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Hiding my brains from a know-it-all

headline and color collage modification by franke james; Licensed base photo ŠiStockphoto.com/Enrico Fianchini

Dear Office-Politics,

I share a small office in a law firm with two other contract attorneys on a project. I got along very well with the two contract attorneys who started the project with me but when one of them left to give birth, the remaining attorney recommended a friend of hers to fill her shoes.

When we first met this new attorney I got along well enough with her. Then over time it became obvious that she expects everyone around her to take her advice, follow her opinions, and do not use their own intelligence to solve problems. She does not like to be caught in the wrong. She does not like to see anyone use a solution she did not suggest or think of herself. Any obvious intelligence visible in anyone else results in her storming off in a huff or even verbally attacking the person who mistakenly demonstrates having a brain.

Her friend does not help matters. Although the friend started out as a pleasant, independent person, when the bully arrived she turned into a dependent toady. At least twice a day, every day, she tells this bully how smart and wonderful the bully is. This friend will agree with the bully just to support her ego in spite of visible evidence to the contrary, and she has taken to not speaking to me when her bullying friend is around.

I did reach a point where I did not really speak to them much. It was not out of any ill will but because I was busy working on a difficult assignment. Also, I had nothing to say to them largely because since the bully came onto the project they primarily talk to each other about topics in which I have no interest, and because I think I bore them with my own interests. This bully attacked me for not speaking to her, and accused me of being passive aggressive and nasty.

I really don’t know what to do. All I want is a peaceful work environment where we can work together and support each other to get the job done. I am tired of having to hide my own intelligence to protect someone else’s ego. Previously I gave subtle cues that I think a variety of solutions helps everyone, but subtle cues that I should not have to muzzle my own solutions are obviously lost on her since she keeps attacking me. I cannot go to a supervisor about it because, as temps, the supervisor can either give the other temp a talking to or fire her. If she just gets a talking to, she still has to come work with me in that room where she can attack me in more subtle ways with the assistance of her toadying friend and I remain without support. If she gets fired then the toadying friend will be in a position to attack me. Not to mention the fact that reporting abuse by coworkers tends to give the whistleblower a bad reputation that often leads to negative repercussions down the road.

Do you have any suggestions?


timothy johnson

Dear Flummoxed,

First and foremost, I would encourage you to remember that you are not the problem. You made it through law school and passed the bar exams; therefore, you are not an intellectual inferior. However, in your profession, there sometimes tend to be people who care more about being right than doing right.

A few years ago, I served on a class action lawsuit project. Our client was a committee of attorneys. (For the record, “committee” and “attorneys” are two words that should never be put together for the sake of project management as we know it.) They were caustic. They were mean-spirited. Worse yet, they always had to be right. Our project team learned a thing or two about dealing with them throughout the course of the project.

1. Get your ducks in a row

The first thing we learned (and this should apply to all office politics situations) was to have all of our ducks in a row and all of our documentation lined up. When the shouting matches began, the bottom line was that we knew the business side of activity better than they did, and we were able to calmly present the objective data to demonstrate our point. While they didn’t like it, nothing diffuses needless drama like data. We made our best effort to ensure the data we were sharing was without bias, and that there were multiple sources to back up our point of view. Initially, this made them shout louder and throw bigger temper tantrums, but over time they learned that we weren’t going to back down and we ultimately had their best interest at heart.

2. Keep calm

The second thing we learned was never to kowtow to their egotistical tempers. Basic conflict resolution tactics worked here. During conference calls, we kept our voices calm. We deflected a lot of their bad behavior back on them by not allowing it to escalate. Instead of becoming accusatory with “you” statements, we instead asked a lot of questions and used “I” statements. Example: Them: You’re stupid. You can’t follow orders. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Us: I sense frustration in your voice. I did the research and found this to be the best solution among all the alternatives. I do not appreciate that tone being used.

3. It’s her problem not yours.

But what does this mean to you? For starters (and this one is hard), do not take it personally. Remember, the problem is with her, not you. Secondly, hold your ground (politely) when you know you are right and when your ideas will be in the best interest of the project (but, like our team, have all your documentation ducks in a row). Third, learn to sell your ideas to your client management rather than to her. From your letter, it doesn’t sound like she’s your boss as much as she’s your peer. Hence, try to have some productive sidebar conversations with the real decision-makers. Fourth, remember that the main objective is to get things done; therefore, if her ideas will work, don’t rock the boat unnecessarily.

4. Focus on the real goal: Getting the project done and building credibility with the client

Finally, you’re a contract attorney working on a project for a client. Instead of bickering with your peers, your energy should be focused on your client contacts and building credibility with them. Competence is its own reward, and when they see that you are producing (without the drama), you’ll have the greater reward in the end.

As for the toady friend, I wouldn’t waste my time on her outside of normal polite exchanges (i.e., don’t give her any fuel to dislike you). For alliance building, it’s pretty evident where her loyalty lies, and I doubt you will change that unless you successfully remove the bully altogether. In our relationships, we build up certain scripts over time with people based on our perceptions of them. Your friend’s behavior may be her script: displaying a defense mechanism because she never learned how to handle the bully’s behavior. The only script she understands is to play grinning sidekick and nobody gets hurt. It’s unfortunate, but that’s her choice.

At the end of the day, you simply have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the person you see there. As a consultant, I lose a few battles here and there, but the mirror war is one I’m determined to win.

I wish you all the best. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com.


Timothy Johnson, Author & Consultant

Timothy Johnson is the Chief Accomplishment Officer of Carpe Factum, Inc. His company is dedicated to helping individuals and organizations “seize the accomplishment” through effective project management, strategic facilitation, and business process improvement. His clients have included Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, Wells Fargo, ING, Principal Financial Group, and Teva Neuroscience. Timothy has managed projects ranging from a $14 billion class action lawsuit settlement to HIPAA compliance, from software conversion to process reengineering, from strategic IT alignment to automated decisioning, from producing a training video to creating a project office environment. He is currently an adjunct professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, teaching MBA classes in Leadership, Managing Office Politics, Creativity for Business, and Project Management.

An accomplished speaker, Timothy has enthusiastically informed and entertained audiences across the nation on the topics of project communication, office politics, creativity, and meeting management. He has written two books, both business fables: Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable and GUST – The Tale Wind of Office Politics.

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