How to stay out of the crazy at work?
May 20, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I grow a thicker skin and let things go with my passive-aggressive (or just aggressive) coworkers?

I'm having a really hard time working with my coworkers. I'm in a small dept in a smallish company (~50 people). Two of my coworkers have similar jobs to mine. We overlap a bit in our skills and work together on certain projects. One of them misses deadlines and then I work late to get her projects done. Right now we are a week behind on a project and she keeps asking me to add functionality on my part while not making any changes on hers (the part that we are all waiting on). The other one thinks that I am working behind the scenes to steal her job which is truly not the case. She spends a lot of her time either not speaking to me or else saying little comments as she walks by my desk.

My boss knows what's up but he's the kind that really really doesn't want to manage and so just lets it all go.

What I need are some coping skills for when something happens that sets me off. I'll get an email or chat from them that is super passive-aggressive and I just spend the rest of the day ruminating on it and getting upset. Or if I'm in the middle of it (one sends me chats that go on and on in a very passive aggressive manner) then my heart rate gets really high and I get a weird fight or flight response and then I can't concentrate and get my work done. I might go to a friend's office and bitch about it for a bit too although I try really hard not to. It just seems like I can't get anything done until I've vented about it on some days.

Other than the issue with these two, I really like the company and the job. So help me think of ways to keep my wits about me and not get mired in their crazy.
posted by dawkins_7 to Human Relations (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I say to myself 'this is not who I am' and think about my identity outside work with what I really care about. Not perfect to wish your life away, but it gets me through.
posted by Not Supplied at 12:33 PM on May 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I keep a list of small mindless tasks for this purpose. When I get super pissed about something, I take a break from the mental work (which won't get done when I'm upset anyway) and focus on my "brain-free" work.
posted by samthemander at 1:05 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I open up a window of text editor and vent there, sometimes, and that helps. But also set up a little mantra for yourself, too, to help calm yourself when you get upset. Something like the above, or something silly like, "I am going to respond Awesomely" to remind yourself to take the high road and be happy with yourself, no matter what they try to do to ruin it.
posted by ldthomps at 1:14 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

One of them misses deadlines and then I work late to get her projects done.

As long as you keep doing other people's work for them, they will be able to get away with their petty behavior. Stop doing their jobs for them, and they'll probably find they need to work somewhere else soon. Bonus, you'll have a little extra time on your hands to take a deep breath and walk it off.
posted by mhoye at 1:16 PM on May 20, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: This is what worked for me: I use a little catchphrase when I find myself suddenly upset in a work interaction -- something like 'ah gotcha' or 'gee' ( that's not exactly what I use, but similar). It's not something I'd say ordinarily, so it's a little mindtrick to remind myself that I'm having a negative reaction to something someone said, or some kind of interaction, but it doesn't directly flag to the other person that something's wrong. So it will go like: Me: "Do you think we'll get that work done by x date? I need to let the client know if there will be a delay." Coworker: "(arghbargh passiveaggressive/aggressiveoutburst/annoyingcomment)" Me: " Ah, gotcha. I'll check in later". The 'gotcha' or whatever word is a reminder to myself that something's not right (with me), and I need to get away from the situation and sort myself out before I can constructively follow up. Also, saying the catchphrase or codeword out loud motivates me to take action in a way that it wouldn't if I were saying it to myself.

Also: my heart rate gets really high and I get a weird fight or flight response and then I can't concentrate and get my work done.

That's a panic attack. You can't get constructive things done if you're having a panic attack, and work is never worth having panic attacks over, so you should find a way to address that ASAP.
posted by sweetkid at 1:18 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't think that looking away from the root cause is going to help in the long run as the behavior you're describing from your coworkers is just going to repeat itself without resolution.

Put your foot down and keep the amount of work to be preformed tied to the schedule. It helps to have a methodical approach towards doing this, we use Agile, and keep the team updated with progress and blocks on a daily basis. Adding functionality out of the blue when other tasks remain incomplete is unacceptable, as is adding functionality when the schedule has already been agreed upon. Place blame where it belongs and have that individual answer to their inability to complete their tasks and the effect it has on the rest of the team. The wheat becomes separated from the chaff in relatively quick order when a project or process is well-managed with realistic expectations.

