SNL"s Penelope is my colleague. Make it stop.
May 26, 2016 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm a director at a small company. Penelope is also a director. Penelope spends most of her time trying to one-up me. I don't want this to continue.

Her typical approach to office life is to go to a meeting, interrupt at every turn, have side conversations with other staff during the meeting when not allowed to interrupt and stopping to "just want to add" something mildly relevant to the conversation. Barring that, she'll roll her eyes as if bored out of her mind at presentations.

Recent example: I'd been out of the office for a couple of days. As our team was gathering in the conference room for a meeting, Penelope and others asked if I was on vacation. I replied that I'd been out doing some training and the conversation began about the training.

Penelope: Oh I've done that training. I actually know the guy who wrote the training. I worked with him forever. It's actually a little outdated. You should do Training X instead.

If it's not that, it's the "just so you know" conversation. I've literally sat and listened to her all but claim to have invented the industry in which we work. She's loud and obnoxious when it serves her and when she feels like she is a) not being the center of attention or b) when it appears that someone else on the team might have information to share that she doesn't know about. I seem especially threatening to her. It is MIND. NUMBING.

Why does she get away with it? She's hot. The men love her. Nonetheless, she comes off to other women such as myself as incredibly insecure. I won't say that other men at the company aren't evolved enough to see it. Some do but they seem to tolerate it ... especially executive leadership.

A new executive leader is coming to town next week for dinner and my team and Penelope's team are invited to dinner with him. I know this is going to be the Penelope show. Help me cope with this.
posted by nubianinthedesert to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Penelope BINGO!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:05 AM on May 26, 2016 [15 favorites]

Let her be all obnoxious and shit in a social setting. Distract yourself with conversations with others. Trust that the new executive leader will figure it all out.

In day to day life, just call her on her bullshit. "Right Penelope, you invented the internet."

As for corralling meetings, one great phrase is, "We have a packed schedule, let's take that issue off line later." Another is, "We're not designing it today, we need to keep moving if we're going to cover everything."

The training crack, "Gee. Thanks. I'll take it under advisement."

I'm pretty sure the men feel sorry for her for being so insecure, don't sell the other sex short on these things. Also, some guys will put up with a lot of Bullshit, just because they're not as tightly wound as others.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:18 AM on May 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Alas, you can't stop her, and you can't stop others from reacting to her.

I would recommend long pauses after her interruptions, followed by something positive but noncommittal, like "OK!" or "Right!"

Ultimately, though, you need to stop being bothered by it, because she will never ever stop, and will probably get worse before she gets better. A few years ago, I asked for advice about dealing with obnoxious but unavoidable people in my life, and ever since I have regularly reminded myself that these people are "not Eichmann" and been stupidly entertained and reassured.

Agree with Ruthless Bunny, though - try to avoid seeing this as a gender thing; even if it's true, it's probably not the most useful framing for you.
posted by mskyle at 11:21 AM on May 26, 2016 [13 favorites]

Best answer: So what are the issues here? Is it that she's just ultra annoying? If she's as awful as the SNL Penelope, I think she is going to dig her own grave. Dudes in your office might find her attractive but aren't going to take her seriously as a colleague. If this is the problem, there's not anything you can do to change her. Maybe just try and pity her - she's clearly very insecure and feels like she has to constantly show the world how great she is.

If it's that she's impacting your career growth in some way or affecting your performance reviews, then I'd focus on taking steps to make sure whoever you report to is kept apprised of your accomplishments. Meet with your manager-type person regularly to make sure you are getting credit for your work.

WRT the meetings, who is leading these? Hopefully it is someone who has similar feelings about her. But even if it's not, can you get with that person away from the meetings and say something like "I think our meetings could be more efficient and productive with less interruptions. Can you try and clamp down on people who interrupt? And interrupt people who are having side conversations during the meeting?"

If it's you holding the meetings, work on putting your foot down. When she pipes up, just be direct "Penelope, hold that question until the end." Don't ask. Tell. And then, this is the important part, keep talking as if she actually stopped. If she talks off to the side in meetings, call it out. You don't have to say her name but say out loud "Hold that conversation until we are done, please." And then continue on.

