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I thought I had an OK work relationship but

Text by Franke James; Goat ©istockphoto.com/Eric Isselée

Dear Office Politics,

I have worked in a high-stress but free-wheeling media office for more than 20 years, and am good at my job, have OK people skills and am generally respected. I received a promotion about a year ago. However, since moving into a particular department (mostly other women) about 10 years ago, I’ve apparently stepped on a few toes because I don’t quite fit in with the group and have, on a couple of occasions, voiced my opinions on ethical issues that have cropped up. As a result, a couple of co-workers are cool to me, rarely speak to me and exclude me from non-work conversations. A couple more who are close to those two are also quite cool. The rest are neutral (or so I thought).

I recently met with the guy who heads up this department (I’m actually his peer but have three employees, while he has about 10) and, in the course of the meeting, tried to defuse a comment I’d made at another meeting (he wasn’t there) about his department but which I was pretty sure someone had repeated to him. My comment was accurate and fair, but one he would not welcome. I thought that went OK but, on speaking to him about something else the other day, discovered that he had misinterpreted my attempt to defuse the situation, was really angry about my remark and basically saw my comment (or maybe me) as negative and mean-spirited.

I thought I had an OK work relationship with this man, and am devastated to discover that when I said, “There are a few clouds in the sky,” he heard, “There’s a nasty Force 10 hurricane about to destroy our city.”

We talked about all this and he apologized for overreacting to my comment. A similar thing occurred with another co-worker last week – someone told her I’d said something that I hadn’t said in that case, and she basically believed the worst of me. I’ve come to the unhappy conclusion that I have become the scapegoat, or disliked co-worker, for this group of people, and I’m pretty upset about it. I support a spouse and child, make good money, am about 15 years from retirement and there are few opportunities in my rather specialized line of work hereabouts.

I’ve tried to network with the more supportive people in this group but it is tough sledding, as most of them have their own longtime work buddies and no one is “unattached.”

My inclination is to go turtle – just go to work, do my job, cultivate the other more receptive people elsewhere in the office, speak as little as possible and accept that my relationship with these folks will never be warm and fuzzy. Help!

The Lonely Scapegoat

erika andersen

Dear Scapegoat,

It sounds like you’re really at a loss about how to establish better relationships with your colleagues. I have some advice for you – but you may not want to hear it. So, take a deep breath and jump in.

You’ve described a pattern, one where you’re saying and doing things that evoke negative reactions from co-workers — and you’ve said it’s happened repeatedly over time.

And now you’ve decided that it’s their problem: “I’ve come to the unhappy conclusion that I have become the scapegoat, or disliked co-worker, for this group of people.”

What you’ve done is very common. Because it’s painful to think that a problem exists because of something we’ve done, we let ourselves off the hook by putting responsibility for the problem on someone else. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work: a mentor of mine once taught me that until you acknowledge your own contribution to a problem, you are powerless to solve it.

Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s not their problem – that they haven’t all just somehow decided to make you the bad guy. Let’s pretend it’s your problem: that you’re consistently behaving in ways that don’t work for others, that upset them and make them want to retreat from you. Yikes. Hard to acknowledge. BUT – and this is key – the good news is; if it’s your behavior, you can do something about it.

Here’s my recommendation: I believe you may be the ideal candidate for executive coaching. You’re good at your job and are generally respected. And you are clearly well-intentioned. But you are having a negative impact on people for reasons that are mysterious to you. Working with a coach could help you connect the dots. In most coaching situations, you’d get clear and balanced objective feedback how others perceive you: what people see as your strengths and weaknesses. Then your coach will work with you to figure out what to do about it; new skills or approaches you can learn and use that will work better for you and others. With a coach, if you can acknowledge your contribution to the problem, he or she can support you in addressing it.

I hope this is helpful to you…please let us know what happens. Thanks for writing to OfficePolitics.com.


Erika Andersen, Author

being Strategic book cover

Erika Andersen is the author of BEING STRATEGIC (May 2009). Talk of strategy abounds in business — but moving from thinking strategically to acting strategically is an enormous leap. BEING STRATEGIC is a roadmap for consistently making choices that best move you toward your desired future. What’s more, it explains why being strategic is worth the time and effort required, what’s involved, and how to do it. The book explains the core skills and practices needed at each point of being strategic and provides simple models, real-life examples and self-directed activities for learning and applying them.