If your boss can't manage then he's doing you a disservice.
posted by jsavimbi at 1:22 PM on May 20, 2011

Is the person sending you chats about work? Or just chatting? If she's just bothering you, turn the chat thing off. Be invisible. If you use Gmail, you can set a "canned response" for emails. So if you get some nonsense that's not really worked related, respond with "Busy as a bee. Will answer later" or something.

Or send her emails to a folder so you can read them later and not get derailed from work by your reactions. Or accidently-on-purpose delete them.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:57 PM on May 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far - these are some good ideas.

sweetkid, I never thought of it as a panic attack but that makes sense. I'm going to look up some more information on this - especially where it might correspond to lack of assertiveness.

Ideefixe, the chats are work-related and I can't figure out to block just this one person in Bonjour/iChat.

jsavimbi and others. When I have had to work late because of the other coworker, it's because my boss asked me to. But I might've made myself a bit too available and I will be less willing to jump in next time. When I have tried to make changes to make the project run better, I've been met with much resistance and made to look like I'm the bad guy so I've stepped back (see "lack of assertiveness" above). Another thing to work on. But until my boss steps up or something else changes, please keep the suggestions coming.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:16 PM on May 20, 2011

dawkins_7Poster: When I have had to work late because of the other coworker, it's because my boss asked me to.

Blink. "It's not that I don't want to be a team player, but shouldn't you really be asking Jenna to stay late on this?" Shrug.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 PM on May 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

I don't know what kind of Passive Aggressive remarks you've been getting, but I enjoy taking them exactly to the letter of their word, and act like I had no idea what they *really* mean. It tends to frustrate them.

As to the rest of it...I know this sounds counterintuitive, but try to stop venting. It sounds like you're letting yourself get all caught up in their behavior and stew about it all day. When they do something like that, laugh to yourself at how petty they're being, how far beneath you it is, and focus on something else. They've done some studies on this, and it turns out that venting doesn't 'release pressure' it makes you angrier, because you're spending more time and energy focusing on it. Take your lunch break and go on a walk, look at the flowers, read a little.
posted by Caravantea at 2:35 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I run across pettiness I always find myself wondering what it must be like to be the other person. What would it be like to live in a world that small?

Still, sometimes I get caught up in the drama of it. At that point I go for a walk and review my life so far and where it's going, and I place today's episode as part of the larger picture. When I'm able to see things in perspective and to summon compassion for everyone involved, then I go back to work.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:17 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gah, workplace bullying! I agree with Caravantea. I am in a very similar situation at work (seriously, I could have written this question TODAY without changing any major details), and I've found that venting and stewing are not helpful at all.

Ask yourself: why should you have to come up with coping mechanisms that would allow them to continue treating you this way? What has worked in my case is waiting a couple hours or a couple days, and then addressing bad behavior politely and directly.

Find a time when you're calm, and work isn't crazy, and tell them you'd like to iron out some communication issues since you have to work together. Give examples of passive-aggressive language/unnecessary comments and explain how it damages the work environment for everyone, and that you'd like things to be different.

People who are confronted with their own passive-aggressive assholery usually hide behind excuses and then back down. They're passive-aggressive because they don't want their jerkiness to be really obvious, so if you show them that it is obvious, they're forced to reconsider their behavior.

I'm not saying you guys are going to hug it out and the end of this conversation, but BELIEVE ME, you will feel so much better after standing up for yourself. This is your livelihood and work environment. You have a right to ask to be treated respectfully.
posted by swingbraid at 5:19 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

When people get to me, sometimes I'll go in the restroom and do a variety of funny stances. I'll make a few bodybuilding poses, including the one that's kind of like a gorilla. That makes me feel my own power (sorry to put it cheesily). Then, I'll stretch my arms out wide, then hold them out front, then up in the air. Or else I'll put both arms out front, then turn ninety degrees (arms still outstretched) and face that direction, then turn ninety more degrees, etc., until I've completed a circle. By the end, my body understands that this person isn't nearby, they aren't a physical threat, I own my own space, and I don't have to let them get to me.
posted by salvia at 9:50 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great responses. Sweetkid nailed it, I think. They were panic attacks and from that day on, I have dealt with it differently. Wikipedia says that these can be caused by "Lack of assertiveness" and that is exactly what the issue was. As soon as I stood up to her a bit, she has been fine. It has also helped me analyze other relationships and see where I need to stand up for me instead of just letting things happen.
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

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