If you are running the meeting and even if you are not, you might spend some time on Ask A Manager. I searched "people interrupting meetings" and found some interesting info as always.

Good luck!
posted by Beti at 11:22 AM on May 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Why does she get away with it? She's hot. The men love her.

Yeah, it's never gonna really change and you can either be annoyed by it, get a new job, or ignore it.
posted by fixedgear at 11:26 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I saw someone use this line once and found it very effective.

Penelope: "Begins to interrupt..."

Meeting leader (or you, or whomever): "Let me stop you right there. Ask yourself if this is something that absolutely needs to be stated in order to move the conversation forward. If not, let's move on. We have a lot to cover."
posted by Brittanie at 11:33 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Have you established any communication norms with your colleagues? You could address her by taking that issue up globally. "In order to make sure we have efficient, productive meetings, let's establish these norms of communication." Norms might include not interrupting others, avoiding side conversations, stating meeting goals up front and sticking to them, not being late to meetings and respecting the end times of meetings, etc. Would be helpful to get others on board ahead of time before introducing this idea.
posted by cubby at 11:38 AM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just went to a seminar with an acting coach talking about body language in business and academic settings and she gave these levels of preventing interruption.
Level 1: one pointer finger up, arm extended towards the person, smiling, keeping talking
Level 2: one hand up in "stop" motion, smiling, keeping talking
Level 3: both hands up in "stop" motion, smiling, keeping talking
Level 4: both hands up in "stop" motion, no smile, dead silence.

We all practiced on each other and it's a) astonishingly effective and b) astonishingly good at making you hate the person interrupting even when you know it's a game, which seems win-win in your situation. Might not work if you're not being the one interrupted but it seems like you are a lot.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2016 [40 favorites]

Best answer: Do you have a work friend who feels similarly who you can blow off steam with? A little side snark can be a good way to find the humor in their rudeness. A private chat client, DM's in Slack, emails, can work for an emergency release valve during really bad meetings. I'm not suggesting mean girl nastiness, but camaraderie among the capable who have to watch the Penelope show. Penelope bingo is brilliant! A mostly inoffensive nick name can help. Penelope could work, or Napolean, something ridiculous she's referred to herself as. I once had a colleague who referred to himself as a "rock star" with zero irony, it was his nick name ever after.

"Man, Napolean is in rare form today!"
"If I have to listen to one more story about how she invented water..."

I agree with fixedgear that this is unlikely to change. Gender aside, when a person is able to throw a glamor, it's very difficult for their admirers to fully escape. It requires them to not only get all the sparkles out of their eyes, but seeing that person as they really are can cause them to feel stupid or vulnerable in a way that most people don't want to feel. Their egos become invested with the glamorous person staying glamorous.

So I would aim to cultivate an eye rolling (internally) and amused detachment, maybe sprinkled with a little empathy/pity. I mean usually people who are this desperate desperate desperate for attention have some pretty unhappy inner lives. That doesn't make it okay, and that certainly doesn't make it your job to help fix her (jesus, what an idea, no), but it can help defuse their emotional effect on you. Really that's just about all you can do. Not let her effect you.

This also means being careful how you interact with and talk about her in front of her fans. Women who aren't completely positive about another woman (who has above average sex appeal) are very quickly and easily dismissed as just being jealous and catty, and pay more of a negative social price for voicing those not positive comments then the women who actually embody those not positive characteristics. Welcome to the patriarchy.
posted by The Shoodoonoof at 12:30 PM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I feel like this is relevant: Hating someone everyone else fawns over

I would do a combo of the following:
-Enlist meeting organizer to stop interruptions/side conversations
-'finger/hand in Penelope's direction and continue talking when she interrupts me
-Give her enough rope to hang herself by asking for more details when she makes outrageous claims.
-roll eyes/vent with a trusted person who feels the same

If you're a drinking sort, I offer you a virtual beverage because I am so with you on hating people like this.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 12:42 PM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think it would do you well to look up the concept of the "bitch eating crackers" or BEC.

