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Jekyll & Hyde coworker like Russian roulette

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Dear Office-Politics,

Here is my problem. I am a senior manager of a 50-person non-profit organization, and serve on the small Executive Management Committee (EMC). My boss is the President, and although she is a lousy leader in many ways, we actually get along well and have a solid relationship, thanks to my figuring out how to work with her. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues, ‘Jolynn’ who is senior to me and also a member of the EMC, is a thorn in my side, to say the least. She is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character if ever there was one — half the time she is in my office joking around, confiding in me, complaining about our boss, complimenting me and my work, etc., BUT, the other half, she is nasty and negative. Because she has a job involving overseeing operations, I am accountable, though indirectly, to her on some things:

1. Jolynn imposes unreasonable and unrealistic deadlines
2. Gets furious if she feels I (or anyone) is challenging her authority
3. She is extremely insecure though walks around like she’s hot stuff
4. Jolynn is on a power trip that is completely inappropriate and destructive.
5. Jolynn is critical of other departments, and holds them to a high standard, while managing to weasel out of accountability for her own.

When people make suggestions to Jolynn about how to do things differently (or better) in her department, she will either ignore the idea, or lash out, yet doesn’t hesitate to butt into others’ work.

I have tried to stay in Jolynn’s good graces by keeping a sense of humor, being supportive and complimentary, and avoiding pushing back, unless absolutely necessary. But because she is so mercurial and unpredictable, it’s difficult to maintain equilibrium with her. My question is, do you have any advice on how to keep the bad side of her to a minimum, and how to confront her when she acts out? I usually let things blow over, but don’t want her to feel she can push me around. Frankly, Jolynn is a huge source of anxiety and stress, which I want to minimize.

Thank you,

Tired of Coping

erika andersen

Dear Tired of Coping,

My heart goes out to you. Having a colleague like Jolynn can feel like playing emotional Russian roulette.

It sounds like you’re using a whole toolkit full of coping mechanisms, all of which seem reasonable and appropriate as you’ve described them.

Here’s the bad news: You probably can’t minimize Jolynn’s “bad side” much more than you are doing right now. I suspect her volatility and negativity have very little to do with you (or anyone), and trying to figure out how to change her could become a full-time job if you let it, and is almost certainly a lost cause.

Here’s the good news: You can set clear and respectful boundaries of your own. When Jolynn “acts out”, I’d suggest you give yourself a chance to sort through what she’s done, clarify the unacceptable behaviors, and find a time (as soon as possible), to do the following:

Ask Jolynn’s permission to bring up an important topic — then tell her what you see and ask for what you’d like to be different. For instance, let’s say she yells at one of your employees in a meeting. Resist talking to her about her “emotionality,” “disrespect,” “unprofessionalism,” etc. – these loaded, non-behavioral words are almost sure to wind her up even more! Instead, take Jolynn aside as soon as possible, and say something like. “Jolynn, I have something important I want to discuss with you. Is this a good time?” if and when she says yes, continue by saying something like, “I understand that you raised your voice to Sue in the meeting yesterday, and told her you thought she wasn’t doing her job. I’d like you not to raise your voice to my employees, and if you have issues with their performance, I’d like you to come to me.”

If Jolynn makes excuses, gets angry or defensive, etc., stay very calm. Then, summarize her point of view, so she feels heard, and then restate your own observation and request, using basically the same words. You may have to do this a couple of times. If you stay calm, neutral, and behavioral – and don’t get tangled into reacting to her defensiveness – it will probably turn out OK (she may not change, but you will have made your best effort and that, at least, will feel good to you).

Having said all that, I want to remind you that you also have a larger decision to make. Since she’s senior to you, and secure in her position (if it seemed she was likely to get fired, I assume you wouldn’t have written this letter), and since you’re probably not going to be able to change her in any significant way, you have to decide whether you want to put up with her behavior long-term. You say she’s a huge source of stress and anxiety; remember that you can choose to look for another job with more congenial colleagues. Dealing with people like this can make you feel trapped: it’s important to remember that you do have a choice.

Let us know how it goes, and thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Erika Andersen, Author

Erika Andersen is the author of Growing Great Employees, newly released in paperback, which is a Kirkus Reviews recommended business book for 2007. Erika Andersen and her colleagues at Proteus International, the company she founded in 1990, offer practical approaches for individuals and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for-future. Much of Erika’s recent work has focused on vision and strategy, executive coaching, and culture change. She has served as consultant and advisor to the CEOs and senior executives of corporations like MTV Networks, Molson Coors Brewing, Rainbow Media Holdings, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Comcast Corporation. Erika is an inaugural author of the Penguin Speakers Bureau, and she has been quoted in the New York Times, Industry Week, Investors’ Business daily, and Fortune.

  1. 3 Answers to “Jekyll & Hyde coworker like Russian roulette”

  2. Why should good employees have to be ones to leave? Shouldn’t people in positions of authority be required to get management counseling? Otherwise there could be high turnover. Good employees shouldn’t have to leave a job they enjoy and are good at when a manager or boss is the problem. Any thoughts?

    By justice on Jan 12, 2009

  3. Let them know you are there to work, and to make money for yourself, the company, and for the almighty shareholders. You are not there to make friends. I’m the Lil’ Lady of the Good Ol’ Boys Club, and I work at THE No 1 of the Fortune 500, and you have to have a backbone, or you will suffer. I refuse to suffer, so I shine.

    No matter what you do, and where you work, your job is to make your boss look good, and you can only do that by being productive, and all the petty socializing is counterproductive.

    Insecurity in a boss needs a calm and cool hand approach. Confrontation: preferably with her in her boss’ office. You may only accomplish nothing more than speaking your mind, and standing your ground, but then again, you are now letting somebody know, who may have been clueless before, that you are a force to be reckoned with. Upper management may also notice this, and keep you around while moving the boondoggle to another department; to let some other budget pay for her. They may just be feeding her all the rope she needs, so go on, and help her add an inch or two to it.

    If you are helping to make the money roll in, you should have nothing to worry about.

    It’s always about the bottom line, so be the one to remind them of that.

    By Snafu Manchu on Jan 29, 2010

  4. I agree with Justice. Your best bet is too shine in your work, trade, or craft and you do have to make the boss look good. On the other hand 99.5 success isn’t even enough for most bosses. All companies want 100 percent plus. Above and beyond. It’s a tough world out there and you do need a back bone to hold on to your job. Having a chat with a boss helps, but only if you have something to offer the other top dogs haven’t offered or you have something to reveal. That will only buy you enough time to change jobs and to leave in good graces. I do agree that some workers may back stab others and bosses will use scape goats. I have been at both ends of the spectrum, but at one point or another we have to come to terms with ourselves that the jobs we hold are not always the best suited jobs for us to shine. Find your successful niche. Sometimes you have to change quite a few jobs (every three years) before you clique with the right staff and the job description. Self analysis is your first step.

    By Bianca Schmidt on Dec 14, 2015

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