I’m struggling with a situation in which I believe three people have teamed up to make a power-grab for my position and have garnered the support of the President of the company.
Very unexpectedly, without any warning or indications that there were any problems with my performance, I was forced to go on one month’s leave by Senior Executives under the pretense that they wanted me to take a well-deserved break. I was concerned and skeptical, to say the least.
When I returned, I was demoted and my responsibilities were split up and given to two people with far less experience and one with no background in the area of expertise that is required for the job. Now that my authority and “power” have been completely eradicated, and I have been placed in a useless job, it seems like there is a weird gang mentality between the Senior Executives, and the two people who have assumed my responsibilities. The rest of the people in the company are very supportive and encouraging of me, but those four people are making my life a living hell.
I am trying to be professional, cooperative, and collaborative (as I always have been) and do my job, but they are denying me resources to get the job done (with a nod of approval from the President), looking for reasons and high profile opportunities to embarrass me, and slandering me to the people who support me. A lot of people are feeling intimidated and are worried about talking to me. I am being isolated.
I’ve read a bit about workplace bullying, and this sounds classic, but I can’t find anything about how to handle this “gang” mentality. I know I will probably be forced to leave my job, but in the meantime, I want to understand the dynamic and learn some strategies to manage the situation. Can you provide me with some guidance?
Bewildered and frustrated
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. GREG KETCHUM
Dear Bewildered and Frustrated,
First, let me pick my jaw up off the floor where it landed after I read your letter! Yikes! The situation as you describe it sounds just truly awful and unbearable. However, I love the attitude that you’re taking in trying to understand the dynamics of the situation and learn some strategies to manage it. That is the absolute best starting point.
Okay, now that I’ve caught my breath, let’s put our heads together and figure this out. Like any good detective faced with a mystery we’re going to start by outlining a list of questions that we have about the situation, because on the surface this makes no sense. Before we can put together any strategy we’ve got to have a better understanding of what is really going on. That is our first challenge.
Pretend you are my consultant
Let’s start by having you be my consultant, and I’ve just sat down with you and told you the story as you told it to me in your letter. What would be your questions to me? They’d probably include some of the following…
1. What do you see as your role, your responsibility in how this bad workplace situation has come about?
2. So you had absolutely no “warning or indications” at all that there was any belief on the part of the Senior Executives that your job performance was sub-par? Nothing? You had no gut feelings that there was a problem? You got no signals, none, that something was amiss in your working relationships with these folks? Think hard about this.
3. What does it mean that they wanted you to “take a well-deserved break”? Why was that an issue? Had you not taken a break in years? Did this idea come out of the blue as well? Why do you call this reason a pretense?
4. When you say that you were “forced” to go on one month’s leave do you mean to say that they gave you no choice? How did they put that across to you?
5. When you returned you say that you were “demoted.” Tell me what that means exactly and what took place in that conversation.
6. Describe what you mean when you say that there is a “weird gang mentality” going on. Tell me specifically what they are doing.
7. When you say that they are “denying” you resources, what exactly are they doing and who is doing it? You say they are doing this with a “nod of approval from the President” how do you know this?
8. You say they are “looking for reasons and high profile opportunities to embarrass” you and are “slandering” you. Again, I need to know specifically what actions they are taking. How do you know that their motives are to look for reasons to embarrass you?
If some of my questions make me sound a bit dubious of some of your claims I don’t mean it that way. What I am trying to get at is that the story, as you tell it, makes no sense to me. The only way that it could make sense is if we assume that we’ve got at least a couple of people who are just bullies and have decided to drive you out of your position for unknown reasons.
Now that’s actually possible, but what’s missing for me is your role. That is, I believe that we have some piece of responsibility for every situation (well almost every situation) that we find ourselves in. My first instinct would be to believe that you are not simply a helpless and responsibility-less victim. I know that may sound harsh, but if we’re going to figure this out we’ve got to understand your role as well.
If we were sitting together in a coaching session right now after having gone through the list of questions above I’d have you tell me your story again, but this time with an emphasis on understanding YOUR role in this bad situation first. That’s not the same as blaming yourself and that’s not what I’m advocating. You tell your story from a victim’s point of view and we’ve got to get you out of that frame of reference for starters.
So, here are your action steps…
1. No More Victims:
Get yourself out of the victim role and look at your part in this. I want you to really put on your critical thinking cap and go over your story one more time. One of the ways that you are playing a part is by taking the role of the victim. You defeat yourself and steal your own power by taking that position. It’s only by taking the responsibility for your role that you can reclaim your power and step out of the role of the victim.
2. Work Through the List of Questions:
Working through the list of questions that I’ve outlined will help you both see your own contribution and bring the fullest understanding possible to bear. Look very carefully at the assumptions that you make about what is motivating the others. Make sure you have actual behaviors or actions that you can point to in order to substantiate conclusions such as the “weird gang mentality,” or “looking for reasons…to embarrass me.” Get out paper and pen to work them through.
3. Talk with HR:
Once you’ve worked through the first two action steps you may want to have a talk with the HR person and present your concerns to him/her. I don’t understand why this is happening as the story is told, which means that you certainly can’t understand it, but you need to. Your goal in talking with HR is to understand what is going on. I’d recommend taking the ‘Colombo approach’ named after the TV detective Colombo. That means, go to the Senior Executives and let them know that you’d like to talk about your situation and what all has happened. Let them know that you’re not really clear on why things have come down in the way that they have. Start with being forced to take a leave for health reasons. Your approach is to go through the actions they’ve taken one at a time and asking for clarification on each one. You’re not doing this in a hostile or challenging nor argumentative way. You’re simply going as a student to gain a better understanding of what has happened. You’re also getting the story as they see it. Make any notes that will help you put the story together.
Taking these steps will get you to a much better understanding of the situation, which will then guide you in the actions that you can take. I love the fact that you took the step of writing us and want to understand the situation better. I am pushing you to work harder and bring all of your critical thinking skills to bear on your understanding of the story. I get an overwhelming sense of you feeling like the victim in how you tell the story and I don’t think that serves you well.
As I said, at the end of the day you may actually just have bullies on your hands, but I doubt that is the full explanation of the story. Take these steps and get back to me with how it goes. Then we can talk about any other additional steps that you might need to take that you haven’t already come up with on your own.
Thanks for writing us at Office-Politics.
Dr. Greg Ketchum, dubbed the “Frasier of the Cubicles” by the San Francisco Chronicle, is a former clinical psychologist-turned CEO and media career coach. He presides over an executive talent firm, providing coaching and recruiting for executives and Fortune 500 companies. A unique mix of psychology and coaching expertise gives Dr. Greg a great understanding of people and what it takes for career success. Combined with his keen insight into today’s job market, and infused with his trademark quick wit, Dr. Greg challenges Office-Politics readers to reach for career success on their own terms — and to have a good time doing it.