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You sit down at your desk and are about to start your workday when a coworker saunters up to you. After 20 minutes of chatting, your colleague finally leaves you alone, but you find you are too drained to complete any tasks efficiently.
You have become the latest victim of an energy vampire.
Energy vampires are toxic people who suck away your life force, leaving you emotionally exhausted, whether they are egotistical, manipulative or just overly talkative. One of their favorite hunting grounds is the office, so employees need to be cautious when returning to in-person work, according to Tessa West, associate professor of psychology at New York University and author of “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.”
“I think of these people as depleters because every time you interact with them, it’s a stressful experience,” West said.
Spotting an energy vampire in the wild
Some of these predators are easier to spot than others. However, the most tried-and-true signs are feelings of uncertainty and apprehension prior to engaging with them, she said.
“If you can actually feel your heart rate and your palms are physically sweating, that means you’re in a really rough spot because most of the time stress responses aren’t perceptible,” West explained.
Feeling stuck talking to someone who doesn’t contribute to your work goals may also be an indicator, she said. You feel like you’ve been busy all day, but you barely completed any tasks, West added.
These people can be disguised as extroverts who provide input at meetings and volunteer to join committees to be seen and recognized, but who rarely complete any tasks themselves, she noted.
Other times, energy vampires are blatant pessimists, said Peter Economy, author of “Wait, I’m Working With Who?!? The Essential Guide to Dealing With Difficult Coworkers, Annoying Managers and Other Toxic Personalities.”
They are the people who walk into a room with a rain cloud over their head, and over time, the victim may become more negative too, he said.
Managers aren’t exempt from being energy vampires either, West said.
A leader who allocates work to other people without offering to do anything and invents problems that don’t exist may be an energy vampire, she said.
A vampire’s favorite prey
Introverts and people who see the best in others are often primes targets for energy vampires, Economy said.
“I think most people assume that people are good and are not going to try and harm them,” he said.
Energy vampires can sense weaknesses, so they also go after those who are conflict-averse and easy to railroad, West said. They try and prey on those who aren’t comfortable standing up to them in the moment, she added.
They also avoid coworkers who have a rich social network because those fellow employees act as a metaphorical set of bodyguards, West said.
Learn to fight back
The first step to stopping an energy vampire from preying on you is to recognize that you’re being targeted, Economy said. Once you spot those warning signs, refuse to play the game.
It’s always best to avoid interactions with the perpetrator if you can, but if it’s unavoidable, you need to develop a blunt communication style, West said.
Say lines like, “OK, it’s time for you to leave, this conversation is over,” she explained.
West also enlists a simple yet effective trick when trying to dodge an energy vampire: She physically stands up.
Don’t sit down at your desk because energy vampires don’t pick up on subtle, nonverbal signals that it’s time to leave and will stay there forever, she said.
“When you’re standing, it creates a kind of urgency or discomfort that this interaction isn’t going to last very long,” West said.
To finish the conversation, tell the other person you need to go, then leave your workspace and go on a quick trip to the bathroom or somewhere else, she added.
Like regular vampires, energy vampires shy away from sunlight. They will avoid employees who have a bright, positive personality, Economy said.
“If you’re naturally very optimistic and you deflect their behavior, then they’re going to go find somebody else who is weaker and doesn’t have the same defense,” he said.
Could you be an energy vampire?
One indicator that you may be an energy vampire is if you feel your work correspondence is being sent into a black hole, West said.
You might be constantly trying to set up meetings or writing multiple lengthy emails without receiving much, if anything, in return, she said.
This is a sign because most people don’t want to say anything negative, but they have nothing positive to say, so they don’t engage, West explained.
To combat this, take stock of your communication style and set strict guidelines with yourself to pull back and respect boundaries. For example, only send short emails to someone three times a day, and if they don’t respond, let it go, she said. Additionally, make a rule to stop by someone’s office only once a week, West recommended.
Most people tend to think that whatever they do is pretty good, so you might not be able to recognize if you’re an energy vampire until someone points it out to you, Economy said. In most cases, you must figure it out yourself, he added.
“Part of the answer is to be very sensitive to the impact you’re having on other people,” Economy said.
If you notice your coworkers are avoiding you in the hallway, turning the other direction when you walk into a room or feeling uncomfortable around you, those may be indicators you’re an energy vampire, he said.
For those fortunate enough to receive feedback, act on it, Economy said.
“I think a lot of times people ignore the feedback they get because they can’t see themselves as being that negative person,” he explained.
No one is immune from potentially falling into these pitfalls, so be gentle with yourself during this process, West said.