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Part II: Haloed coworker throws others ‘under the bus’

Dear Office-Politics,

I’m so glad to see there is a website for this stuff… a way to vent some issues to a non biased party and hopefully get some guidance on what to do.

What do you do when you have a person that separates themselves from everyone else? And that uses their positional power too much. So much, that animosity is being created in the office because of it. In addition, she gets angry with everyone because they don’t want to be around her on a personal level. This person constantly throws her co-workers “under the bus.” She is the type of person that blows everything out of proportion and never takes responsibility for her actions. We are also dealing with the “halo” effect in this case, since her supervisor doesn’t hold her accountable.

I am trying my best to understand this person. I want to help lead by example and maybe influence her if possible to do the right thing. I’m just having a hard time coming to the right conclusion.


Under the Bus

dr. gregory ketchum

Dear Under the Bus,

Sheez, this woman sounds like a regular Typhoid Mary! With a bouillabaisse of bad behavior such as this, it’s hard to know where to start. It is such a ‘target-rich’ environment I feel like a kid in a candy store! There, now that I’ve gotten those expressions of horror out of the way, let’s get down to business. I can see why you’re having a hard time in trying to deal with this ‘lovely’ co-worker of yours. Lest we all be too hard on her, let’s remember that, hopefully, everyone is doing the best they can and this may be her best. Scary thought, huh?

However, we can help her be better, don’t you think? From your description it makes me wonder how someone can simultaneously separate themselves from others and get mad at people because they don’t want to be around her? Of course I could go into all sorts of psychological explanations of this contradictory behavior, but I don’t think it would get us any close to dealing successfully with her.

Bottom line when someone is this out of control and seemingly unaware of their own behavior, it puts more onus on those around her to stay calm and fact-based. It doesn’t sound like you’ve allowed yourself to be drawn into the maelstrom of her emotional storm clouds and that’s speaks well for you. In addition to remaining calm, you’ve got to take it one step at a time in your attempts to deal with her. Think of your efforts to reach her more as a marathon rather than a sprint. Adjust your expectations of how quickly you’ll make progress and strap on your thinking cap.

First, let’s determine your goal and that will tell us which direction to go. For example, if you want to stay out of the crosshairs of any ‘friendly fire’ then just keep your distance. However, my sense is that wouldn’t really be satisfactory for you. It certainly wouldn’t be for me.

Here is a very good way to start. The next time you go to get coffee or a soft drink offer to get others around you a drink as well. Be sure to include her so that she knows you’re making the offer. On the other hand, don’t be so blatant that your co-workers might see you as brown-nosing. By doing this you signal to her that you are a helpful person who is sensitive to others. In the lingo of psychology it’s called ‘priming’ an individual so that they will be more prone to interpret your future actions in a positive way. Do this a couple of times over a week or so.

Now we’re ready to try a test to see how ‘workable’ she is. Pick out one transgression in one area, say, overusing her positional power that you can document. Make a few notes on her behavior and on the outcome of that behavior. Sit down with her and calmly discuss it with her from the perspective of ‘Is it all right if I share an observation with you? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when you do ‘X’ it tends to have this impact on people (i.e., drive them away from you). I’m sure that’s not the result you want, but that seems to be the outcome. Have you noticed that?

In that way, you’ve given her an opening by offering up some feedback and it’ then up to her to do what she will. If she is open and responsive, well then you’ve moved the working relationship one step forward. If she is defensive you then know to either keep your distance or try another tack.

If that approach is not your bag, then we can try the ‘act as if’ approach, meaning that you’ll act as if she is doing the best she can and that she is just clumsy or has poor social skills, but basically means well. If you take that approach you’re more likely to come from a place of offering help rather than getting provoked into an angry response yourself. That’s the main idea: don’t get caught up in anger by her clumsy actions. This just might work in that you say she wants other people to want to be around her. I’m not advocating being phony or a ‘just turn the other cheek’ approach, but rather that sometimes if we can see beneath a person’s behavior to what their intentions might be and then respond accordingly it can radically alter the dynamic.

If that doesn’t make any headway I’d just keep my head down, stay out of the line of fire and document the bad behavior. By taking this approach you could then go with a couple of co-workers and have a hard and direct discussion with her about her specific behaviors that are troubling. If that gets you nowhere then it would be time to go with those co-workers to speak with her supervisor.

Man, you know, work is hard enough just keeping up with the work. It certainly makes it extra hard to have to deal with difficult behaviors like these to boot. However, from the tone of your note I’ve got confidence that you will be able to find a way through to exercise that positive leadership that you want to show.

Thanks for contacting 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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