Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Oct 31, 2010

Ask a Manager: My Reputation is at Stake

Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine.

Dear Finishing School:

I have a great career – 18 years.  8 long years ago we hired a master manipulator.  She comes off as sweet and innocent and has bought and paid for undying loyalty of all of more co-workers...She has been after me since she started here.  Has lied about me, manipulated every one, tried to destroy me and has been successful. (By the way, I work with all men)

The manipulator is not my boss; however, I [do]  have a new boss... Because of THE manipulator, our old boss said" to hell with it" and retired.  The new boss loves her and thinks she should be able to do whatever she wants.

It has taken her years to destroy me, as she has had to make it personal.  She has eroded relationships one by one by telling each individual that I say things about them that I absolutely do not say.  

 I could write a novel, but this is just one example of many...I have tried to tell people how she is,, but now they won’t listen despite having a very trusting relationship with me for years.  They’ve finally bought in to her lies and now I’m in danger of losing my job.  Her goal is to see me out the door.  She is the type that wants to be everybody’s “favorite” and she needs me completely out of her way.

How do I reverse the damage she has done?  How do I convey to everyone what she is and have them believe me?  How do you expose these people without looking like you’re the crazy one?

This correspondence must be held in absolute confidence.  "Irene"

Dear Reader,
You’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here. I am sorry to see that you are going through such a tough time, particularly after so many productive years. I probably need to know a lot more about the personalities involved, the options you might have in your work environment, and the motivation behind your coworker’s attacks. That said, I think I get the general idea. Based on that, I want to give you some high level tips that might help to give you some focus.

But first, I’d like to tell you about two of my kids. My oldest son "Russ" is twelve years old. He’s a great kid:  a gifted student, a talented musician, an athlete, and a wonderful, caring son. He is also very intense and can be a bit of a control freak. He’s often struggled with sharing that spotlight with his younger brothers.

My youngest son "Eddie"  is seven years younger. He is intense in a different way. He’s a comedian, cute as hell and full of mischief. He does some wild things but generally has everyone wrapped around his little finger because he’s such a charmer.

These two don’t always get along so well. The biggest fight always comes when Russ is standing in his T-shirt and boxers, talking to Mom and Dad, before going off to bed or on a weekend morning after getting up for breakfast. Eddie loves to sneak up behind his brother and yank those boxers to the floor. (Unfortunately for Russ, he does this a lot.)

Now when this happens,  Eddie always laughs and laughs while Russ FREAKS OUT. He will wave his hands in the air and scream and yell (boxers still on the floor) followed by a round of angry chasing and slapping and general chaos. It’s a scene.

The unfortunate thing that generally happens next is that Mom and Dad end up scolding Russ for all of the yelling and screaming and violence.  Is that fair? Not at all. He was clearly the one who was attacked. But a much bigger child cannot be physically abusing the little one.  That, in addition to the noise level and pandemonium that he creates, is just a lot to take. (Hey, we’re not perfect. We have three sons. We’re tired. It’s just a human reaction. I’m not saying it’s right.)

So in all of this, upstart Eddie gets a big load of attention, and wounded Russ ends up looking quite crazy.  My point is, as you put it yourself, he has been around longer, he's a good performer who gets wronged and tries to fight it, but the authorities don't see it that way.

Barbs can't be backed out
It looks like your manipulator has already gotten her hooks in at a very deep level. Clearly, you are not in a position of strength. As hard as it is to accept it, you will have to let go of the notion of exposing her, turning the tables on her, or overthrowing her. You can’t win that fight.

She has a cannon and you have a slingshot (and it sounds like you don’t even have a rock to put in it.) If she is attacking, you don’t want to go for a head-on collision. You don’t block a punch with a punch, you know? Okay enough with the male-centric mixed metaphors.

Anytime someone is accused of something he or she didn’t do, the natural reaction is to fight back and scream from the rooftops. Unfortunately, everybody likes a good story and the writhing-and-kicking denials only add fuel to the fire. If you point back at this gal and start your own campaign against her, it can look like defensive slander. At best, all these men in the office can look at this as a vicious fight between the two of you with you both as equal participants. That doesn’t help you either.

