Tag Archives: bullies

Aliens at Work

7 Dec

A version of this post was also published on the Executive Elements blog earlier this year.

At work, we can sometimes sense that we’ve been dropped onto an alien planet. I’m very fortunate to be working for and with people who are from “my planet,” but I’ve been in places that felt alien.

Don’t think you’re alone if you find yourself pondering:

  • What is this strange language that’s being spoken, and why don’t I understand it? Will they understand me if I say, “Plergh?”
  • Why are decisions made without any seemingly rational train of thought?
  • Is this a bad dream, or am I really awake?
  • Where’d I park my mother ship? I need to get back to Earth!

If you’re having these feelings, don’t despair. We’ve all been there. Every workplace can be awkward or downright difficult at times. Even the most healthy workplaces have their moments.

But if there’s a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, recognize it and take stock. In some sense, it’s all relative. Each of us has a different tolerance to workplace problems like aggression, passive aggression, professional neglect, workplace bullying or general incompetence. One person’s abyss is another’s heaven.

Don’t accept unreasonable behavior that jeopardizes your career growth or negatively impacts your ability to perform. Work is hard — that’s why it’s called work. But it should not kill your soul.

I’ve realized over the years that I have a high tolerance for environments that are not conducive to human life. Out of loyalty or pride (“I won’t give up!”), I’ve let myself suffer for too long at times. Don’t make that mistake.

If you are caught in the alien planet dilemma, here are some survival skills:

  1. PERSPECTIVE – Talk with someone outside of work about your situation. They can help you to get some perspective.
  2. CAMARADERIE – Blow off steam over lunch or coffee with a coworker that you trust. Chances are if you are feeling off about something at work, you’re not the only one. Don’t wall yourself off from your colleagues and make yourself feel more isolated. By commiserating, you may also find some humor in the madness.
  3. STAY POSITIVE – I remind myself that having a positive attitude and healthy self-esteem can’t change other people’s problems. What it can do is to help keep my head clear and my heart clean while seeking out what’s next.

Remember that it’s possible — and preferable — to thrive in the workplace. While it says something about a person’s endurance and fortitude to be able to to survive in challenging conditions, sometimes enough is enough.

Over time, I’ve realized that it’s important to go with my gut instincts when I start feeling as if things just aren’t right. A decision to move on when the time is right is not a failure. It is simply a decision to make a change.

Working with Difficult People: Part 3

8 Feb

There are times when through collaboration at work, we forge bonds that stand the test of time. And then again, there are times when we find friends that turn out to be frenemies. This post is dedicated to those special people out there who suck the life-force from you—the vampires of the workplace who drain your blood supply to a trickle. This unique type of difficult person at work is called: The Friend Who Wasn’t.


My experience with frenemies at work has been limited to the female variety, but I’m sure that the male ones also exist. Either way, it’s a variation on the same theme. In the extreme, the Friend Who Wasn’t moves in the for the kill by luring you into a trusting state, then they execute a power-play, back-stabbing action before you realize that you need to make a substantial investment in garlic. If you can avert this type of outcome, then she’s just mildly irritating.

Here are some warning signs:

  1. Bending over backwards to help. This “friend” offers to stay late, help you with menial tasks and otherwise ingratiate him- or herself to you. There’s a motivation for this, which you will later learn about. Don’t take this at face value.
  2. Telling you their life story and innermost secrets. This is particularly a tendency with women, who share secrets in the process of building friendships. But this person goes beyond, by sharing information that’s a bit too intense. They have no boundaries and want to dump testimonials on you far too often. It may get a bit embarrassing. At all costs, be careful about sharing personal information with anyone who’s too forthcoming. It could signal issues you don’t have time or inclination to explore.
  3. Putting you on a pedestal. At first, this “friend” seems to worship you and feel like you can do no wrong. Really, no one is perfect, and neither are you, so don’t trust this behavior. Everyone makes mistakes, and the first time you do, the fall will hurt. Badly. Because The Friend Who Wasn’t’s pedestal has a trap-door like a hangman’s platform.

