Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our Friday column to give you workplace advice and coaching. Please write in and tell me about a frustration you’re facing at the office and I’ll publish my answer in an upcoming column. We’re also discussing these topics on our Tuesday Coffee Break talkshow with our guests. I can’t wait to hear from you! – Dana Theus
Dear Dana, I recently joined a new team and one of my colleagues is treating me like the hired help! Worse, he’s border-line abusive in the way he talks to me (and about me). I guess he thinks since I’m new on the team, his seniority gives him the right to dump his work on me and take credit for it and basically treat me like dirt. I have taken on a few small projects to try to get on his good side, but one of the other team members warned me this is his MO. and I was just making things worse for myself in the long run. They also said our manager (who we all report to independently) probably won’t do anything about it. I’m not sure what to do since I am new on the team and don’t want to get a reputation early on for being difficult or refusing to do work. — Between a rock and a hard place in Iowa
Yep, you’re in an uncomfortable place alright!
Since you’re new, you’re right to want to make a good impression. However, being new also means it is the best time to set your boundaries and stick to them so others don’t get used to pushing you too far. If you don’t establish your boundaries early on, you may find that when someone else joins the team and establishes better boundaries than you, you’re still at the bottom of the pile. Don’t let that happen!
Bullies are a problem no matter where in the pecking order you and they fall, but the good news for you is that this guy isn’t your boss. Even though it sounds like maybe your boss is lazy in dealing with this, s/he does represent a potential ally in fixing things. You should try to deal with this interpersonally first, however, before directly involving your manager. There are two reasons for this:
- You, your boss and your other team members will all be better off when you take care of your own interpersonal problems and your personal brand will shine a little brighter because of it. You’ll show what you are made of and gain the respect of the team.
- Dealing with uncomfortable interpersonal issues like this is a good soft skill that will be recognized as a strength by others and will hold you in good stead throughout your career.
Trust me, this is not the last bully who will try to take advantage of you, your good heart and your good work ethic, although once you get better at dealing with them, they’ll seek you out far less frequently.
The most important thing to recognize about bullies is that they have a sixth sense for identifying people who exhibit a victim-mentality. This means you need to change your mindset. The best way to get out of a victim mindset is to recognize the choices you have, no matter how small, and make your choices on how to deal with things proactively. Believe that you have the choice to say “no,” negotiate with the bully to a mutually satisfactory end, and claim the credit that is yours.
I know this can sound easier said than done.
When you recognize and prepare to act on your choices, you’ll hear a lot of mental chatter as those little victim-gremlin-voices in your head get noisy telling you all the horrible things that will happen if you push back. You may have to detrigger anxieties like:
- “he’ll badmouth me to the boss and I’ll get fired,”
- “he reminds me of my abusive partner/parent and I just can’t deal with him without breaking into a cold sweat,”
- “everyone will think I’m a troublemaker”
Once you detrigger your inner gremlin voices, however, you’ll be able to get into a more emotionally neutral place and talking to the bully will get a lot easier.
By the way, don’t focus on hiding your emotions and think you’re solving anything. You may believe you’re hiding your feelings of vulnerability and anger but, sorry to deliver the bad news, a bully’s sixth sense is stronger than your invisibility cloak. Just look at this situation as a gift to help you get rid of your triggers and fears so you’re less vulnerable to the victim-mentality.
Establish boundaries. You may offer a swap, you’ll do X if he’ll do Y. Be sure to document such agreements and make sure your boss is cc’d on the email so if bully-boy drops his ball, there’s evidence that you didn’t make the resultant mess. You can also simply say, “no,” and share your own priorities and why they’re important so you’re not coming across as obstructionist, but focused on delivering your part of the team’s deliverables. Do this with witnesses present whenever you can.
You need to be explicit. If he drops something on your desk when you’re away with a note saying the boss wants it by noon, go to the boss and ask them if they made the request and (if so) do they need you to prioritize it over whatever else is going on? You can also ask the boss to deliver such requests directly to you in the future so it’s clearer what they need by when. If the boss didn’t ask you to do it, meaning the bully is trying to give you his work, go back to the bully and give it back to them saying you don’t have time and that you checked with the boss who still wants it by noon (and/or leave a note to this effect.) Be detriggered and ready to let the chips fall where they may, but with the task’s accountability clarified.
However you handle these things, be sure to nurture your own relationship with your boss. Detrigger any anger at the boss because they’re letting this guy try to pull fast ones on you and make sure the boss is aware of your efforts to manage your colleague. The key to maintaining a good relationship with your boss in these circumstances is not to ask them to intervene unless it’s egregious, but to inform them and tell them how you’re handling it. You can also ask your boss for advice/mentoring on the subject and put their suggestions into practice, reporting back on how it goes. In a best case scenario, they’ll back you up and in a worst case scenario you’ve got a witness when your colleague drops a ball and tries to pin the blame on you. Always deliver your work directly to your boss, even if it “came through” your colleague to ensure you get the credit.
You’re definitely in a hard place, but in most cases the above strategies will get you out of your crevice. If it gets really bad, take it up directly with your boss and, if necessary, seek out HR and ask them for advice. You may not be the first one in this situation and perhaps there’s a solution waiting for you to trigger it.
Good luck rock-climbing!
P.S. – Have a question you’d like anonymous support on? Write me!