Ugly Work Situation

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about reorganization: the work of her unit was part of a larger department, but that department was split up due to some very ugly office politics.

Within the past year, I was promoted to department head at a large organization. My new position includes a long-term project of combing several smaller units (including the one I started in) into a new department as well as representing the organization throughout the state and nationally. The promotion came out of the blue, but I am told that the higher-ups were very impressed with the work I had done with my previous unit.

My new position is a tremendous opportunity and has already opened a number of doors for me professionally. Due to a previous reorganization, one of the smaller units for which I am now responsible is supported by a separate unit that does not report to me, although per my boss I set the priorities for my unit and the support unit is supposed to carry them out.

The woman, who is in charge of the support unit, is also a department head, but has a long history of being difficult and verbally abusing her staff. In the previous organizational structure, the work of her unit was part of a larger department, but that department was split up due to some very ugly office politics, and despite having no background in this type of work, she wound up in charge of her unit by default.

Despite the many warnings I received from fellow department heads when I started my new position, I made a point of giving this woman the benefit of the doubt, mainly because one of my units depends on the support of her unit. Things started out well: I was able to arrange to hire the additional staff member she insisted she needed to get the job done, and we successfully worked together to address some immediate concerns that affected both of our units. But as I became more familiar with my new job and started working toward creating the new department, it became obvious that the support unit is a mess.

Their policies and procedures haven’t been revised in at least 10 years and are not at all in line with current industry standards; because of this, it takes at least twice as many staff members to get the job done as similar departments elsewhere in the organization.Worse, this unit head bullies and micromanages her staff into inefficiency and has a higher than average rate of staff turnover.I’ve recently discovered that she’s been withholding information, undermining projects and arrangements I’ve made with other departments and is badmouthing me to her staff.

The last straw for me was her throwing a tantrum and screaming at me and making wild accusations about me when I tried to initiate a discussion about a project that will be the first major step for creating the new department and one that our boss has already signed off on. Her reaction was so unprofessional and so completely out of proportion to the situation that I became flustered and backed off; in fact, once she left the office, other staff members who had heard her screaming came into my office to check on me. Everyone who heard or heard about her tantrum was quite sympathetic but also pointed out that this is the way this woman operates.

Immediately after this confrontation I went straight to my boss and calmly told him what had happened as well as all of the other issues and incidents with this woman I had been documenting since I started this job. He agreed that she is and had always been difficult, and he reaffirmed that I am the one who makes decisions for the unit and that her unit is supposed to support mine. He also couldn’t understand why she was so violently opposed to a project that is not only in the best interest of the organization but will also reduce the burden on her unit.

I told him that after trying to work with her for almost 9 months I’d come to the conclusion that she was standing in the way of both the success of her unit and the progress towards creating a new department and that I could not work with someone who refused to work with me. He not only agreed with me but also planned to discuss the situation with this woman, telling me that if she refused to listen to reason he’d find something else for her to do and turn her unit over to me.

I left the meeting feeling quite certain that steps would be taken to both straighten out the support unit as well as get the project back on track. Over 3 months have passed and my boss has yet to act on this. During this time we’ve had a couple of meetings to discuss next steps towards creating the new department, and while he continues to agree this woman is a major problem and is standing in the way of this project, he seems very reluctant to do anything about it.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking on this project and I’m worried that I’m being set up to fail. I have intentionally avoided as much interaction with this woman as possible under the assumption major changes were on the horizon but will ultimately have to deal with her if my boss keeps dragging his feet. From my perspective, this woman crossed the line the minute she started screaming at me and any halfhearted apology she may be forced to make will not be good enough, she has to go, period. What can I do to get this situation resolved so I can keep this project moving forward?

Signed, Decisive???

Dear Decisive???:

I’ve summed up your letter with question marks behind the word “Decisive” because although you say, “she has to go, period” you appear indecisive about how to “get this situation resolved.” There is ample reason for you to sound uncertain because three months have passed and your boss has failed to follow through on his promise to confront this woman about her refusal to work with you and his assurance that if she did not cooperate that he would find some other role for her. So what do you do now?

Could your flustered backing off from her tirade and subsequent inaction and avoidance of this head of the support unit convey the message that you are afraid of her? Might your avoidance of her mean that you don’t know what is really happening or not happening on the project that hinges on the work of her unit? Avoidance is opposite of approach. Flight is opposite of fight. So if she must go, don’t you need to get your ducks in a row? Do you need to approach this head and meet with her unit to learn if she can deliver what is needed for your project?

Do you need to see for yourself if her unit indeed is in a mess? Do you then need to again report to your boss your appraisal of the status of her unit, and, if in fact she is not cooperating and her unit is inefficient and not productive, should you not bite the bullet and state that she must go? The focus on a firm statement to your boss that you cannot work with this woman should be on the task rather than primarily on her screaming reaction to a discussion about her unit’s role in the project you attempted to discuss with her.

That is three months past. Of course you can not completely forget or forgive her behavior, but making a case for her to be assigned elsewhere will be stronger from an updated evaluation of getting or not getting the job done. Obviously, no organization is without politics and therefore you are wise to learn what are your organizational policies and practices when confronting conflict, in particular one that was heated between two department heads. It might be wise to check with Human Resources about what is the policy and protocols of getting a person fired or reassigned, in particular one who is not in line under you. You don’t want to be charged with sexual harassment or discrimination, so keep your doors open and at arm’s length. This woman sounds like she could use every tactic and you know she has a reputation of being difficult and lacks anger management.

You have learned that your boss has not kept you informed if he has met with this woman. This might mean he hoped things would blow over and that you should have worked through this unhappy situation. You probably have been too patient and should have reconciled or tangled with this woman rather than wait three months. The fact is that you have been charged with completing a project and making the structural changes needed for a new department. That is your commitment and focus. Soliciting the support of your boss in making that happen is not just politics, it is your job. I predict that if you are firm and make a case for lack of cooperation, you will succeed in your new role. Always assume the best can be achieved. Always know that even and especially difficult people have egos. What they lack is what I call Wego. As I have said in concluding advice to what seemed to be quite difficult situations: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. I look forward to hearing how you handle this challenge to your leadership.

William Gorden