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Managers fighting and dragging us into the mess

Dear Office-Politics,

I work in a small (4 employees) field office that is part of a larger government agency. The tangled web of office politics has left myself and a coworker frustrated and wondering how to proceed.

Three years ago the assistant manager transferred into our office due to restructuring. He reports to our female manager and is not the supervisor of myself or my coworker. To say that he is lazy, unmotivated and irritating is an understatement. He also constantly interrupts people with useless conversations, yells questions across the office and is generally disruptive. In the beginning he frequently would not show up for work, although that mostly has been fixed. He seems to not understand subtlety. For instance, saying something like “don’t have time to talk, I have a lot of work to do” would do nothing to stop his talking. Walking away from him just meant he followed you to your desk and continued yakking. My coworker and I approached the manager about frustrations about his behavior and if there was anything we could be doing differently to stop it. This unfortunately has “bonded” her to us, as she now feels free to share her problems with his behavior with us.

This is really not entirely the problem though. Our manager, who is a hands-off, non-confrontational type of manager, has done little to help the situation. She has tried various methods to get him to do work, get focused on the job and be accountable. He ignores her. This of course has frustrated her since she doesn’t like to deal with conflict. Three years later, the atmosphere in the office is beyond stressful. The two of them just snipe at each other and run to my coworker or myself to complain about the other. We tell them that we are uncomfortable talking about it or that they need to talk to the other about their problems. This has done nothing to stop it.

We feel trapped in the middle and don’t know how to get out. We know that the manager has contacted EAP, HR and her supervisors about this which has resulted in no change. Part of the problem is that SHE is part of the problem, so the people she’s talked to probably haven’t heard the whole story. We are tired of hearing them yell at each other, acting unprofessionally, and running to us with their problems. It’s the equivalent of Mom and Dad fighting and dragging the kids into the middle of their mess.

We are at a loss for what to do. We feel that they BOTH need a mediator. We have discussed approaching the next management level, whom I know and trust, in an effort to restore office harmony. We are afraid though that the manager would take this personally, that we have drawn attention to a problem in her office. We feel though that they have both fallen so far down the rabbit hole that they’ve lost sight of their actions and the affect it has on us. How would you proceed?


Trapped in the middle

dr. gregory ketchum

Dear Trapped in the middle,

First off, let me thank you for your well written and thoughtful letter, which reminded me of something my Dad used to say when I was a kid. “Son,” he’d say, “if you can get a civil service job do it because they can never fire you.” Well, I realize now that my old Dad wasn’t completely right about that, but it seems like the assistant manager is trying to test my Dad’s theory.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor at the log jam of dysfunctional behavior that you describe I started thinking about what I could possibly say that could help. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, which is probably what you feel, I nonetheless decided to give it a try so here goes. Let’s see what we can do together.

Your Power Skills need Recharging

First, you must have incredible coping skills to have hung in there this long in the “mental ward” atmosphere that your manager and the assistant manager have created. Clearly you’ve managed to hang onto your coping skills, but it seems like your “power” skills have been ground down, and need recharging.

By that I mean, when you try to exercise power by telling someone “no” or “here’s a boundary that I don’t want you to cross” and they ignore you and go ahead and plow right ahead, it tends to wear down your ability to exercise power or to even believe that you have any power left at all. That’s especially true when those “boundary breakers” are in positions of authority. Well, I’m here to tell you that you do have power and the path out for you and your co-worker is to reach down and reclaim your power.

What do you think is happening when you tell them that you don’t want to hear it and they go ahead anyway? You must be signaling them that despite what you’re saying you will tolerate and indulge their ranting and raving. In this way you are, as they said about Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, the “un-indicted co-conspirator.” You must not feel that you have the right to say “no” and mean it or you’re afraid of what would happen if you did. You’ve got to make the choice to push beyond those barriers if you are to change the dynamics of the situation. Right now, your behavior is a part of what sustains the entire loopy interaction. Ever hear of a little concept called “co-dependency?” Change your behavior and you will begin to see the dynamics of the situation start to change.

Just say ‘No’ to the dysfunction dump

So you’re probably thinking, “Okay, Dr. Greg we’re with you, but what the heck does that all mean? It sounds good from a theoretical perspective, but what do we do?” You know what to do. You’ve been trying to do the right thing, but you just haven’t believed that you have the power to do it. What is it that I’m talking about? Just say “no” and mean it. Say it with your voice and with your actions. The next time one of them tries to engage you in a “dysfunction dump” let them know that you’re not interested and in fact, you believe that the more that you sit and listen, the more it’s adding to the problem. Let them know that you’re happy to help resolve the situation, but that you don’t believe listening to more tales of woe is the way to resolve it. Say it and mean it. If you don’t believe it, neither will they. If necessary, get up and walk away and go to the break room or go out and get some air.

Show leadership, because nobody else will

Finally, your instinct to take the issue up to your manager’s boss is a good one and your concern for how this would impact your boss is well founded. What’s lacking here is leadership and since your manager isn’t showing any it’s up to you. So if you were my consultant and I suggested to you that I wanted to take this up a level, but I was concerned about the way my boss would respond, what would you advise me? Think about that. What would you advise me to do in order to get past this seeming approach-avoidance conflict?

I believe that you’d tell me to sit down with my boss and share my concerns about how bad things are in the office. Further, I think you’d recommend that I let my boss know that I think it might be a good idea if my co-worker and I went with her to discuss this issue with her boss as things have gotten to the point where the stress is exacting a heavy toll on all of us. You’d probably tell me to approach her from the perspective of supporting her in finding a way to resolve the situation. You know, even saying something like, “We can see that this is enormously stressful for you and we appreciate the efforts that you’ve made to try to resolve it. However, it’s clear that nothing has really worked so we think it’s time to try a different approach. We believe that the three of us going to talk with your manager may just be what’s needed to make clear what an unacceptable situation you and we are in.”

Hopefully, she’ll be smart enough to take you up on your offer, but like my old Daddy used to say, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Your job is to get the horse there and then let’s see if she’ll drink. If she doesn’t drink, give it another week and then come back to have a follow-up conversation with her. Let her know that nothing has changed and that the situation is intolerable and that you and your co-worker would like to go and speak with her manager or with HR. Again, say it like you mean it. This should give her a “wake up” call that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Now, it seems that we’re back to where we started, aren’t we? Finding and exercising the power that you have in the situation is what you need to do. You can’t change it all by yourself, but you can change the dynamic by refusing to let things go on the way they are. No more listening to whining and complaining and no more accepting your manager’s inability to successfully deal with it. By approaching it in the way we’ve discussed you’ll be telling your manager that things have to change and that if she can’t or won’t take a different tack and get it resolved that you are prepared to take a different route to fix it for yourself.

Thanks for writing Office-Politics.


Dr. Greg

Dr. Greg Ketchum, dubbed the “Frasier of the Cubicles” by the San Francisco Chronicle, is a former clinical psychologist-turned CEO and media career coach. He presides over an executive talent firm, providing coaching and recruiting for executives and Fortune 500 companies. A unique mix of psychology and coaching expertise gives Dr. Greg a great understanding of people and what it takes for career success. Combined with his keen insight into today’s job market, and infused with his trademark quick wit, Dr. Greg challenges Office-Politics readers to reach for career success on their own terms — and to have a good time doing it.

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