Please advise us on our very odd situation.
We recently hired a non-academic as an entry-level office aide in our scientific department. She denies that it is entry-level, and after being here only 2 months, she has decided that she knows all about academia and academicians and has told junior personnel that the faculty (us) are stupid and slow (our PhDs in science/math are no match for her BA in home interiors).
This hostility stings in the face of our kindnesses to her in helping her get adjusted, our introductions of other faculty to her, and our generosity in helping her navigate the campus and the people here. Our more jaded faculty roll their eyes at this blow-hard’s attempt to inflate her worth by making ill-informed comments, taking credit for work that began before she was hired, and how every job vacancy that is posted is so obviously /for her/ because she is overly qualified for everything! Sadly, this insults the people in the office who were applying for the jobs, and who UNEQUIVOCALLY have the credentials.
Also, her favorite game is to look up faculty salary information in the library and then snark about how those high earners don’t deserve such a salary/title/job because she is obviously smarter than they and she is not making near that amount/getting such a title, etc. When we kindly try to explain the inherently complex process that is the hallmark of academia (to mollify her outrage over the apparent discrepancy over her earnings/title and that of others who have only been here 30 years or so) she barks that WE don’t need to explain ANYTHING TO HER, because after all, she is a genius (in disguise)!
The poisoning that is occurring in her wake is monumental. Our junior support staff are growing uncomfortable and, worse, doubting their importance and worth because of these vicious diatribes which run unchecked and not confronted by management. The damage control called for is beyond the scope of our role here, but it is not lost upon us that everyone’s emotions are off kilter and their confidence is being chipped away at daily.
We cannot fire her (her work is adequate and she is beyond the probationary period) and we cannot move her to another department because of the specificity of the task she does, which isn’t enough to keep her busy. Our director will do nothing (how DARE we question his choices!)
Thus, is there a plum of wisdom you can impart that might help us help her?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
Dear Dr. Inadequate,
We are sorry that you and your team are enduring such a disruptive situation. Hopefully we can provide some insights and recommendations that will help you and our readers to deal with and even better prevent these difficulties in the future.
If you don’t mind, first some key concepts:
1. The Devastating Impact of a “Toxic” Team member
The behavior you are describing even exhibited by one person, unchecked can and often does create a vicious cycle on teams. Teams have a finite amount of time, energy and things they can focus on. This behavior diverts time and energy from being focused on the organizations goals. In addition, morale and motivation decreases while stress and distrust increase. As it continues unabated respect for the leadership of the organization diminishes.
We have advised many organizations about dealing with theses issues. Prompt, skillful action is high recommended. We have never had leaders we’ve advised say “I acted too soon.” Many have said “I waited too long.”
2. Mistakes Made by Well-Intentioned, Trusting People
The most likely place for a person like you are describing to take hold is in a non-profit, academic or religious organization. The reason is that people in those organizations are more likely to be idealistic, trusting and give people the benefit of the doubt. They are also often surprised when their kindness (e.g. helping her to get adjusted, introductions to faculty, and help in navigating the campus) is not only unappreciated but actually creates more of the undesirable behavior. In Survival of the Savvy we emphasize the importance of detecting deception; being able to discern who to trust and who not to trust. We need to pay attention to the early signals that people give us and remember the key principle of human relations: “We train people how to treat us.”
3. What to Do Now
Given what we have just indicated, it is always better to either screen for some of these characteristics or notice them as soon as possible. Confronting the behavior with clear and direct feedback is fair to the person and the team. If she is someone who can change, you have given her a chance to do it. If she can’t or won’t change you want to find that out as soon as possible.
We have had some success at coaching individuals like this but only when there was the threat of consequences for not improving. However, the most benefit we had provided to organizations is to convince leaders to remove certain people from their teams. This is an example of “addition by subtraction.”
In your case it sounds like your options are somewhat limited. You didn’t mention who the woman’s direct supervisor is so we will give general advice.
It is important to document her behavior including word-for-word what she has said, who witnessed it, etc. We would also document the impact this is having on people. This information will be useful if you talk with someone in Human Resources or the Director.
The ideal situation would be for her supervisor to give her clear feedback about the impact of her behavior. If she is as extreme as you say, it may or may not lead to the changes you want but it is fair and a necessary step. It would also help if other people in the organization stand up to her and challenge her comments. The combination of peer pressure and seeing that people don’t agree with and don’t appreciate her comments may help.
In the end, you and your allies, or someone close to the Director, may need to clearly present the data regarding the behavior and calibrate the negative impact on the team. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.
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