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Dec 21, 2009

Working with a “Master Manipulator”

Guest Blogger, Savvy Working Gal
The Finishing School welcomes Savvy as this week's guest blogger.  We began following Savvy very recently as we discovered some collective conscious around topics such as organizational politics and the strange games manipulators play, especially when it happens between women.

We invited Savvy to give today's lecture, including links back to her own manipulation story, as it unfolded over this past year.  You will also meet Anita Bruzzese, who writes 45things.com.  She is also the author of 45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy (check it out in our carousel at right)  Enjoy.  We hope you will add them both to your list of weekly career leads

I recently came across Miss Minchin’s fascinating post Manipulative people in the Workplace and was amazed how closely the personality traits of the “master manipulator” resemble that of the “hostile HR manager” who works at my company. I was especially intrigued to read:

The most dangerous of all workplace dangers, the manipulative coworker has mastered the art of aggression disguised as helpfulness, good intentions, or working "for the good of the company". These people are brilliant at hiding their true motives, while making you look incompetent, uncooperative, or self-centered. They can make you lose your job, do their job for them, or even get you to apologize to *them* for trying to confront them about their own bad behavior.
Here is my experience:
I had been employed as the Accounting Manager at a family-owned company for eight years when in the summer of ’07 the CEO asked me to stay late; he wanted me to meet a family friend he was considering employing as a temporary HR consultant. This was an odd request, since I did not hold the primary HR position in our company. At the time, our company's HR duties were split amongst the company Controller who is my boss, the HR Assistant and me, the Accounting Manager. Both my boss and the HR Assistant were more heavily involved in HR than I was. These meetings continued for several weeks, all of them occurring behind my boss’s back. Fortunately, I was smart enough to keep my boss of informed of these meetings; I did not want him to think I was undermining him. This went a long way in preserving my relationship with my boss in the upcoming months.

Eventually, the company brought her on board; informing our 115 employees of her arrival via memo and asking for their cooperation if she requested information. She was introduced as an HR expert who would be working on special projects and assisting our company’s HR assistant in setting up a properly functioning HR department. She had concurred with that we were not set up properly as a result of our meetings. She was to remain in our employ approximately one year.
She was never given a detailed job description, nor did her introduction memo give our employees a clear understanding of her role in the company. This allowed her to create her own job description, develop her position as she wished and gave her the freedom to step on whoever got in her way.
From the beginning, she employed many of the master manipulator tactics to achieve her goals: backstabbing, playing the victim, crying (she cries more than anyone I have ever met), intimidating, shaming, playing the servant, blaming and outright lying. She used her position as HR Manager to quiz employees about their managers and co-workers, searching for weaknesses. She used this information to favor her goals. She set employees up for failure, pitted them against each other, taking relationships that were previously strained and making them worse. She targeted specific employees until they either quit or she had compiled a file large enough to fire them. One of my employees actually saw her laughing as a former employee left her office in tears after being fired. Through all of this, she remained charming articulate and funny with our owners, justifying her actions by claiming she was making our company more professional.
So what were her goals?
I believe her initial objective was to secure a permanent position with our company -- a powerful position that came with a fancy title, a higher-than-normal salary and an extremely flexible schedule. She achieved all of this over the course of a year. I also believe she had a secondary motive, a motive that was all about control and power. She has a deep need to prove she is superior, to always be right and to win. She wanted to win even if it meant alienating most of the managers in the company.

How she gained my trust:
Since I was the first employee she met at our company, she continued to treat me as if I was her confidante. She was constantly in my office sharing employee confidences and asking advice. In looking back, I believe she used these confidences to manipulate me into sharing information she shouldn’t have been privy to.

She turns on me:
On January 7, 2009, we crossed paths as she left a meeting with my boss and our company President. She said something about an upcoming project where we would work together as a team training staff on company policy. I told her I was too busy to think about this until after our accounting audit mid-February. She then insisted I hire another employee. When I said that isn’t going to happen, she began verbally attacking my management skills, crossing the line from constructive criticism to a personal attack. She went on and on about how my career was going nowhere, I was the weakest manager my company had and that it was my own fault.

