My company likes to move us around every 3 or 4 months. I was just moved after being comfortable somewhere else for 6 months, and was looking forward to a change until I realized the person beside me hates me for no known reason. She ignores me completely and it is very cruel. I say good morning and goodbye, have tried breaking the ice with her and she is cold and won’t look me in the eye. I thought at first she was just focused on her work so I tried to stay quiet but we actually depend on each other for help and the supervisor told me she was very knowledgeable and asking questions was ok. Everyone else in our role shares information and helps each other out, not in excess, but enough that there is a comfortable amount of social politeness in the work environment. But this person will not even look my way. The worse thing about it is that I knew her before in this office and she actually used to be nice to me, and she is nice to everyone else. She is very well respected and liked throughout the office.
People say not to take it personally but it is obvious that it is. The only thing I can think might be wrong is that this spot was empty previously and she had this whole area to herself and now I have moved in. I was sensitive to that at first because I knew that would be hard for her but now I am through being polite and want to get to the bottom of this. How should I handle it?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY FRANKE JAMES
Dear Coldly Ignored,
I am very glad that you have written into our site for help. Marty Seldman and Rick Brandon have responded to your dilemma in Part I. I want to share my perspective with you as well.
I read her flip-flop behavior towards you as a territorial battle. You have invaded her territory and she is letting you know it. The ‘ignoring’ tactic that your coworker is using is indeed cruel. However once you understand it as a ‘tactic’ you will be much better armed to defend yourself.
The funny thing is that ‘ignoring’ is a classic technique advised by Family psychologists to ‘handle’ unruly offspring who are prone to outbursts. Anthony Wolf, clinical psychologist and author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall recommends using this technique.
The advice to parent’s goes like this: When your teenager is arguing with you, the most effective technique is not to argue back but to keep restating your position on the issue and then disengage. “No, you may not take the family car to your friend’s all-night birthday bash.” Teenagers are masters at arguing and will have the parent tied up in knots in no time, retorting with arguments like this, “You’re saying you don’t trust me not to drink and drive! That’s terrible. You don’t trust me. You’re saying I would go out and kill someone by driving drunk…”
All of a sudden the conversation has been flipped upside down and is now about ‘trust’ instead of safety. Yikes! How did that happen? Rather than arguing each point with your teenager, Wolf advises repeating your stance, disengaging by IGNORING their further pleas, and even walking out. As a parent I have to say this technique is one that I have used occasionally and find very effective. Wolf notes that this is a classic psychological technique. “You are extinguishing a behavior by giving it a non-response. And by responding positively to any instance in which they are more civil, you increase the likelihood of that behavior.”
So back to your situation. Your coworker is trying to control your behavior by ignoring you. Except you are NOT an unruly child prone to outbursts. She is not your parent. You are a coworker who needs to have regular conversations with her in order to get your own work done. I know I would find your situation very annoying and distracting. So what can you do to fight back?
1. Try this behavioral test: Ignore her
The ignoring is a manipulative tactic — but once you are wise to it you can protect yourself from it, and possibly even laugh at it. As the Game Designer behind the Office-Politics Game, I am going to suggest something a little unconventional…
Try this behavioral test for one day: Ignore her. It will help you to better understand the game she is playing. Even if she does not notice you ‘ignoring her’, you will gain insight into how much concerted effort it takes to ignore someone. And also how hard it is to play the ‘ignoring’ game if the other person doesn’t acknowledge it!
You will need to be a bit of an actor to pull this off. You really have to pretend she is invisible. To do this effectively you need to talk around her. You cannot look at her. And you must leave her written notes, because she is not ‘present’. It’s as though she did not make it into work that day. The thinking behind this is that people hate to be ignored. You wrote to us because you hate being ignored. Everyone does. Perhaps this lady is different and it won’t bother her… But my guess is she will find it very frustrating, and it may break down the ice-barrier she has constructed towards you and get her to treat you with more respect.
But if nothing else, I hope this test will give you more insight into the type of behavior your coworker exhibits — and act as a positive motivator to you to treat all of your coworkers with the utmost attention and respect.
2. Go to your Supervisor and request a Transfer
If the behavioral test doesn’t work (or it’s not to your liking) then I’d recommend shining a bright light on her behavior. But before you flip the switch, make sure you’ve documented it thoroughly. Just like the teenagers who can argue back, and turn things upside down and backwards, this lady is a manipulative Office-Politics player. You have to have your evidence clearly laid out before you go to your Supervisor and ask for a transfer.
Work can be a pleasure if you have nice people around you. Your coworker sounds miserable — but then even teenagers can be miserable for awhile, and then their behavior changes and you realize it was just a growth phase and they really are human after all.
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics. Please let us know how things work out — we hate to be ignored!
Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game
Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.