I’m a teacher at a junior high school. Three teachers out of ten in my department conspired to remove me from the chairmanship. Two were senior teachers and the third was of the same loud domineering type who think relatively quiet, thoughtful individuals are weak and unable to lead. They wanted to be the ones calling the shots from the get go and tried. That was three years ago. I’m a fair individual who ran things openly and by majority opinion on various issues. Things didn’t always go their way and they didn’t like that.
At some point they began spreading rumors about me throughout the school and beyond. A case of character assassination I suppose. The less senior of the three is very charismatic and outgoing and covers a lot of ground. They were very subtle in there attack of my ‘character’, nice enough to me when in my presence, but each giving their ‘opinion’ of me to others whenever the opportunity presented itself. Over time people started to take their ‘opinions’ as facts and began treating me differently, often rudely.
I have since moved on to a different position at the same school and they seemed content enough. The ring leader took charge of the department and his henchmen are seconds in ‘command’.
The teacher who took my spot needed help with labs so I helped him in that capacity and others. He is a friend who I want to see succeed and I have no desire to go back to that hell hole. My three nemesi are paper pushers and think labs are a waste of time. They apparently see my efforts as a threat to their ‘power’ and have threatened me, ever so slily of course. I didn’t realize it was a threat until a week into Christmas Break!
I am not quite sure what I should do. I’m thinking of asking for advice from one of the administrators, but my experience is that they don’t do anything helpful in this area. I also have thought about talking to the personnel director, but I don’t think she will do anything helpful.
Doing nothing has been my primary response to the situation as I thought over time people would figure out what was going on. Indeed, a few have, but most have not. Unfortunately, if a determined enemy keeps throwing enough crap out, some of it stays in the minds of all exposed to it. I can’t bring myself to engage in the same kind of activity they’re doing. It doesn’t seem right and the staff is already divided enough over the pressures caused by NCLB. Any move in this direction would probably be counter-productive.
Besides, I don’t have the same kind of time they have. I’m working and helping others, while they seem to spend their free time doing ‘office’ politics. I’m out gunned by numbers, personality (I’m introvertish, while two of the three are extrovertish), and available time (even though I generally work ’till 5 while they’re out the door at the soonest possible time ~ 3:30).
Nonetheless, I’m going to do something. What do you think it should be?
Ostracized by rumor
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Dear Ostracized by rumor,
Tell me, who are the junior high students and who are the teachers?
The actions you mentioned are making it a little hard to tell who is imprinting on whose behaviors. That being said, you do have my sympathy, empathy and support. Being married to a secondary teacher and working part-time in a university setting, I have come to truly believe that the politics in educational institutions are far more challenging and cut-throat than they are in “traditional office” settings. The reasons for this are two-fold:
1) the stakeholder relationships are far more varied and complex (parents, students, administrators, parents, school boards, unions, federal and state regulators, community and media); to satisfy any one stakeholder can open a can of worms with the others.
2) consensus and committee substitute for good old-fashioned accountability, making progressive accomplishment downright difficult, if not nearly impossible.
There are a couple of issues at play in your letter, and we need to address them separately. The first issue we need to address is your role in creating the political situation. I know, I know… on the surface you appear to be the victim of politics; nevertheless, many “political victims” do not realize that they set the game ball in motion by their own actions and activities. Then we can address the issue of character sabotage.
For your part in this unfolding drama, you began by playing above board, not letting the evil triumvirate always have their way, and attempting to be a good leader.
The second (and more recent) thing was offering to assist your successor with labs. Since you are no longer the department chair and have moved on to greener pastures, we’ll dismiss the first. What that experience should have provided you was the knowledge that these three feel threatened, and will do anything to address threats.
Which brings us to the second issue… Why did you think the three of them would behave differently when you chose to assist on the labs?
Your perception is that you want to see a teacher and his students become successful.
Their perception is that you are invading their turf yet again.
By so doing, you may be creating more work for them if they are forced to change their curriculum to include more labs. So, the first issue that you need to understand is that “no good deed goes unpunished” and your noble intentions carry consequences. You said yourself that your reassignment to another position seemed to calm the three down until this most recent incident arose. Hence, if you are going to choose to involve yourself in your former department, that choice brings with it the risk of calling down the wrath of demons.
So, now they are choosing to subtly undermine your character, slander you behind your back, and pass notes about you during recess. I view character assassins to be emotional terrorists, of sorts. If you let them get their way through bully tactics, then they will continue to pursue these behaviors with others. You said that there are some who see through their façade and ignore them. If that is good enough, then I would let the issue rest. However, it sounds as though you are still bothered that some people believe the rumors. There are some different approaches you can take at this juncture, but all of them require that you play some degree of defensive politics:
1) Direct confrontation, with witnesses:
There is safety in numbers, so if you are going to confront them, make sure you have all your facts straight and that there are people willing to collaborate their rumor-mongering. These types revel in a ‘divide and conquer’ environment, so applying the safety in numbers rule to call their bluff can be very powerful. The risk is that it can backfire, as passive-aggressive types generally do not like to be backed into a corner and can lash out in unpleasantly inventive ways.
2) Conditional assistance in your old department:
Don’t be afraid to play the victimized martyr card. Tell your successor, “You know I believe the labs are a brilliant idea, and I would love to assist you with them to ensure they are successful. Unfortunately, there are some people who are easily threatened by my presence and have chosen to attack my character. Unless that behavior stops, I feel I’m powerless to continue assisting you.” This works like a type of economic boycott. If your successor is truly a friend, he’s going to make it clear to others in the department that the behavior of the three is impacting the quality of education for others.
3) Documentation trump card:
If the threats and rumor-activity is happening through email (which it often does) and you have obtained those emails, then you have leverage with HR, the administration, and the union.
Standing up to a bully through channels can be a very influential statement, as it also helps the leadership send a message that bully behavior is as unacceptable within the teaching ranks as it is among the students. If you have written documentation, you have a very high degree of power. The last thing an administrator wants to hear is the possibility that his school will be on the front page of the paper for something bad. To do so changes your reputation in the eyes of everyone around you, so again, proceed with caution in playing this trump card.
4) Maintain your own character
Regardless of what happens, maintain your own character. Play above board. Be nice. Be helpful. Be cheerful. Our character is revealed over time, not in specific instances. How we handle conflict and stress says a lot more about us than it says about those around us. In the same way, the character of these three co-workers is also being revealed. Your other co-workers are observing patterns and taking note, even though it may not seem like it.
5) Divide and conquer
It sounds like these three might be driven by different goals. Maybe see if you can hold one-on-one conversations (or have another colleague help you out with this) to get at the core issues driving their behavior to see if you can win them over as allies… one at a time. They appear to be a threat as a group, but I doubt that any one of them carries the same level of power that the three together do.
Because of the nature of educational institutions mentioned earlier, numbers 2 and 4 are probably your best bets initially. It sounds like your mere presence in the department has the effect of waving a red flag in front of a bull, so you may just want to consider avoidance strategy and focus on your job; if you must help, do so quietly and covertly. If you do try any kind of confrontational approach, I would suggest practicing some role playing before you execute. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Timothy Johnson, Author
Timothy Johnson is the author of Race Through the Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006) as well as the upcoming GUST – The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007). In addition to writing, consulting and coaching, he teaches MBA classes at Drake University on Project Management, Creativity, and Office Politics.