Luckily, I had read this post on Anita Bruzzese's blog "On the Job" a couple of days prior to the occurrence. I kept repeating to myself this isn’t about me, this isn't about me. I knew what she was saying wasn't entirely true and that the attack was more about her career than mine (she was being forced to do administrative work she felt was beneath her and most likely felt her job was going nowhere), but her words still stung.

I thought I handled myself as well as I could while talking to her, but afterwards I went back to my office and cried. I hadn't cried at work in 15 years.

I made it through the rest of the work day and even went to my Pilates class, but once I was home I just couldn’t shake the incident. Foreseeing a sleepless night and inability to concentrate at work for the next several days, I posted a comment on Anita’s blog asking:  Does anyone have any suggestions on how not to dwell on a personal attack after the occurrence?

Anita posted the following suggestions:
1. Talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling. This can be a family member or friend, someone who will be empathetic, without trying to fix the problem for you.
2. Get moving. Studies have shown time and again how important it is to use physical exercise to relieve stress. Go dancing, to a gym, indoor pool, or go bowling! Do something physical that will help burn off some of your anxiety.
3. Write it down. Put down everything you're feeling. And then write all the positive things you did in the situation and review how well you handled it.
4. Look deeper. You say you haven't cried in 15 years at work, and feel you handled it well. That could mean it wasn't this particular incident that was so bad, but perhaps an indication that a lot of things are building up. Maybe things have gotten out of balance and you can see this incident as wake-up call that you need to re-balance your life.
5. Laugh. Rent a funny movie, go to a comedy club, watch stupid videos on YouTube. Laughter truly is the best medicine and can help you relieve the stress.
6. Be good to yourself and others at work. Erase a bad situation at work by replacing it with good things. Put 5-10 coins in one pocket. Every time you pay someone a compliment, move the coin to the other pocket, with the aim being to have moved all the coins by the end of the day. Buy yourself a nice flower to put on your desk. Go to lunch with friends or co-workers you enjoy. Take a walk, weather permitting. Just be good to yourself.

Finally, I know it sounds trite, but you truly do have a choice to make. You can choose to let this incident drag you down, to make you lose sleep and be miserable. Or, you can choose to focus on something else. It really is your decision, and you have the control. Good luck, and let me know how things go.

I read Anita’s response before going to work the next morning:
I tried all of her suggestions, but it still took almost a week to shake the incident. I particularly liked her advice to look deeper. The reason I found the criticism so upsetting is because I have been disenchanted with my career and feeling overworked for quite sometime. The manager's approach may have been too harsh, but her message was valid. My work load is getting out of control and it's time I start taking steps to rectify the situation.

I came up with a couple of strategies going forward:
In future dealings with our HR manager I am going to keep discussions focused, never giving advice or asking for an opinion. Even though she gave me a little present a couple of days ago, I need to limit the time I spend with her. I am not ready for another attack.

Perfect my work. This goes for me and my department. I have been saying this for quite some time; this manager has caused problems in my department in the past by personally attacking my employees. If we work together as a group, get our work done accurately and timely she won’t be able to touch us.

What about complaining about her to the owner? Just about everyone in the company wants this to happen, but nobody wants to be the one to do it. Even my boss, an officer of the company, feels the President needs to rein her in, but is unwilling to be the one to complain. She has such a volatile personality we are hoping she will one day do herself in.

The aftermath:
It has now been a year since the confrontation occurred. Here is an update on where my relationship currently stands with the HR Manager, what tactics worked and what I recommend to others.

The hands down most helpful event of the past year was confiding in Jerry, a trusted manager from one of our remote locations. He had had conflicts with the HR Manager himself -- even catching her in a lie. He was sympathetic to my story, telling me I was an easy manager to work with and my greatest strength was that I didn’t rattle easily. This was a pivotal event; I clung to those words for weeks to come. It was also the catalyst that pushed me into a year long search to discover who I am.

