Dealing with cliques at work
December 7, 2017 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I’m having an issue at my job where I feel torn between different groups of coworkers. I’m afraid I’ve become a Mean Girl but I don’t know how to bow out now.

I’m a nurse in an ER. Sometimes nursing can be an extremely catty environment. I’ve been in the field long enough that I have figured out my own way of making peace at work, which is that I am nice to everyone and really get to know everyone to the extent they are comfortable with a coworker, and as a result I like literally every single nurse I work with. I’m the person someone says “I am so glad YOU are here today” because I just do my job, am nice to them, and don’t create drama. I truly get along with everyone I work with and I appreciate the other nurses professionally and personally. BUT this method has gotten me into a pickle where I have turned into a mean person who talks behind other people’s backs.
My job is especially clique-y at the moment. There are a few nurses who are very direct with their coworkers, especially new nurses, about carrying their workload, cutting corners that really shouldnt be cut, etc. They have been this way with me but I don’t really care. There are a few newer nurses who will complain to me, and probably each other, about the other nurses being mean. Almost after every interaction I witness, when the “mean” nurse walks away, the other nurse will make a comment to me. It’s tiring. I always just agree with them and I never defend what the more experienced nurses are saying, even though I agree with the more experienced nurses, because 99% of the time the content is correct but the delivery is harsh. We are generally in a fast-paced environment and messages needs to be conveyed quickly.
On the flip side, sometimes the “mean” nurses will make comments about the incompetence of the other nurses and I will find myself nodding along with what they are saying and even chiming in!! I never thought I would be that person.
I need to change but I selfishly don’t want to give up the cushy position of being universally liked. I know I’m bragging but I’ve worked in groups of women for going on 7 years and this is how I’ve survived! I HAVE to find something to like about each person or work is shitty and the cattiness will get me down. But it’s so hard to stand up to people you like. I’m so afraid that once I say “you shouldn’t say that” or “actually I like Sarah” my life at work will be a lot harder and I will be in the unfamiliar territory of having to deal with the repercussions.

I will say that when it comes to patient care I have no trouble bringing forth an issue with anyone, from any department so I know I HAVE the gumption to say difficult things, but I can’t translate this tactic to interpersonal stuff.

How do I change?
posted by pintapicasso to Human Relations (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You can totally continue to do this, and I can confirm that it is great. Now, you do need to be a little careful in how you agree with people and what you say - you should never be dishonest or duplicitous. When a new nurse says, "I can't believe how mean she was! It's just an IV pump." or whatever, you can say something like, "Yeah, she can be a bit gruff, but she kind of has a point about the pump, this one time, I was..." and then change the subject. When an experienced nurse says, "These damn millennials aren't pulling their weight." you can reply with "Yeah, he does need to get the lead out, but I think he's still a little insecure. Maybe next time, if you offer to demonstrate that cool trick you know, he'll get more comfortable and will start to pick up the pace." You should absolutely continue to like everyone, and be positive and supportive and empathetic, and you can do that without being mean.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:52 PM on December 7, 2017 [28 favorites]

Is it possible to defend the message but not the delivery? When a new nurse complains about how old nurse is treating them, what if you said something like, "Old nurse is a brilliant nurse but when she's in a rush, her delivery can come across as rude." or "Oh, you know how it is when you're in a hurry, no time for niceties!" Etc etc, keepin' the peace.
posted by jabes at 12:53 PM on December 7, 2017 [20 favorites]

When one of these instances of pettiness arises, smile and say you've got a New Year's resolution to be more positive. And then change the subject or move away. You might say yes, you absolutely understand the need to vent, but this is what you're doing for yourself going forward. That way it's not about criticizing or censoring anyone directly, it's about you and your new resolution.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:56 PM on December 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Do you have to agree, even?

To the new nurses:
"I know, but she means well/cares a lot and this is how it comes out/carries a lot of stress and isn't always aware of how harsh she seems/she might be gruff but if you ever need help with X, she's the person to ask/I'm sorry (you're stressed about her)"

To the veteran nurses:
"She's still a pollywog/she'll get there, and we'll teach her/she does do X very well, though/remember how Y used to do that too and now she's great?/I'm sorry (you're stressed about her)"
posted by trig at 1:03 PM on December 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

