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Frozen out by two coworkers

Photo-illustration by Franke James using two source files Fish  ©istockphoto.com/graphicola and Ice cube ©istockphoto.com/zentilia

Dear Office Politics,

As a professional in a very large public institution, I work closely with two other colleagues. Both have worked in the field a few years longer than me. At first, the group dynamic was wonderful – productive, respectful, fun. We were truly a team, helping each other out, sharing ideas, brainstorming, complimentary about each other’s work. We shared materials, and I went out of my way to give them copies of everything I created so none of us would have to reinvent the wheel.

Not long ago, everything changed dramatically. If one of them ran an errand for lunch or materials, they’d “forget” to ask me if I needed anything. If they shared materials with each other, they’d “forget” to share the materials with me. They hang out in each others offices, but rarely stop by to see me or talk when I drop by their offices. At team meetings with the three of us, they look and talk to each other as if I weren’t in the room. I feel completely invisible, and I’m deeply hurt.

Publicly, one of them vehemently denounced my ideas in front of a large meeting with other colleagues – in an auditorium, no less. Later, I politely and respectfully called him on it privately, so as not to embarrass him as he had embarrassed me. I always go out of my way to downplay any talents or successes I have, and I am often jokingly self-effacing because I sense tension and know I’m viewed as a nice, talented, professional, team player.

My husband, who is a strong manager in another field, theorizes that these two may be jealous for some reason, although they are both talented professionals. I’m not so sure that’s the reason they have shut me out. I genuinely like both of them, but am deeply hurt.

What am I doing wrong? Thank you!

Frozen Out

OFFICE-POLITICS ADVISER RONA MAYNARD
rona maynard

Dear Frozen Out,

Talk about a painful situation! Along with your position in a once-tight threesome, you’ve lost two rewarding office friendships. Of course you feel hurt and bewildered—that’s only natural. But you’d be smart to look beyond your emotions and ask yourself a question that I think you’ve overlooked: what can you do to protect yourself from the hostility of your former pals?

I’ll get to pre-emptive steps in a minute but first let’s look at the facts. One of these two has already lambasted your ideas in an auditorium—not exactly collegial behavior. If you and he were still kibitzing in each other’s offices, his attack might reflect nothing more than a fight with his wife or traffic tie-ups on the way to work. But you’ve seen lots of indications that he’s no longer on your side. So I have to wonder what he and your other erstwhile friend are saying and doing behind your back. You’ve bent over backwards to spare this man from embarrassment, when the time is long overdue to start looking out for yourself. Yes, that’s right. OVERDUE.

Why am I so sure? For starters, downplaying your own success has been a point of pride with you. Bad idea. By trusting that your work will speak for itself, you’ve left your reputation in other people’s hands—and now at least one of those people is undermining you. If the decision-makers don’t make a clear connection between your results and you, they won’t grasp your value to the organization. You say you’re known as “a nice, talented, professional team player.” Now more than ever, niceness won’t get you very far. How much do higher-ups really know about what you do and why it matters? You say you feel “completely invisible” to your two colleagues. But if you don’t make your strengths known, you’ll be equally invisible at the top.

So what’s come between you and these worrisome colleagues? When a threesome breaks down into two against one, it’s usually because of rampant insecurity. We’ve all seen this in high school when two status-conscious girlfriends closed ranks against a third to improve their chances in the dating market. The same scenario plays out in a shrinking workplace as staffers jockey to position themselves for promotion or protect themselves from layoffs. I doubt if jealousy is driving your colleagues. It seems more likely that they’ve pegged you as someone they can easily shunt aside in their quest to curry favor on high.

You don’t have to put up with their shenanigans. My advice:

• Call them on their cold-shoulder treatment. In your next meeting, tell them both that you need to discuss your working relationship. Don’t sit there feeling hurt while they ignore you. Tell them what you’ve noticed, politely but firmly. Stick to the facts: the three of you are a working group and each has a role to play for the organization’s benefit. You’re trying to hold up your end. Ask for feedback. If you’ve let them down or caused offense, they should tell you. Pay close attention to their facial expressions and body language. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can about their motivations. If they give you the brush-off, this is useful information. It proves they have no interest in improving their relationship with you.

• Let your manager know that you’ve been working to resolve a problem with your colleagues. Bosses have no time for complainers but pro-active ones do want to head off potential problems on their team. Stress the steps you’ve taken to turn things around with your colleagues. If they’ve been running you down, this is your chance to re-establish your image as a results-oriented professional. Before you leave this meeting, ask if your boss has any words of advice.