The best way to deal with the Friend Who Wasn’t and avoid unpleasant outcomes?

  1. Keep your distance. Build and maintain boundaries. Be courteous but non-committal in your dedication of time to this “friend.” By all means—do not go out for cocktails with this “friend.”
  2. Seek out friendships with people who will tell you when you are full of shit, and who will support you in times of need. Don’t buy into the extremes of “friends” who see work as a place for maneuvering and manipulation. The purpose of time at work is just that—work. Don’t hang out with people who want to turn it into a soap opera or reality TV show.
  3. Stay right-sized at work. Hire and work for people who have similar professional values. Keep your head on straight and don’t be led astray by people who have ulterior motives—including those who kiss up to you inexplicably or give you an unnecessarily hard time over nothing. Know yourself and don’t let anyone make you grander or lesser than you are.

My personal experiences with Friends Who Weren’t happened years ago, at a time when I was too immature and unaware to see the danger signs. I came away with a few scars but otherwise survived to tell some pretty interesting stories about the unbelievable things that people can do to themselves and others (which will not be published here or anywhere by me).

Perhaps the best way to summarize is this: Real life is MUCH more interesting than fiction, and it’s better to observe pathological behavior at work from the sidelines than to be in the line of fire.

Working with Difficult People: Part 2

7 Feb

This post is dedicated to that colleague you seem to constantly offend. Every day. There’s no rational explanation for it. Call it personality or style difference, call it philosophical mismatch. We’ve all been there. I call this type of difficult person: Corner Office Troll.


Courtesy of Jan Brett

Sometimes there are people who just won’t like us, no matter how hard we work or how much we try to convince them otherwise. But being liked, or treated “fairly,” is not a requirement at work.

I once worked with a woman whose behavior was universally perceived as troll-like. Despite being quite charming, well-read and interesting to talk with, she put people off by her anti-social behavior. She embodied the character of the Troll in the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Try to cross her bridge, and she reacted. Snarky e-mails, character-blasting commentary in meetings, routine snubs in social situations—it messed with me. I wanted so badly to figure out how to make her happy, but it seemed impossible.

Everyone liked her despite the gruffness, but she didn’t seem to have any care for others’ opinions. She just operated in a cut-and-dried way, getting the work done flawlessly and sending the message that no one could do it better. She was reluctant to engage with others on projects, preferring to work alone. Beyond being introverted, she shunned the company of others and seemed more comfortable brooding in her office. She would often mutter to herself, in negative terms, making it clear that she gave herself a hard time just as much as she criticized everyone else.

In my case, interaction with the Troll was particularly challenging because she played a role in evaluating my work. Here are some of the things I did to stay focused on the work, not her behavior:

  1. Be clear about the quality of my work. As much as I dreaded them, I had regular conversations with the Troll to ensure that my work performance was up to snuff. This helped me to separate her negative behavior from her assessment of my output and quality.
  2. Don’t gossip. There were PLENTY of ironic and amusing real-life stories that arose from my well-intentioned but usually unsuccessful attempts to win over the Troll, but I did my best to not speak negatively about her with other co-workers. I’ll admit that processing the Troll’s antics with colleagues helped me to keep a sense of humor and perspective, but there is a fine line between gossip and commiseration, and I tried as hard as I could to not cross it. Character assassination has longer term effects that make any fleeting sense of gratification just pointless. This is just professional etiquette—even if it’s not reciprocated by the Troll. Integrity counts.
  3. Don’t take it personally. Some people just genuinely don’t care about other people. I am to the core a people-pleaser, so this was really hard, but I made a concentrated effort EVERY DAY to think positively and not let the negativity distract me from stellar efforts.

That being said, sometimes there’s only so much you can do. For the sake of career advancement, I did make the decision to leave the company, because working in the midst of a “my way or the highway” attitude was not challenging me to grow or learn. Instead, it seemed to be encouraging me to become more invisible and less noticeable, lest I offend the Troll. This is fear-based response, and I know it, so at a certain point I decided I had to move on.

