I was wondering if someone can help educate me on how to politely decline business invitations?
I work in a small office (100 people), with a small team (12) of people who mostly dislike each other but try to get along professionally. Almost everyone in my group has an ego bigger than the person standing next to them. My personality is such that I like everyone and instantly make friends with almost everyone – that is, until I realize they don’t respect me (make fun of me for whatever reason or rant about me). I used to have a great reputation at work until one year ago. That is, when my new boss started.
Then, within one year, my reputation has gone from a great person, very hard worker and a pleasure to work with to a ‘grumpy’, less than average worker, difficult to deal with, a handful and oh yes, a compulsive liar! My boss encourages name calling (although he/she does it in a joking manner) and poisons people’s mind about me, by telling them what an outspoken ‘freak’ I am and furthermore, introduces people to me saying “I told you about her” or “you will find out about her!”.
This leaves me feeling angry and depressed to the point where I have started counselling (it’s not helping since the counsellor doesn’t know my boss personally). I do have a strong personality and it is true that most of the times, I say things without thinking. But I am definitely not as difficult as they make me out to be. I do go on the defensive when they bully me – and I have tried to correct that but it is not helping when my boss, along with the team mates don’t own up to their responsibility (they instigate it). When I tell them that I don’t appreciate the treatment, they all try to shrug it off saying I am too sensitive and that they love me and that’s it is all good.
But it is not all good, because recently I have been thinking of just walking up to each one of them, telling them exactly what I think of them and quitting my job.
Of course, I know this is not a solution, not while I can’t afford it at least! So, I am writing to seek help with letting everyone know, as politely as possible, to leave me alone! I have tried to distance myself by not indulging in idol chit chat with them. They say ‘good morning’, and I respond as briefly as possible hoping they would walk away – but instead, they stand there and try to find out how my weekend went or will start with “why am I so grumpy” (when I am not) and that totally pushes me off the wall.
How can I tell a colleague to interact with me only on business matters? I am not there to share my life outside work with them and I certainly don’t appreciate them telling me I am a big liar (they don’t believe I have a boyfriend – so they try to psychoanalyze why I would lie about having a boyfriend. – What business is it of theirs whether I do or don’t?)
Recently, most of them have also started rolling their eyes when I am making conversation in a social environment (Birthdays, new team member and Christmas lunches, for example).
I try, I do try, but even that is not appreciated, instead they roll their eyes letting me believe that I either talk too much, or am saying something that they have chosen to not believe. How can I politely say “thanks .. but no thank you” without risking a marching order? I love my job, and I like the people I work with too, even my boss – but at arm’s length! I just want to go to work, do my thing, and leave when it’s time to go home. I don’t want to be friendly or pretend to be friends with anyone.
My boss “makes” us get along. She “makes” us go for lunches together and “makes” us be nice to one another when behind her back, everyone complains about how expensive it is and how controlling she is. And even when the lunches are paid for by the company, I would rather be spending the time with people I respect than with people who roll their eyes when I am talking and who stab me in the back every chance they get!
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
We’re intrigued by your salutation, “Decision2Change” since it has many potential interpretations:
~ Change yourself regarding whether to be social? …
~ Change yourself regarding some problem behaviors that might be triggering teammates and/or boss’ negative behaviors toward you?…
~ Change the behavior of the other people such as inviting them to cease over-stepping boundaries you perceive?…
~ Change your job situation even though you say cannot afford to do so?
We have to be honest. Your letter did NOT have us rolling our eyes, but your letter is filled with mixed messages that compel us to wonder if you are more of the problem than you are comfortable admitting to yourself? Hopefully you’ll accept the following as coming from caring about you as an advice-seeker in good faith. So here is a list of the concerns we have about your part of the responsibility, none of which forgives the controlling, bad-mouthing boss or any people around you if they are sending double-messages (first to get involved socially, but then either rolling their eyes or calling you a ‘liar’ about your claims):
WHAT’S YOUR REAL PROBLEM?
You are asking for an answer to a simple question: “how to politely decline business invitations.” Yet the remainder of your letter raises far more serious and troubling workplace problems involving a boss trashing you even openly, co-workers who you feel pushed and judged by, that you don’t sense respect you personally OR professionally, and that sound manipulative (putting you in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario by bugging you about getting more personal, then putting you down when you do so). So we wonder if you are in denial about how toxic your situation has become, especially given how drastic your description of your reputation change has become.
YOU CAN ONLY CONTROL YOUR HALF OF THE RELATIONSHIP AND YOU’VE LOST CONTROL OF YOURS.