• Make yourself visible. The rewards in any organization go to those who are seen to succeed, week in and week out. You don’t have to be a shameless self-promoter who hogs all the credit for shared achievements. But if you don’t share good news about your work, you can’t expect anyone to notice. When you exceed expectations, write a memo copying your manager. When someone writes to thank you for a job well done, send a photocopy around. Savor the moment—you’ve earned it.

I’ve enjoyed meeting you here at officepolitics.com. Here’s to you and your successes. May they be seen by everyone with the power to shape your future, and shared with everyone who made a valued contribution.

Regards,

Rona Maynard, Author

My Mother’s Daughter book cover

Rona Maynard is the author of My Mother’s Daughter a memoir published by McClelland & Stewart in September, 2007.

Rona Maynard’s career as an award-winning journalist, leading magazine editor, acclaimed author and inspirational speaker owes much to the lessons she has drawn from coping with difficult people, both professionally and personally.

Rona edited Chatelaine, Canada’s number one magazine for women, during a decade of growth and innovation in which she attracted a new generation of readers to the franchise. While meeting every benchmark of success, she contended daily with complaints from readers, directives from corporate brass and the strong personalities on her creative staff, who ranged from seasoned baby boomers to Gen Yers with sharply different expectations. The team Rona built was honored internationally for journalism, design and overall editorial excellence. A dedicated mentor, she groomed five people who went on to edit national magazines—among many others who are now viewed as leaders in their industry.

When Rona had fulfilled her vision for Chatelaine, she stepped down to write the memoir her readers had been asking for. In My Mother’s Daughter, she tells the no-holds-barred story of how she became her own woman because of—and in spite of—the enthralling but domineering woman who formed her. From her struggles with a crazy-making boss, an undermining colleague and an alcoholic father, she draws a road map to living with integrity, purpose and joy. Alice Munro has called My Mother’s Daughter “wonderfully honest and enthralling.”

Rona continues to share her hard-won wisdom on her award-winning interactive website, ronamaynard.com, and at the podium. Her most sought-after speech is “Life-Changing Lessons from Difficult People.” Audiences say that Rona’s message brings them energy, hope and pointers they can use to transform their own lives.

Rona’s personal honors include a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, a National Champion of Mental Health Award and a Woman of Action Award from the Israel Cancer Research Fund, as well as numerous writing awards.

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  1. 3 Answers to “Frozen out by two coworkers”

  2. FEEDBACK FROM FROZEN OUT:

    Dear Ms. James,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am indeed thrilled with the reply.

    Rona Maynard’s response is spot-on. What a talent she is! I plan on implementing her ideas the first thing Monday morning! Her ideas were insightful, clearly communicated – and deeply, deeply appreciated. I can’t wait to buy her book this weekend. Ironically, I grew up in a very similar household, eerily similar. Her book is sure to offer many insights, too.

    Please pass on my deepest gratitude to Ms. Maynard.

    Take care, and thanks again!

    A grateful reader (formerly Frozen Out)

    By Feedback from letter-writer on Mar 20, 2010

  3. Hello Rona,

    I would like a little more advice on how exactly you should make your higher ups aware of your successes. I have experienced the same animosity that Frozen Out has experienced from her colleagues and have had co-workers taking credit for my achievements. How do you make the Boss aware of your achievements without coming across as a blow hard?

    Unnoticed

    By Septembre on Mar 20, 2010

  4. Hi Septembre,

    When people cause offense by trumpeting their accomplishments, it’s usually for one of these reasons: they’re exaggerating, they’re not sharing credit with other key players or they’re trying too hard and too loudly to get noticed. I guarantee these folks never give a moment’s thought to the impression they’re creating among their peers. And wouldn’t you know, a lot of them still snag plum assignments and promotions because they’re so smart about managing up.

    By posing your question, you’ve shown your sensitivity to the group’s reactions. You have absolutely nothing to gain by pumping the volume a bit. So how do you do it? For starters, never keep good news to yourself. When a client writes you a complimentary e-mail, forward it to your boss with a short-and-sweet introduction like “This made my day and I thought you’d enjoy it too.” (Sharing a smile is part of what makes us human.) When a challenging project is ahead of deadline, send a short, upbeat progress report, being sure to mention anyone else whose contribution really shone. Don’t expect the boss to get word of this through the office grapevine. If you get a note back saying, “Great work!”, be sure to keep it for your files. One more thing: be visible. How often do you stick your head into the boss’s office for a quick update on how things are going? When I managed a large staff, I always appreciated this sort of exchange and never interpreted it as empty self-promotion. Hope this helps!

    By Rona Maynard on Mar 21, 2010

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