How Can I Feel More Credible and Accepted At Work?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about feeling pushed out at work. 

Question:
I work with a boss who doesn’t put boundaries in place for us. He also never holds meetings.  As a result, colleagues often wade into work that I am doing. This frustrates me.

Additionally, boss doesn’t correct meanness when it is evident; i.e. mean comments from colleagues directed towards me. When I bring these things up to boss, boss listens and acts as if he’s going to address it but it just makes things worse for me.

I feel like I am not seen as credible by my colleagues and often contemplate leaving for something new. I feel invisible, unheard and often like I’m the problem-child.

I’ve sought out counseling, but I don’t feel like it’s working. Any other suggestions?

Response:
You say you went to counseling, but you don’t feel that the advice you received is working for you. Please don’t give up on counseling or the counselor. It could take a while for you to fully express some of your feelings or to fully share some of your experiences. At some point you may decide another counselor might be more effective for you–but unless there is an strong need to change counselors, stick with this one for a while longer.

The best counselors focus on helping you find most of your solutions. But, when they make suggestions, the advice often needs to be adjusted, just as medical prescriptions often are adjusted, based on results. Tell your counselor what is and isn’t working and what results you have seen, and perhaps that will lead to some different perceptions by both you and the counselor.

2. Even if you have done so already, do some problem analysis about your situation. Take it apart and see if from various perspectives. If you can identify a time when things were good at work and when you felt positive about your relationships there, think about when that was, what was happening on a daily basis and what is the same or has changed.

•Ask yourself if you can reasonably expect another change in the near future. Is it likely your manager will move to another assignment? Are some of your coworkers likely to leave? Is the layout of the office going to stay the same or change in some way? Is there going to be a lasting change in some aspect of the work or the way in which you and others must interact to get it done? Thinking about that will let you make a better decision about your future plans.

•Consider if any of your coworkers are congenial—or do all of them treat you in a way you find to be hurtful or negative. Ask yourself if you are the only one to whom they make the mean comments you mentioned or do some others get treated in the same way. If several of you are having the same experiences, perhaps you can connect with each other and focus on supporting each other as well as on making your combined voices heard.

•You didn’t say how many coworkers you have or if there are other offices in addition to yours. Perhaps you can establish a supportive relationship with an effective employee in another area of the work.

•Make a list of a few of the mean or hurtful things coworkers have said to you in the last two weeks, so you can share specifics with your counselor or discuss them specifically with your supervisor. Are the remarks about your work product? Are they truthful critiques or lies? Are the remarks about your appearance? About your ethnicity or gender? About something in your personal life? About something you’ve said related to work or about something you’ve said regarding away-from work issues? Are they said in a spontaneous way as things happen or do one or more employees seem to purposely come to your work area to attack you verbally?

•Consider how you have responded when something hurtful has been said. Have you countered with your reasons for the actions they were criticizing? Have you ever told anyone that their remarks make you feel unhappy or stressful?

•On the other hand, do you often have something positive to say to others? Could you cite daily examples of a smiling expression, an offer to help or a supportive comment? Is it possible others see you as unfriendly or are they being mean to you in spite of your actions?

•How do you think your colleagues feel about themselves and others? Is everyone unhappy about the situation there or does it seem most of them feel positive and only you feel so badly?

All of those thoughts are ways to help you be able to clearly and concisely describe your workplace and the behaviors by coworkers that are having an effect on your attitudes and feelings.

3. You mentioned that colleagues wade into work that you are doing. Consider why that is happening. Most computer-based work is clearly the responsibility of one person. Other work can be marked in some way to let others know where you stopped and what else needs to be done. I don’t know your work situation, but it would be odd if an employee voluntarily did much more than what they are supposed to do, just to irritate a co-worker.

So, think through that one and see what you think their logical reason is for doing your work in addition to their own. Perhaps you can determine a way to designate assigned work more effectively. If your boss isn’t concerned about it, perhaps it doesn’t matter who is doing a task as long as it gets done. Find out more and think through whether usurping your work is being done spitefully, helpfully, because it’s been assigned or because there is confusion about who is responsible.