Pretty much, even though i agree with you this kind of thing is infurating if it doesn't get to your peers, or doesn't get to them enough to engage and push against it enough... you have to deal with it.

I've posted in other threads about this, but i have:

* Tried to rally support from other people i found who were annoyed, or coworkers/friends who were also coworkers who i thought would have my back to try and push back or effect some change

* Waited until their hubris got them in to a situation in which i would follow their exact directions/project/etc and it would blow up in their face

* Tried to set them up specifically in a situation which would demonstrate their lack of knowledge they claimed to have and they would make an ass of themselves


Every. Single. Time. It has blown up in my face.

If everyone loves them, they're going to be there forever. If you push back against them, then you're the negative crappy one working against Team Synergy and they'll likely end up being your boss.

This is essentially a low level toxic work environment if it's pissing you off this much because it's basically a fixed system and nothing will change.

The only sure fire working solution i've had to these things, over like 3 different jobs where someone like this has been around, is to leave. The only time it's worked at all ok is when they were siloed off in a totally different department with a different reporting structure and i only really interacted with them in soundbytes a handful of times a week.

But seriously, basically any sort of attempt to shut this down will just blow back on you. Especially, knowing and having been there, because of the way you frame this. It will come through in your actions and statements. Even if it was literally "here are concrete work related reasons that she's fucking up/making it hard to get things done and have productive meetings" it still would not work if she's well liked.

The only time i've successfully escaped this to my liking is when the person like this at that company was fired for assaulting another employee and storming out. Short of that, i've literally seen people get injured because the instructions from someone who "has worked with this for years" caused huge problems or shelves to collapse etc.(or just losses, or ruined product, blown deadlines, or...) and they somehow just walked away from the explosion like a cool action movie guy putting his sunglasses on. One of the places i was thinking of was a successful startup with offices on multiple continents, and experienced senior staff. Not a drive through coffee stand. This shit is almost intractable.
posted by emptythought at 1:58 PM on May 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

It sounds like maybe she has untreated attention deficit disorder. She might not be doing it on purpose.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:04 PM on May 26, 2016

Sometimes the only way out is through. Sometimes the only way through is out.

In my experience, situations like this rarely change, or if they do, it is on a timeframe that will feel like an eon to you while you're in it. My best advice is to ignore her, be professional and polite, and hold your ground during meetings. Don't gossip about her with coworkers, as that will likely blow up in your face. As a fellow director, you really have no recourse to stop this. Possibly she will end up annoying the new exec and they will deal with it, but don't hold your breath on that.

When she starts in on you outside of meetings, try saying something like, "That's really interesting, Penelope, but I have a report to finish up / a ton of emails to get through / need to prepare for a meeting right now. Talk to you later!" Say it nicely, and maybe when she realizes you simply won't engage with her, she will stop trying.

Yes, she's obnoxious. I'm sure you're not the only one who feels like that. However, it doesn't sound from your questions that she is interfering with your work or making you look bad, so maybe work on just letting her crappy personality roll off your back and realize she's simply very insecure and possibly is more deserving of pity than censure.

If you can't do that, and it seems like the new executive is also eating out of her hand, I would suggest looking for a new job. It sucks, but this is a 'deal with it or get out' kind of thing.
posted by ananci at 4:39 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if there isn't more going on here, based on some negative gendered language. Is it possible what you're seeing stands out as particularly egregious because she is a woman? When men engage in this sort of behavior, it's often seen as commanding or just not commented on. Further, she may be taking the initiative to talk herself up in order to reinforce her place and experience, as this is so frequently ignored and forgotten of women in the workplace. There are literally piles of books that tell women to do just this! The same with interrupting in meetings- it may be a way of trying to assert herself. It may even be that she isn't interrupting more than men, but you notice it more because you fall into the same sexist thinking that characterizes men as assertive and women as disrespectful.

Only you can decide if this is the case, but it might be worth really thinking about it, observing more carefully and considering your own instincts here. See if you can create an ally instead of an enemy. Too often women are taught to tear other women down.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:16 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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