Some time has passed now, and I have come to a better understanding of the Troll. I don’t wish her any ill will. I’ve come to understand that the judgment she directed my way was symbolic, in a way. Carl Jung talks about the shadow side, the part of ourselves that is repressed. In the Jungian framework, the Troll fits—as the shadow side who reminds us of everything we can’t do. Others like to think of this as the devil on our shoulder, the one who not only encourages us to do bad things but keeps us from performing to our God-given potential by discouraging us from trying, or scaring us into thinking that we won’t succeed. Simply put, it’s the bully within.

I came to see this experience as a learning one, in the end. The Troll, for me, symbolized the judgmental, “you can’t do that, so don’t even try” part of my own psyche. Every time the Troll criticized me, I internalized it, to my own detriment, instead of converting it into an opportunity for personal improvement. Maybe I am a slacker because I made it to work a few minutes late due to weather or take an afternoon off to attend an event for my child. Maybe I am disrespectful because I suggest another way of thinking about leadership. All of these acceptances of the Troll’s innuendo undermined my own creativity and productivity, and I let it happen.

The Troll’s lesson for me? Push back, professionally, and move beyond the judgment—be it externally or internally motivated. Don’t let the Troll’s reality become your own. Cross that bridge to the greener grass.

Working with Difficult People: Part 1

3 Feb

It’s a well-known fact: Life is a struggle. According to Buddhists, this is the only thing we can be sure of.

And like it or not, most of the struggles we face, provided our basic needs for food and shelter are being met, come as a direct result of our own actions, interaction with other human beings or a combination of the two.

Work is a place of productive conflict, where we toil in the field, whether we’re actual farmers or pod-dwellers. Anyone expecting to avoid conflict at work should just go back to bed, because a workplace without conflict is bereft of new ideas and forward motion. It’s as simple as that. But there are ways to get through the conflict and produce great deliverables in the end, while preserving everyone’s integrity in the process. Not everyone cares to live by this approach, much to our dismay. These are the curmudgeons, the “difficult people” whom we will no doubt encounter in our professional careers. We will work beside, and God help us, for them. We will have them working for us. They are out there…lurking. Making our lives more challenging. And helping us to learn more about what’s difficult in ourselves.

I’ve been asked by the Columbus Young Professionals to give a talk on dealing with difficult people in March. To help get me in the right frame of mind to share some (hopefully helpful) insights, I am going to blog on a few possible topics.

Today’s focus: Friday Afternoon Surprise

The Surprise is not to be confused with any variation of “Afternoon Delight.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is a situation created either by someone else in your workplace (but never you) OR by a client. Your goal is to promote a peaceful and collaborative workspace, free of conflict and strife. But others are bent against your lofty aims. We’ve all felt the Friday Afternoon Surprise. It’s that brick-dropping, pit-of-the-stomach gut wrench that is caused by either difficult people, difficult situations or both.

Warning signs are as follows:

  • Any e-mail with the subject, “Heads Up!” High priority e-mails are also suspect.
  • Any phone call made after 5:30 pm on a Friday.

Nine times out of ten, it’s a tempest in a teapot. Someone’s stirring up trouble, and they suck you into it. Or someone gets anxious about a situation that’s no big deal. No matter the cause, the end result is one or more of these frustrating circumstances:

  • Hand-wringing and nonsensical phone conversations and e-mail messages (which are bound to contradict one another) well into Friday night’s happy hour or family movie night.
  • Extra work beyond what you’d already planned for the weekend. You’ve dared to stake out a quiet Saturday morning to write that proposal that requires intense concentration, but the Friday Afternoon Surprise will have none of it. You will spend all day Saturday and Sunday mopping up that Surprise. Alas, the proposal will have to wait until next weekend.
  • Your entire weekend becomes an extended prelude to Monday morning.

How to evade the dread Surprise?