4. You imply that you have talked to the manager about the situation. Your best approach is to put it in writing so there is documentation of what you have tried to accomplish. Be very accurate as you report what was said or what occurred. When possible, use a dialogue approach to state the precise words used by each person and by yourself. Also describe the tone of voice, facial expression or anything else that can add to the description.

•You said your boss listens but just makes things worse for you. Does she make an effort to intervene or do you think she purposely makes things worse for you by encouraging people to continue to treat you badly? It is important to know that, in case you feel you should go to your company’s HR section or a higher manager, if there is one.

•Consider asking your boss to help you in specific ways and also to give you some quick coaching advice. She’s heard what you’ve said is going on. Now, ask her for some specific assistance, rather than just asking for help generally. Then, ask her for specific suggestions for what you ought to do instead of what you are now doing, to bring about improvement.. For example, “I’d like for you to tell Mary to stop laughing with Jan, every time I pass their desks to go to the copy room. I’d also like you to tell those two to stop mimicking me when I’m on the phone. Both of those things are distracting to everyone’s work, including to me. Will you do that? Also, I’d like to know what you want me to do if you’ve talked to them but they do it anyway. What would you suggest?”

•As I mentioned earlier, if you put that in an email and your manager responds in an email, you’ll have clear documentation of your efforts—and, just as importantly, your boss will have something specific to do, rather than just hearing a vague complaint and a request for her to make things right. The reality is the most bosses hate to be involved in workplace conflict. They avoid it when possible and shrug it off or only half-halfheartedly do something, the rest of the time. Often, they think both sides are to blame, but don’t want to say that, so they give out a vague promise but don’t do much more than gently ask both sides to get along better. That reality is why conflict in some workplaces goes on year after year.

5. Look at this from your manager’s perspective. You think she should set boundaries and have regular meetings. But, she knows that most employees complain about meetings, don’t want to attend them and act hostile to managers who call the meetings. I don’t agree with that thinking, but that’s the way it is. So, there is no incentive for your boss to do it. There is especially no incentive if she thinks she will be expected to bring up problems and confront people or the group. Perhaps you can suggest a meeting time and also suggest things to commend or plans for new project to discuss. Taking that leadership role would also offset what seems to you to be your role as a problem employee.

6. Does your boss own the business or lead the entire organization? If not, there are probably other layers above him or her. Is there anyone else in the company with whom you could discuss the situation? HR’s function is to ensure the best use of human resources, so there may be someone there who would provide you with some insights or advice.

7. You say you don’t feel credible and that you feel like you are seen as a problem child. Credibility requires that you are seen as being effective in your overall performance and in your behavior—and your responses to the behaviors of others. About 98% of the time we should be buzzing along without a need for supervisory help or intervention, unless we have a new project that requires extra coaching. There will be situations that are irritating, frustrating and even hurtful, but an effective employee will work through those and continue to be effective.

8. I’m certainly not advising you to quit your job. However, if you have a marketable skill and think you could find a place where the environment would be more congenial and supportive, that may be your best solution. It would be one way to cut ties with a place that you feel is dragging you down. At the same time, it would give you a chance to make changes in your own behavior or performance, if you think you have made mistakes in your handling of situations in your current workplace. Most importantly, it will be give you a chance to interact with new people and new styles of work and gain the credibility you feel you lack right now.

9. The bottom line is that at a distance I don’t know any of the particulars about your work or your personality, age, tenure, education and communication skills in comparison to those of your colleagues. Those will all have an effect on what you do and how you do it. However, you really have only three options: (1.) Stay there and let the same things keep happening, hoping for a change in the future. (2.) Stay there and purposefully become part of the office in a positive way. Engage more with everyone and demonstrate an undeniably strong level of work and behavior. At the same time, realize that you are being paid for your own work product and your own behavior, not anyone else’s. Just do it and try to shut out the distractions. (3.) Do as Dr. Gorden often suggests, and vote with your feet by leaving and finding a better workplace.

Before you do the last thing, you should do the second thing long enough to see if it can work for you. In addition to your counselor, you have family and friends, maybe former coworkers or others who know you and can give you truthful input. Work at it and see if things change for the better, even if just incrementally. After a few more months you can say you gave it your best. At that point, you can decide whether to move on or stay, but at least you will have done all you can do.

Best wishes to you with all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things are developing and what results you are getting.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors