What To Do About A Problem Group of Coworkers?

A question to Ask the  Workplace Doctors about workplace conflict. 

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I recently became president among the workers in our unit. The rest of our colleagues (whom we dubbed the Red Sparrows) are always sucking up to whoever new administrator comes to our unit. They badmouth our admin to us and if we agree with them, they report it to her. They expose our flaws which are already personal and has nothing to do with them. We tried to settle it personally face to face and they agreed but they still work underground and I still hear whispering of rumors. Worse, our new admin is a manipulative one and uses our faults to control us. What do we do? Please help.

You are the president of your employee group, which means you have a leadership role. You obviously care about the well-being of your group, as shown by the fact that you took the time to write to us to ask for some assistance. I hope you will use your leadership role to encourage and enable everyone to feel as positive as possible about being at work. Any work is tiresome enough without having upsetting situations on our minds.

I’m not clear about whether or not the colleagues to which you refer are part of another group or part of the group of which you are the employee president. If they are part of another group and have their own president, perhaps you can work with that person to build a better workplace. If they are part of your group, you should be careful to not take sides, so you can represent everyone in your president role.

You said that you and others on one side of the conflict, refer to a group of your coworkers as “The Red Sparrows”—referring, I assume, to the movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, in which Sparrows are female Russian spies who use sex to get information. If some of your coworkers have lied and tried to get you and others in trouble, I can understand your dislike of their behaviors. However, as the leader of the group, you shouldn’t participate in that kind of labeling and you should stop it when others do it. If those other coworkers find out about the name and decide to go to managers about it, you and your group would rightfully get into trouble. The group you dislike would look like the victims and your group would look like the bad guys, which is not what you want!

The next thing you mention is that sometimes a coworker in the other group will say something negative about the administrator. If one of your group says she agrees with the critical remark, the person making it goes and tells the administrator. So, the person who agreed gets in trouble, but not the person who started the bad-mouthing. My first thought upon reading that was that a person would have to be very foolish to engage in a criticizing conversation with someone they don’t trust. Even people you trust will sometimes repeat things that get to the ears of the person you’re talking about. That is another reason why you should use your leadership role to help your team focus more on work and less on negative talk.

You were wise to try to help resolve the conflict by talking directly to the other group, even though it seems the good outcome didn’t last very long. However, positive efforts like that are never wasted. It could be that one or two or more of the group would like to get along better with the rest of you and will be more encouraged to try to make that happen. At least, if the administrator talks to you about the situation, you can say what you have tried to accomplish. Even the other group will have to admit that you and others tried to improve relationships.

Your group will be much, much better off if you make a commitment to each other, to set an example of courtesy, civility and cooperation. You’ll feel better, people will see you in a better light, and your administrator will notice it too.

That brings us to your comment that your administrator uses the faults of employees to control them. I don’t know exactly what that might involve, but perhaps you mean that once she identifies a problem with an employee’s performance or behavior, she focuses on that problem and uses it as a reason to watch and wait to criticize and make the employee feel badly. Or, perhaps she threatens them with sanctions or being fired and keeps them worried about it all the time.

You may be correct in your opinion that your administrator is devious and controlling. I’ve met a few managers—and employees—who fit that description and I know how frustrating and depressing that can be. However, if each of you fulfill your job descriptions, follow the rules and are pleasant to work with, your administrator will have nothing to manipulate anyone about. It might not make her more likable, but at least it will take away the ammunition she has used to make employees feel anxious.

Keep in mind that the role of an administrator is to see to it that work is done correctly and on time, in a work environment that doesn’t represent a problem for the business. Ideally, supervisors, managers and administrators are concerned about the feelings of employees and will try to create a positive workplace. But the reality of work is that, although we can’t require bosses to be nice, they can require us to do our jobs correctly. It’s what we were hired to do and unless we are being asked to do something illegal or humanly impossible, it is what we should do, every day. That kind of focus on good work and good behavior, is the only way to be sure we’re not the ones creating the problems.

I also want to remind you of this: Quite often people who are chosen as leaders of employee groups feel that their primary job is to stand up for the employees, no matter what. After a while, every issue becomes “us versus them” and the leader feels he or she has to lead the fight. But, it doesn’t have to be that way—and shouldn’t be. For one thing, the employees aren’t paying your salary, so your first responsibility is to do your job. For another thing, you will wear yourself out trying to keep everyone in your group happy and trying to resolve every conflict in favor of your group.

If you are working in a professional environment (and the fact that you have an administrator leads me to think you are), each adult is intelligent enough to work through their own problems. Your job is to represent them to management, if they can’t seem to solve problems themselves, then let management take action if they choose to do so.

You are in an ideal situation to suggest to your administrator that all employees could benefit from regular meetings, with her participating, to talk about organizational goals, new equipment, new procedures and solutions to common work problems. At the same time, there could be an opportunity to talk about the best examples of teamwork and cooperation since the last meeting and to discuss issues that may be caused by misunderstandings or miscommunication.

If your administrator doesn’t want to have those meetings, you could lead the way in talking about those things at break time or during casual conversations. You can help the whispering and rumors be replaced by smiles, good cheer and looking to the future. There will always be the occasional gripe or frustration, but there shouldn’t be active hostility and resentment of people or the work.

At the end of your description of work, you asked, “What do we do?” When there is a conflict, it is human nature to hope for a way to stop the behaviors of others. But, as you correctly expressed it, the only thing you and your group have control over are your own actions and reactions. Take control of your role as the president of the group and don’t let your desire to help, drag you and them down into an unhappy pit of anger and despair. The other employees don’t have the power to ruin your daily work or get anyone in serious trouble, unless you and your group give them that power, through your own behaviors.

Help your group think of ways they can respond to conversations that have led to problems in the past. For example, if someone else criticizes the administrator, a good way to respond is to disrupt the conversation and say something like, “Oh well, I don’t have any control over any of that, so I just focus on work and think about the weekend. Do you have anything fun planned?” (That may sound completely unrealistic, but you get the idea.) It is very helpful to have a few scripts you can use, when you may not normally be able to think of a quick and useful response.

Another thing that may help is to think and talk about the value of your work to others, to your community, to your families, to each of you as individuals. Having a job is about more than the salary, although that is the most important part for many people. Having a job is about providing a service or a product or supporting someone who is providing a service or product—and we have a lot of years to do it in.

As the years go by, do you want to be involved in a workplace with unhappy drama like this all the time? Or, do you want to be able to come to work, have a good time, do something worthwhile and go home? The only way to have that good outcome is to see the squabbling, gossiping and picking at each other, for what it is—useless and time-wasting behavior that accomplishes nothing good.

I’m not implying that the hurt and anger you and others sometimes feel is completely unjustified. But, based on your description, I would guess that some of the colleagues you are upset with, feel that they have been wronged too. Now is a good time to stop all of that, by focusing more and more on the work of your unit, whatever that is. If there was a crisis right now, everyone would need to work together and they would find a way to do it. Find the way when there isn’t a crisis and all of you will enjoy work much more

Best wishes to you in your leadership role and in your work and life. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how you work through this situation.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.