and he wasn’t planning on driving but he didn’t feel he could say no. Looks like he won’t be letting his hair down after all.

The moving away types

Estelle Excitable was one of the first people to get enthusiastic about the Christmas party way back in August and was instrumental in getting it off the ground. After it was given to uptight Dillie Diligent to organise, she lost interest but as the day approached she got quite excited again. She really throws herself into the party spirit but by midnight she’s tired and emotional. Christmas party 3Something’s upset her and she’s crying on the shoulder of her new best friend – someone she’ll probably have forgotten by Monday.

Sean Shrewd is a smart guy. No one pulls the wool over his eyes and he won’t be taken advantage of. He still hasn’t forgotten the 2009 Christmas do when, in front of the MD, Bob Bold took the credit for that deal he, Sean, had brokered. With all the uncertainty this year, he’s on high alert. So now he’s wondering why he’s been put on this table. What does that signify? What are they saying about him over there? Did Steph from Sales just look at him and laugh? What does she know that he doesn’t? Just what the hell is going on here?

Rose Reserved is very independent and likes to do her own thing. She doesn’t really see the need for all this work socialising. If she could have got out of it, she wouldn’t be there, but with things so uncertain, she felt she had to put in an appearance. Some of her team express concern about the future but she tells them she doesn’t know any more than they do – empathy is not her strong point. Christmas party 1She eats her meal, making awkward small talk, revealing as little about her private life as possible, then slips away quietly without saying goodbye.

Keith Cautious never puts a foot a wrong or at least not if he can help it. He is terribly sensitive to criticism. For days he listened to women in the office discussing their party outfits but he didn’t feel he could ask what he was supposed to wear. Men don’t talk about that kind of thing. Still he’s relieved that his suit with a casual shirt and no tie seems about right and begins to relax and enjoy himself. That is, until he notices some of his junior staff getting a bit argumentative. He knows they’re angry and worried about the situation in the company – are they going to embarrass him in front of the senior management team?

Laura Leisurely always seems like such a co-operative team mate. Actually she’s very focused, concentrating on her own priorities. But she hates to appear rude, so she nods and agrees to lots of things until the person asking goes away. Which is what happened when Dillie asked her to sell raffle tickets at the party. And yeah, OK, she will do it. Really she doesn’t need all these reminders and hard stares. She’ll get round to it in her own sweet time. Just let her finish telling Mandy from Accounts about her skiing trip………

The moving against types

Bob Bold has had a good year and the Christmas party is the place to celebrate. OK so he didn’t actually meet all his targets but, as anyone who properly understands the market will tell you, that was due to circumstances outside his control. Christmas party BobBob freely – and, where necessary, forcefully – gives his interpretation of what’s going on in the organisation (or, as he sees it, ‘the facts’) to anyone who’s interested – and quite a few who aren’t. After a couple of drinks he has ‘a quiet word’ with Dillie. She doesn’t seem to have recognised his status and has not put him on the top table. He believes he’s being perfectly reasonable. She finds him very intimidating.

Michelle Mischievous really has the gift of the gab and seems able talk people into anything. She doesn’t normally spend much time with Dillie but weeks ago she made a point of telling her what a truly fantastic job she was doing in organising the party. She took a real interest, even acting as a sounding board over the seating plan.Christmas party 2 Which is why she is now laughing twinkly-eyed at the Chairman’s jokes, while Bob, her arch rival (mischievous types always have rivals), is on that far table over there near the loos with the IT team.

Colin Colourful is in his element at the Christmas party. Dressed to impress, he’s entertaining company, delivering a stream of humorous anecdotes. Confident in the limelight, he likes the fact that people notice him and knows how to hold their attention. Later he’s planning on taking to the dancefloor to showcase his Michael Jackson moonwalk routine; it’s always a crowd pleaser. But please don’t even think about joining in – in Colin’s world, your role is to be the audience.

Imogen Imaginative is a powerhouse of creativity. She came up with masses of ideas for Christmas, some good, some less so; the ‘Pimp My Christmas Tree’ contest was a roaring success but that improvised ice bar left some nasty stains in the basement.  Imogen can barely keep track of all her ideas and is slowly realising that there’s one she may have forgotten to mention. Still, she’s nowhere near as easily embarrassed as Keith Cautious, so being the only person dressed as a character from Downtown Abbey is not going to spoil her evening.

Not just for Christmas……

Shadow side characteristics are on display in the workplace all year round. And, of course, many of us have several. It’s not unusual to find people who are bold, mischievous and shrewd, for example, or cautious and reserved. I sometimes come across more unexpected combinations – imagine the inner turmoil of being imaginative and cautious, full of creative ideas but nervous about sharing them in case people think you’re weird.

My job as a psychologist is to work out how these shadow side characteristics fit together with each other and with all the other aspects of a person – their normal personality, capabilities, values, the context of the organisation and so on – to see how they might behave (or misbehave) at work. If that sounds like useful information to have about yourself or about someone you’re considering hiring, I’m only a click away: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

Photo credits:

Adam Arseneau

Andrew Teman

Miles Gehm

Rob Campbell

Richard Hopkins

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