We do hear you acknowledging you might have a role when you acknowledge that you have a “strong personality.” You say what’s on your mind, and you get defensive when people say things you don’t appreciate. Remember that in professional sports it is rarely the first instigator of a fight who gets the “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty flag, rather the one who retaliates. If you push-back on someone who pushes you, you only perpetuate a vicious cycle of push-push-back that escalates.
It takes two to tango or tangle, so we do recommend workshops, books, or counseling to achieve more emotional self-control and interpersonal skills even in conflict. Otherwise, they control you instead of you controlling yourself. You are implying that they provoke you but we gently challenge and invite you to realize that you are letting yourself become their puppet. They might even be purposely provoking you precisely because you have given the power, fun, and office game to do so, perhaps even a little playful distraction from their day. After all, they like diversions from their work more than you. Why not take BACK the power you’ve given them and dis-engage EMOTIONALLY more, so that whether you disengage physically, socially becomes almost irrelevant?
YOU MIGHT IN FACT LACK TACT AND SAY THINGS THAT TICK OFF OR OFFEND OTHERS.
We worry you might lack verbal discipline and provide ammunition to those who are either maliciously out to mud-sling or who are simply not busy enough. Remember that being right often gets the booby prize, meaning a time bomb waiting to explode in your face or to explode your corporate reputation.
A BIG TIME DOUBLE MESSAGE ABOUT YOUR ENVIRONMENT.
It baffles us how you could list a diatribe of so many ways you are mistreated, but then say that you love your job and “even like the people,” including your boss, but then add “at arm’s length.” Can you see how it’s difficult for us to size you up enough to confidently have solid launching ground for providing advice. Our premises for advice always must rest on a solid foundation of assumptions about whose behavior is causing problems, and frankly, we’re feeling a bit on quicksand here.
BOTTOM LINE: But we are not going to cop out on you, don’t worry. Here are specific ideas:
1. LOOK IN THE MIRROR.
Many hints at improvement are embedded in our above questions since we have already suggested ways you need to check your own tendency to fight back (count to ten, breathe, etc.), need to explore your possible excess honesty (“yes, I DO think you look fat in that dress” is not always the best way for a husband to answer his wife’s direct question about that classic manhole!), how can you ask certain trusted others about your company reputation, what we call “corporate buzz.”
2. USE HUMOR.
When people start calling you a liar about your boyfriends, or engage in other put-downs, explore the use of humor that shows them they are not getting to you. You could launch into, “You’re right, you caught me in a lie. I don’t in fact have a boyfriend. George Clooney did just dump me, but he did introduce me to Brad Pitt, who while married, would make a good non-boyfriend lover, don’t you think? So far, I haven’t returned his numerous phone calls. I just feel funny about all the potential tabloid coverage. What do you think I should do????” Make sure it’s not so sarcastic it comes off as “side-ways anger,” but truly defuses and shows they are not getting under your skin. this kind of humor we describe as one optional way to “put aside” put-downs as opposed to “putting down in return or “putting up with” bullying (also adding active listening, firm but not aggressive responses, and open questions that trap the person’s unreasonable postures).
3. IF IT’S REALLY A QUESTION OF HOW TO “POLITELY TURN DOWN SOCIAL ENGAGEMENTS.”
The answer is in the question. We don’t mean to be flip here, but here are some tips on tact: Active listen empathetically (e.g.,”wow, you sound like you’d really like to check in about the weekend and are interested in how my blah blah went….”). Then say what you appreciate or merits in the offer or idea extended by the other (e.g., “you know, that really feels good that you remembered I was going to blah blah this weekend, so thanks for checking in…”.). Next, surface your “concern” without saying “but” or “however,” in a way that is non-blameful and matter-of-fact sharing reasons you cannot go social at this time (e.g., “I’m so sorry, since my concern is that I have three deadlines today and am swamped! Thanks again and let’s chat before tomorrow’s meeting with Joe?). So the idea in this technique, called the Balanced Response Technique, is to cite “likes and appreciations” after paraphrasing, then to kindly surface downsides of the person’s suggestions. You can also offer alternatives like chatting before a meeting where it’s controlled.
We’ve hopefully given you lots to ponder, hopefully not too much. Remember, you ALWAYS have options. If you do decide the environment is too toxic to endure, and you don’t trust folks, decide privately who does not badmouth you, hang with them, do your homework privately on other job options and bide your time.
Good luck! 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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