  1. Make a habit of taking off time on Friday afternoons. Working on-site with a client or from home are both viable options, because the Surprise’s heat-seeking missile capabilities prey on those who are physically present in the office on Friday after lunch. Being virtually present gives you cover.
  2. If you don’t have the luxury of #1–and let’s face it, few do–there are evasive maneuvers to avoid the Surprise. By employing judo techniques, you can step aside and let the Surprise follow its natural momentum, past you and into someone else. Overlook that e-mail message. Pretend like you never received that desperate voice mail message. But there are karmic consequences to be paid for these maneuvers, and you must be prepared to accept them when they come back to you.
  3. Set limits. While there are legitimate surprises that happen on Friday afternoons, most crises do not require an overhaul of your entire weekend. Seek help from your colleagues—don’t feel like you have to deal with the Surprise by yourself. You may also successfully talk the Messenger of the Surprise off the ledge. If you can put the Surprise into perspective for them, it may take on less importance in the scheme of things. By not avoiding the conversation and instead talking through a difficult situation with a clear head while laying all the facts on the table, you could do the Messenger a favor and help them think differently.

The Friday Afternoon Surprise is a good example of a difficult situation turning good people into difficult people. Then again, there are people who do seek out crisis and try to spread the crisis around, just to bring attention to themselves or prove a point. My husband, who works in mental health, calls these folks “histrionic.” It’s important to identify this type of behavior and nip it in the bud. Clarify what you can and cannot solve, and get on with your weekend.

Dedicated to Diamond.

Next topic in this series: That Guy Who Will Never Like You, No Matter How Wonderful You Are


17 Nov

When I was 12, while spending the night at a neighbor girl’s house, I learned what it’s like to have a friend who’s a bully. Her name was Cindy, and she held me down and wiped Secret roll-on across my forehead, arms and legs. For obvious reasons, since then I have NEVER used Secret roll-on. “Strong enough for a man, made for a woman.” Hm, the brand doesn’t say this to me. It says, “You just found your first frenemy.”

Honestly, I think I must have been a real sucker. Because that same summer, another girl named Debbie tried to drown me in the city pool. I thought she was joking around, but when she kept shoving me underwater over and over again, I knew she was for real.

I’ve also run into this behavior with adult female friends. One friend, a former colleague, was having an affair with a married man and could barely keep her act together. She called me continually, on the brink of one breakdown or another, and I just kept listening, kept being supportive. This was unfortunately followed by a Secret roll-on incident perpetrated by her, in a work setting. Her lash-out was uncalled for, and it left me wondering, “Why me? Am I bringing this on myself?”

Another friend that I used to be close with did something cutting and sly. We were one night having a conversation about what to do if you disagree with someone’s values, their way of life. She described a friend she felt this way about, and asked how I would recommend communicating this to the friend. Years later, I realized that she was seeking advice from me about how to tell me she wasn’t cool with my value system, my choice to be a working mother and not stay at home with my kids. Ouch.

Bullying is an interesting phenomenon, and it shapes the way we look at the world. My son’s school has an anti-bullying program, and I’ve paid attention to what they are teaching. There is a song that they sing called, “Don’t Laugh at Me.” It has meaning.

I think that everyone at some point in time has been bullied, by a boss, a client or someone on an opposing sports team. Somehow, it’s easier to take when it comes from the “other team.” What really stings is being targeted by someone who poses as a friend.

Over time, I have learned to be more guarded, less trusting, probably less naive. And I’ve thought that I brought it on, or that the other person was just fundamentally flawed. It’s probably somewhere in the grey area, though. We’ve all been in situations where someone has used power against us, or vice versa. To know a bully is to have bullied, on some level, ourselves. It happens. I’m learning to do more judo moves, not reacting or taking the blow, but letting the bully’s momentum carry him or her into a natural consequence. Not gloating or being glad for their fall, but standing firm on my own two feet and knowing that karma is real. And deciding not to take negative action against another, knowing that consequences will come back around eventually.