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Defensive supervisor poisons workplace

Dear Office-Politics,

I work in a small office, and have been an employee here for about 2 years. In the last 12 months, my supervisor (the department director) has changed from an involved team leader who made us feel like she was in our corner, to an absent, uninterested person, forgetting our one-on-one monthly meetings (which are an important requirement of our field), and very poorly communicating changes in our policies, procedures and organization.

To complicate matters, she has become very closely aligned with a manager in another department. The perception of myself and other employees is that our supervisor tends to actually use this other person’s input to make decisions, rather than investing the effort herself, or consulting the employees in her own department. This manager seems to be able to convince our supervisor of anything, whether it be changing a policy or which employees the manager feels are creating problems (which usually seems to bubble up after a policy change is made and the employees are not informed until after it is in effect and raise concern).

The employees as a team have confronted our supervisor and asked for her support and help in creating better communication. She responded with a lot of hurt and defensiveness, and things have gone downhill from there. She is now more erratic in her decision making. Employees are not speaking up because of fear of retaliation, from either the supervisor or the manager in the other department (who tends to be easily threatened, and will contest any concern that another employee brings up as being insubordinate).

The atmosphere is terrible. People no longer like coming to work, meetings are tense, and no one is speaking up. I took a risk and went to my supervisor’s supervisor, who is going to help with mediating some meetings; she is pretty adept and I know that I can trust her to be sensitive both to my supervisor and to the team. However, this person works off site and is not around for the politics that are occurring.

My supervisor is now aware that I have gone over her head and again is hurt and angry. I now feel targeted by herself and her friend, the manager from the other department. I feel so frustrated because my intent is not to get anyone in trouble but to ease the tension and improve our working team environment. I am afraid that my supervisor won’t be able to recover from this and deal with me fairly. Have I screwed up royally or is there hope for things to eventually rebalance?

Toxic Workplace

dr. john burton

Dear Toxic Workplace,

In answer to your final question, I think there is hope for things to rebalance. Whether they do or not, I don’t think that is you who is responsible for the difficult situation in which you find yourself.

Going to your supervisor’s supervisor was a wise move. I don’t think you did it prematurely, rather it was the appropriate move after confronting your supervisor directly without any success in changing the situation.

Your supervisor sounds like something has derailed her from being a competent manager. Something needs to be done to return her to an appropriate management style. There is only a limited amount that you, or any other subordinate can do to bring this about. And it appears that you have done what you can.

Something needs to be done to change the situation as what you describe is unsustainable. Higher management needs to know about the toxic workplace environment and to take responsibility for it. The risk, as I imagine you have recognized, is that higher management may not be able to resolve things and you will be left to face the consequences of your supervisor’s ill will. That would be an unfortunate outcome, but it is not your responsibility.

Faced with a choice between keeping quiet and enduring a poisonous working environment or ‘going over your supervisor’s head’ and risking her wrath if her supervisor cannot resolve the situation, I think you made the right choice.

I hope that your supervisor’s supervisor is as skilled as you say and manages to address the situation and help your supervisor become an involved team leader again.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Good luck,
Dr. John Burton

Dr. John Burton LL.B. M.B.A. M.Div. Ph.D. is an ethicist, mediator, lawyer and theologian. He has taught alternative dispute resolution at Queen’s Law School and Ethics at the Schulich School of Business. John was recently located in Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada, working with Canada’s aboriginal communities. He is now teaching at UBC, Okanagan Campus.

Publication note: This letter was originally published in 2006. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.

  1. One Answer to “Defensive supervisor poisons workplace”

  2. Feedback from Toxic Workplace:

    Thank you so much for your reply. Your feedback is helpful and reassuring. I had been doubting the wisdom of speaking up, but your reply has reminded me of what is my job (just to point out what is going on) and to let the supervisors figure out how to address the issues at hand. In the meantime, since I have spoken up, several of my co-workers are also beginning to raise their concerns, so hopefully the kinks can be worked out and the environment will improve!

    By Letter writer on Mar 19, 2008

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