Erika Andersen is founder of Proteus International, where she has served as consultant and adviser to CEO’s and top executives around the world. She is the also the author of Growing Great Employees, published by Portfolio in 2006.

This letter was originally published in February 2009.

  1. 11 Answers to “I thought I had an OK work relationship but”

  2. Erika,

    Thanks for the advice – I just may check out the coaching suggestion.
    Your mentor’s words are interesting and I will keep them in mind as well.

    In the meantime, I’m basically saying less at work and some of the negativity does seem to be abating.


    The Lonely Scapegoat

    By Feedback from Lonely Scapegoat on Feb 24, 2009

  3. Dear Scapegoat,
    You have defentently fallen into a pattern where you say things that will be taken or have been taken badly or not in the intended way. What i think you should do is not play turtle. Dont hide from the problems even though your only 15 years from retirement. Continue to network and try to find that other job closer to your specified line of work but dont give up on the line your in. Try to make amends with the people you have wronged or offended. Stand up for yourself and explain that things were not taken how they were suppose to. You “I” statements too, not “You” statements. Dont point fingers suggest different solutions.

    Good Luck,
    William Connors

    By William Connors on Mar 29, 2009

  4. Yup,

    Same Story. I worked in this office from the stage of being the only employee and then helping out in recruitments and policy design and everything. The new team came in,we grew, and my role was happily handed over to “professionals”. My designation of corporate manager became more and more redundant as my team grew. Now i only do the secy’s work, and am feeling like the office goes on without me…slowly lethargy and boredom has set in. While i know my boss thinks i am irreplaceable i am sure its only a comfort level and he will get someone todo what i do for a lower fee.

    In the meantime people around me think i am becoming snobbish and bossy only becasue i see it in a better light and have a greater view of things as i assist the founder.

    My juniors by years..are now asking me to come on time and mix with others and be more cordial…while I have not changed (i feel i have not). I am feeling constantly depressed and rejected by a company i helped build.

    Now, in an effort to grow on my own, and build my self esteem and opportunities for growth, I am looking out and want to move out into a career in HR. I am looking for opportunties to assist a HR head so I can then move in to the HR role more smoothly.

    I am hurt however, that at my level, noone offered to reach out and understand what i was going through. Noone. Not even my boss sees what is going wrong and cares to help.

    I dont know if it is wrong to expect, but it would have made all the difference for me if I could have had a decent converstation about my role and my growth opportunites here. I feel only my services are being needed and the moment i slip …I will be asked to leave.

    Is this normal for people in long stints? This is a company of size 1000 heads, and in a niche area of work.

    I now do not talk to anyone in the office, and sometimes go without speaking for days….at home I am becoming acidic and reactive to spouse and kids, and am hating my life in total. Help!

    By The Boss's snobbish Assistant on Mar 30, 2009

  5. Hi i have a question about working in a law firm. If someone sleeps with the boss and gets a promotion only for the fact that she is sleeping with him and i know it, can i make a case of that as all employees not being treated equal? and not given a chance for promotion? can i bring that to court?

    By Antonio Burgos on May 12, 2009

  6. Hi Scapegoat,

    First of all, I suggest you to avoid commenting about people behind them unless it is a compliment. We must be aware that whatever ‘constructive comment or suggestion on others’ may not be conveyed correctly especially through 3rd party. And now the ‘damage’ is done, so we need to find ways to change their perception on you. From now on, you should spend more time to understand the individual’s likes and dislikes. We should avoid talking about things that the listeners do not like to hear such as sensitive topics to someone. Secondly, you should try to remember the good stuff or achievements people made and congratule them for the job well done. You should not keep quiet when everyone is celebrating a success. You need to treasure the warmth of people and share the good feelings together. Thirdly, as suggested by Erika, please spend more time learning the couching technique to deal with the people problems. It is not always effective to voice out our suggestions on others, instead, we should encourage them to identify their own areas for improvement through proper couching. Hope this helps.

