Co-worker Silent Treatment as Punishment

Question:

I am an academic working at an Institute on a 2 year fellowship. One of my colleagues uses the silent treatment to punish people for socializing. The Institute is designed for socializing, and the director actively encourages both work and non-work related discussion in the large common area. The colleague, who uses the silent treatment, is male, and women outnumber men at the Institute. I’m not sure, but I feel like gender plays a role. I feel like he looks down on female academics who talk about non-work related things. He will walk right by us and not respond to our greetings. We’ve theorized that he’s more friendly to colleagues who talk shop or have publications in press or other academic achievements. He favors those whose work he respects. Many of us have talked about this and think that he employs on a reward-punish model. One of us confronted him about it and asked if he would change offices with her (she’s in a quieter area). He refused, saying it would draw too much attention to the situation. He also refused another colleague’s suggestion that he borrow her noise-canceling headphones (which she frequently uses). He also keeps his door ajar. When people congregate and chat in the common area, he shuts the door. We feel like he keeps the door open on purpose so he can be judgmental.

Anyway, I’m fed up with his manipulations. I dislike the way he makes me feel about myself. My solution has been to give him the silent treatment in return. Lately he has been saying hello and asking how I’m doing, but I walk right by him without a word. I know this is immature. It’s also emotionally exhausting. But I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want to talk to him because I don’t want to be caught in his reward-punish trap. I’m not sure it’s worth resolving because I already know how manipulative he is. I also believe that he looks down on me (I have two small children and fewer publications than my colleagues). At the same time, the situation is very unpleasant. Is there a way to resolve the conflict without feeling like he has the upper hand? Also, I will be leaving the Institute in 6 months.

Signed,

Don’t Want Him To Win


Answer:

Dear┬áDon’t Want Him To Win:

You seem to have talked yourself into silence to avoid a tit-for-tat; I won’t allow you to make me feel bad role. For the six months remaining, you can fume internally and vent with those other women who dislike manipulative Mr. X. As you say, trying to cope might be easier that putting in the effort to confront. Yet the fact that you took the time to detail your frustration/anger signals you would like to make the time remaining at least civil. If you were in a natural, long-term job relationship, confrontation might be required for the sake of you job and sanity. Then your women colleagues might encircle Mr. X and bombard him with your descriptions of his incivility. But for six months, I’m sure I have no quick fix for you. The best you can do probably is to go about your business, steel yourself against making sarcastic comments, and to be reasonably/pleasantly professional. I have coordinated dozens of graduate assistants, directed graduate study, taught group dynamics, consulted in organizational development and am currently instructing a course in teamwork, and I’ve come to realize that sometimes it is best to ignore rather than to nurse hurt feelings from put downs or to retaliate. In your situation that might apply to silent treatment by Mr. X’s for those who don’t work up his standards. From what you say, you and your peers are not engaged in research projects that demand cooperation, at least cooperation with him. So treasure and nurture the good relations you have and bond with those you may network after leaving. Use these last few months to soak up all you can that will make you more able in your chosen career and find work after you leave. Join professional associations. Possibly offer to co-author projects with your instructors or update one of their texts. Focus on a research theme. Develop Plans A for your dream job, B for a second choice and C as a backup until you can make progress on your career path.

Think long term about what contributions you want to make and those you are making outside of work. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, my signature bit of advice is worthy of your creative thinking about what to do, but probably doesn’t really apply to your situation. I am interested in what you elect to do.

William Gorden