Jerry, along with Rick his top salesman, approached two of our owners on my behalf, informing them of the incident. This should have carried a lot of weight, since both Jerry and Rick are two of the most respected employees in the company. Rick also told the owners this so-called HR Manager can’t work with anyone and the employees don’t like her. To which one of the owners exclaimed, “That is because she’s HR, nobody likes HR.” Rick then replied, “No that’s not it, they don’t like her.” Of course, Jerry informed me of this incident.

I waited a week and not a word from the owners, so I approached our CEO in hopes of discussing the incident. He said he had decided the story was so outlandish he’d dismissed it as an untrue rumor. He was shocked to hear the incident really occurred and seemed appalled by his friend’s behavior. He commented I was actually one of the strongest managers our company had, and mentioned how easily I can juggle all the different things coming at me. He did ask why I confided in Jerry rather than going to my boss or to him. I explained I had gone to my boss immediately after the incident, but had asked him not to talk to our President (the CEO’s son). He said he had given our HR Manager too much freedom, and would have our President rein her in.

I think perhaps the owners may have talked to her -- at least, they stopped gushing over her in my presence, but nothing has really changed. She still harasses employees, and basically does whatever she wants. My boss tried to get her position eliminated in a recent downsizing, but his suggestion upset our CEO so much he practically lost his own job in the process. He was told she brings a professionalism to our company we never had before.

To this, Jerry said, “Since when is lying and intimidating employees considered professional.”

The second most helpful piece of advice was Anita’s statement: "You can choose to let this incident drag you down, to make you lose sleep and be miserable. Or, you can choose to focus on something else. It really is your decision, and you have the control."

As time passed, I increased my workouts at the gym; taking boot-camp like classes, if I couldn’t be strong mentally I would at least be strong physically. I also spent time blogging and commenting on blogs focusing on topics unrelated to the incident. I was surprised how therapeutic writing can be. Then late last summer, I realized I no longer hated our HR Manager and no longer think about the incident.

The third most helpful piece of advice is as follows: When dealing with manipulative people, you need to be on your guard all the time. If you've been played with once, don't be too quick to trust that person the second time around.  A couple of months ago, after I had forgiven her, she came into my office telling me she was in a slump. She asked if I ever feel that way.  Actually, I was in a slump; my boss had just put me in an awkward predicament asking me to choose between another paycut for myself or shortened work hours for our employees. I made the critical mistake of telling her I was in a slump.
She proceeded to ask me a series of personal questions: Why I married so late, if I had been previously married, if my husband had, why I didn’t have children, if it bothers me that I don’t have children, why I spend so much time with my husband as opposed to spending time with friends, and if I knew I was underpaid?   On and on until she got to me. She ended by saying if I had kids and spent my vacation days shopping with my girlfriends I wouldn’t be in a slump. How did this happen? She was the one in the slump. Afterwards all I could think of was why didn’t I say something like, “I see my friends every night at the gym.”
This ended up being a helpful event. I realized she didn’t upset me attempting to inform me I was underpaid, nor did she upset me asking why I didn’t have children. I have accepted those things. I was upset that she realized I don’t spend enough time with my friends; perhaps this is something I need to improve on. I spent the last few months of the year really working on accepting myself. Perhaps I can use her cynical advice to continue this process.
The fourth piece of advice: Limit your interaction and perfect your work.
Recently she came into my office carrying our HR Assistant’s work complaining it was all wrong, (this is one of her favorite things to do). I looked at it, asked a couple of questions then said, “I don’t see anything wrong here.” She made a couple of justifications for her interruption then left.
Last week, I ran into her again, she asked if I was "having a bad day like everyone else around here." She began talking about the economy and how underpaid we both were. I told her the economy was bound to get better in the coming year. I was having a great day and everything was going great in my department.
And it was.

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