    Dear Snobbish Assistant,

    During the start up of a company or department, usually the pioneer team would have to do everything from setting the strategy to sweeping the floor. When the company grows into a certain size, the job diversification begins to happen. We cannot expect a worker in the car assembly plant to run up and down to mount the engine, weld the chassis, fix the doors, test the car etc. Therefore, it is important for the company to find the right people with right skills to do the right jobs (we called them professionals). As for you, when the company needs have changed, we must position ourselves rightly so that we are not made redundant. A few good examples in real business world. Microsoft has been changing its strategy & plan from time to time to compete with Google. HSBC has gradually shifted its focus from US, Europe to Asia. Barclays has been trying to acquire other banks and insurance companies to strengthen its position in banking industry. When we are in business, we got to be dynamic and sensitive to changes surrounding us. Think about that, nobody in your office worked as long as you did, therefore you have all the info and close contact with boss to understand their needs. What you should do next is to discuss with your boss and agree with him / her a career development plan for you. And then you should spend more time to learn new skills or knowledge. If you don’t like operational job, you can enhance your skills in the area of marketing planning, HR development, customer royalty programme etc. Try to read the book ‘who moved my cheese’ if you have not read it before. Hope this helps and good luck.

    Thank you


    By Edward on Oct 11, 2009

  7. 1. What does “fit in” mean? Does it mean be like each other? Why must people be alike to get along with each other?
    2. There’s a habit people sometimes have of taking over a conversation and going to extremes with it. When people are letting off steam are you taking them to the level of thinking they are unethical? Then you’re coming across as judgmental.
    3. There’s also a habit people sometimes have of not letting somebody else just think out loud but deciding if they’re talking about it they must be having a problem that they need a solution for. It’s not always about asking for solutions.
    4. Erika is right, making a comment about another department behind their back is a no-no. I’ve learned over the years that you absolutely never really know what is going on in a department you don’t work in. If the department was under discussion at the meeting, you don’t make negative comments about it no matter what is going on, you either stay quiet or you say “I don’t understand how that happens” and maybe you’ll learn something.
    5. You don’t say there was any context to the remarks about that department at the meeting; was there? If not that’s a gratuitous slam and no wonder the person reacted strongly.
    6. “Long time work buddies”? This may be sophomore year psychology but I’m reading that you used the “don’t fit in” excuse to ignore your coworkers. Now you’re reaping the effects of 10 years of that.

    I think the comment about “mostly women” is interesting. The last time somebody posted something like that here it was a guy. Plus my #3 is a typically male habit described by researchers into how men and women communicate differently.

    By curious on Oct 19, 2010

  8. After reading your letter, I concur with Erika and Edward. If people are misinterpreting everything you say, then let’s analyze the common denominator. You. You may think you’re saying there are a few clouds, when the connotative meaning or tone states that there is a Category 5 hurricane. As someone who has an executive coach, I highly recommend getting one. A different–and objective–perspective is brought to the table. You’ll be able to target the problem and come up with an executive plan to remedy the situation. Good luck!

    By OKOKOK on Dec 3, 2010

  9. Oh my god people. First don’t act helpless, you are not a scapegoat and you are not a turtle, etc. The real problem is, is that you work with ALL WOMEN. YOU ALL try working w/ ALL WOMEN, I bet you would step on everyone’s toes all the time.


    By Anna on Oct 25, 2011

  10. I back Anna on that one.

    Women step on people and cost promotions and jobs if you don’t fit in with them. They are very catty to work with. You could devote an entire blog to bad things women do to others and each other in the workplace. it is middle school all over again.

    One key problem about the modern workplace is people dont want to be told they made a mistake and everyone is supposed to stroke others egos. This is business, not kindergarten.

    By Gigli on Jan 9, 2012

  11. Sometimes I think some of the problem that I have with my co worker has to do with his year on the job, but he has a settle attitude about every task has to be completed. On the other hand when I’m giving a task I assume the supervisor wants it right away. So my co worker is given very few task because of his inability to get it donein a reasonable time. I have spoken to him about his politicing on the job , which give people the perception he’s trying to get out of work.

    By Willie Rose on Feb 29, 2012

  12. I need advice please: I’m being subjected to a horrible backstabbing condescending abusive woman on my team (who just joined as a contractor). She is supposed to work as a team member on my project. She is not collaborative at all. She blind sided me last week, twisting my words completely. She was verbally abusive, rude, disrespectful. I have been very supportive and respectful to me. I remain calm, don’t allow myself to get sucked into her toxic emotional/psychological twisted and highly inappropriate and unprofessional mess. Her boss, the Director, has no other resource to assign my project but her. So, he lets her do what ever she wants. I really love this job otherwise.. the people, the company, the opportunity. There’s always one. Thankfully, I know who the one is. She’s bad mouthing me to our business partners as well and not copying me on emails or meetings. I don’t have the visibility I need into the project. She says she’ll tell me when she’s going to complete tasks, when she knows. How can I possibly manage a project like this?

    By Grace on Mar 16, 2015

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