Narrow Your Focus
Right you are trying to do several things at once: refute allegations, expose her as a fraud, win over the boss,
restore your reputation, and get her out of your company. I recommend you focus on a singular goal, which is simply your own survival.

Ultimately, if  all of these men that you work with are so willing to believe bad things about you, you really ought to think about whether this is the right environment for you. I would look long and hard at your surroundings and how you have been treated in general – not just by her -- and decide if this is where you want to be. If not, you can set some goals to move on long-term and then focus on your survival as a short-term initiative. By that I mean that you should stabilize things while you look elsewhere.

Maybe this reflection will bring up some reasons that you want to stay; but within that, I think you need to assume that even in the best case scenario, you and your nemesis will both be there. Either way, you will want to keep working on getting yourself to a better place so that it’s bearable if you stay and if you leave it will be on your own terms, and not in a cloud of defeat that will haunt you for years to come.

And how do you survive?

•    Do your job and do it well. Don’t give anyone a reason to think that you are "no good" based on your own actions.

•    Be kind and professional toward everyone. Same reason as above. And yes, everyone. Even if it kills you. Don’t overdo it, either. No hi-pitched phony pleasantries or forced smiles accompanied by eye-rolls…just keep it all matter-of-fact and keep yourself from sinking to the behavior you are trying to combat.

•    Challenge other coworkers when they present you with things they have "heard." For example, “Bob, you’ve known me for a long time. Have you ever heard me speak badly about someone else?” You might even go so far as to say “if someone tells you something like this bout me, what makes you believe it?

Now this is important. Just ask the question. Don’t push it hard. And never mention the manipulator by name or say anything derogatory about her.

•    Be yourself. Focus on yourself and your job. Do your best to ignore external inputs, hard as that might be.

Find Your Allies
Perhaps it’s not everyone who has turned against you.  When you are going through something like thi,s it can feel like you have no allies, but there might be some people in the office who aren’t riding that bandwagon. Some might see the manipulator for what she is, and simply choose not to be vocal about it.

Some recognize that you have a long history as productive coworker and are not aware that there is a problem.

Some might not care about the situation one way or another. I would be willing to bet that there are at least a few people who aren’t thinking about this at all. That might sound harsh, but my point is that it will be easier for you to focus on your survival if you can avoid magnifying the problem in your head. It’s a pretty serious problem already.  No need to add even more to it because it is making you feel so isolated.

Finally, with that in mind, I would like you to consider whether there might be someone in the office that you find trustworthy enough to share in some proactive exploration with you. I mentioned above that you should answer allegations with frank challenges to the logic of the situation by asking them to give you details on what they think or why they believe it. This approach assumes that you have people actively confronting you with their beliefs. You might not have that luxury. If you really want to tackle this head-on, you might consider finding the right coworker (or two, or three) and asking them outright for some feedback on how you are doing.

Be Ready for the Response
It is extremely important to do this in a way that does not appear defensive. No folded arms or pinched faces, please. Just something like “Larry, I’d like to get your opinion of how I’m doing with my work…can you tell me what you think I am doing well, and what I am doing not so well?”

Then you listen. 

If the coworker doesn’t seem to want to share, you can guide the conversation a bit by saying things like “I think I’m pretty good at X, but I’ve been working on Y…have you seen that?” From there, you can get to the big one, which looks something like this, “I’ve heard that people [“people”…not her] might think Z about me and I’m concerned about that. Do you have this perception of me? Do you think others do? Can you tell me why you think this might be?” And then depending where the conversation goes, you can ask the other questions that I outlined above, which are meant to get the other person thinking about the logic of the situation.

If you can do this with a few people, possibly including your boss, you might learn something that you don’t know already. You might find some things that you can change or work on to help the situation. More importantly, you will have made a few connections with people who will now be less likely to accept untruths about you in the future. When someone has the courage to open herself up  and ask  for feedback – to expose herself in sharing what she thinks of herself while asking for  input – it is pretty hard to dismiss that person on a superficial level ever again. The memory of that conversation will stick.

You might even find yourself with a few people who will defend you. And hopefully, you won’t feel so alone.
Don Draper, Resident Manager

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