Colleagues 101
The shared goal in any office is to get ahead, and everyone has a different strategy. Below, a field guide to six operators, from the apolitical type to the gossip, and how to use them to your advantage.

Who: Because of something he actually did—like having an affair with a woman who reports to him—or maybe just because he can't touch the fax machine without its falling apart, this guy has been put on Office Death Watch. Everyone (possibly including him) expects that he'll be terminated any day now—but you still have to work with him.

Signature Move: The pity party. Kryptonite wants a friend; he e-mails to ask why he wasn't invited to lunch with the rest of the staff, lurks outside meetings he was excluded from, and rounds up companions for cigarette breaks to commiserate.

Achilles Heel: That last iota of hope he harbors

Best Defense: Total avoidance. Pretend you didn't get his e-mails, and don't let anyone see you leaving the office with him. Even a sympathy drink will put you in danger of sucking by association.

Known Associates: None

Threat Level: medium

Who: This type may share an alma mater with the CEO or just have a chemistry with him that no one can fathom or duplicate. Regardless, he can come in late, botch the big account, and sit lifelessly in meetings, and the boss will still promote him.

Signature Move: The name-drop. In order to ensure that even the freshly minted intern knows his status, he takes every opportunity to reference the boss—often apropos of nothing: "Speaking of the Olympics, the big guy swam in high school."

Achilles Heel: Zero safety net. When the boss takes a keen interest in the new guy, the Untouchable could easily lose the Golden Boy mantle.

Best Defense: Paranoia-mongering. Make sure he's the first to know when his superior takes another coworker out for a one-on-one lunch.

Known Associates: The Underminer, who buddies up with him hoping some of the shine will rub off.

Threat Level: medium

Who: This guy remains neutral at all times—even when the boss himself indulges in an office-gossip session or when everyone's talking about how the Untouchable slips out for midday massages.

Signature Move: Controversy avoidance. For instance, when the boss asks if a coworker has been coming in late recently, he says, "I haven't noticed." And when someone notes, rightly, "Johnson really dropped the ball on that," he responds, "Hmm. I wasn't really paying close attention."

Achilles Heel: A backlash. Always finding something nice to say about the one person everyone loathes can not only lead to peer resentment but make the boss doubt the existence of one's balls.

Best Defense: A good offense. Be just as irritatingly passive. "Forget" to seek his input; he'll either start showing his cards or become persona non grata.

Known Associates: Everyone

Threat Level: low

Who: Harnessing the power of negativity, he uses passive-aggressive behavior and backhanded remarks to make colleagues look bad. While he weakens the morale of the group, the boss sees him as merely an outspoken maverick.

Signature Move: Playing devil's advocate. He'll wait until your proposal is all but approved before encouraging the person in charge to reconsider it, using strategically timed comments like "Are we sure this doesn't need more research?"

Achilles Heel: Taking it too far. Adopting an overly contrarian attitude is like slapping a bull's-eye on yourself.

Best Defense: A Miss Congeniality–grade smile. Even if your natural impulse is to fight fire with fire, be as pleasant as you can—or just ignore him.

Known Associates: The Ambitious New Guy (see "The Next Generation of Office Politicians")

Threat Level: high

Who: This is the high-ranking person who isn't white, isn't a man, or isn't heterosexual. The red flag: an aggrieved look when you do anything other than back him up in front of management.

Signature Move: Making you look intolerant. After you say "Think you can handle this project?" he wonders—aloud—if you're questioning his abilities because he's a minority. You drop it and take on the work you were going to delegate to him.

Achilles Heel: Playing the card a time too many; management will get defensive if wrongly portrayed as fostering an intolerant environment.

Best Defense: Confidence. Never make self-protective statements like "I didn't mean it like that." Take your cue from the Office Switzerland: Say nothing and adopt a benign expression.

Known Associates: Everyone. The Powerful Minority is—at least publicly—liked by all.

Threat Level: high

Who: Armed with a trust-me face and a network of informants, this person keeps abreast of everyone's professional fate—he knows who's on the verge of a promotion and who's marked for death. Oh, and who's screwing whom. He knows that, too.

Signature Move: The booze 'n' schmooze. CNN pounces after a bad day, when friendly commiseration can easily give way to secret-divulging. He'll rope you in with a nugget of insider knowledge and patiently await your contribution.

Achilles Heel: Too much information. Even the most seasoned propagandist can be tripped up when there's too much gossip to disseminate. There's no such thing as a watercooler retraction.

Best Defense: A bovine look. Marvel at how he "knows everything!" You'll seem like just a receptacle for his secrets—allowing you to keep yours safe.

Known Associates: The Higher-Up's Assistant

Threat Level: low