You can also just 'mmmm' to them both, if you don't want to get so involved in the emotional labour of it all. When I want to have a vent at work it's pretty obvious to me pretty quickly if people are with me or not, and if they're not, I'm moving on. I think you're going to wear yourself out if you try to be utterly fair and scrupulously honest but not offensive in every situation. I have a co-worker who is like you. She just smiles a lot if I attempt a whinge. She's sympathetic but I get nothing else. Tbh I think these people ARE looking to get you on their 'team' and if you continue responding as you are you might end up in an awkward position because you appear to be on both teams. I think the really morally upright thing to do is probably to say what you actually think (yes to message, no to medium) but OTOH you are not like, dorm mother so dish that wisdom out only as much as you really feel inclined to.
posted by jojobobo at 1:17 PM on December 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm an executive assistant to a CEO which means 1) everyone tells me everything, and 2) I can't tell anyone anything. It's a real skill I've developed over many years, listening to people complain about stuff and making them feel like I understand and am sympathetic to their situation without agreeing or sharing anything of my own. "Oh, that sounds awful." "How frustrating!" etc. Make it a little game! It's actually pretty entertaining, figuring out how to walk that line.
posted by something something at 1:19 PM on December 7, 2017 [23 favorites]

My go to line: "Wow, that sounds really difficult..." Then just nod along and change the topic when you see an out in the conversation.
posted by Jubey at 1:26 PM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You don't have to actively participate. Just make it sound like you're participating and then launch into a segue.

"I know, right! Hey, did you see Grey's Anatomy last week?"
"So crazy! Does 13 have their vitals done?"
"I heard that! Btw, what was the budget for the white elephant thing at the Xmas party again?"

I made it my life's mission to be "collegial" at work because my dad, a union arbitration guy, drilled into my head that the #1 reason for getting fired is a perception that you're not collegial. Mean Nancy might be Boss Jane's favorite this week, but if Jane ever gets wind that Nancy talks behind her back, then Nancy's life will become miserable. So just don't be a trouble maker. Don't talk behind people's backs, don't add information or gossip of your own, and don't defend anyone or tell John that Paul has it in for him. Just listen pleasantly and then redirect the conversation to work topics or "gossipy" things happening on tv shows or whatever. This way, when pressed, all anyone will be able to recall is that you seem to agree with them but you never have actually said anything that bears that out.
posted by xyzzy at 1:30 PM on December 7, 2017 [12 favorites]

"Everyone has their strengths."
"We all start out as beginners."
"You were great when you taught me [x], she'll learn in time."
"She has a lot of experience."
"This place gets to all of us sometimes."
"Serenity now!"
posted by headnsouth at 1:43 PM on December 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

When an experienced nurse has a complaint that has some validity, maybe you can find some helpful and bland replies Yes, there's a lot you could teach them. I remember being that new and not knowing what I didn't know. It's frustrating, isn't it. and maybe even ways to praise the new ones I think Jay will grow into a good nurse with time.

To the new staff who have a lot to learn It's frustrating for experienced staff because you do have a lot to learn. Pay attention to Chris; watch Chris's techniques with IVs; they make it look easy. I know, Lee sounded harsh, but wait till you have that much experience and see how you feel.

Totally agreed that having a mental list of distractions helps reduce the gossiping and complaining. Also, it's okay to occasionally say I just don't have a of of energy for fielding complaints today. You go ahead; I'm going to drink this coffee/ do charts.
posted by theora55 at 3:52 PM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it's useful to validate the feelings even if you don't agree with the opinion or the behavior.

"X was so mean to me, I was doing my best!"
"Aww, sounds like you're feeling down."

"Y is so incompetent, she messed up the [nursing thing] and I had to fix it!"
"Yeah, it's frustrating helping the newbies learn the ropes. Good thing we're here!"

Asking questions is another way:
"X was really sarcastic because of how I did the [nursing thing]!"
"Oh yeah, [nursing thing] is tricky for a lot of people. Did she show you the trick of how to [verb] the [nursing thing]? I have a minute now if you want me to look at it with you."

You can also just segue to your own compliant:
"Oh my god, newbie is getting my last nerve."
"It's the worst day - I think my feet are going to fall off. I can't wait to go home and take a bath."

I'll listen and just say "mmmm" sometimes. Because yes, it's frustrating to take time out of your day to point out other people's mistakes and/or fix them, especially if you're not allocated time or pay for training. And yes, it's hard to have people snarking at you when you're doing you're best. And people tend to bond at work by complaining.

Optional: You could, separately, work on introducing positive things about different factions to each other. Not right after they complain about someone, but in a general way "B is really improving her xx skills, I saw her do xx thing today and she was great." "Z has a lot of knowledge about [specific thing] - she's been nursing for xx years. If you ever want to know all about xx, she's the one to ask."
posted by bunderful at 4:15 PM on December 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think the kind thing to do is err on the side of supporting the new people without validating specific negative comments about anyone. There's a danger of making things seem even worse to new people if you say, "Yeah, he can be that way," about an older colleague who's being mean, even-- or especially- if you go on to explain why. In a profession like that, new people often feel like they are being bullied or hazed, and they are often at least somewhat right. While you don't want to undermine your colleagues, you can assure the new person that things are really going OK, that they are not doing anything wrong, that you went through these things too.
posted by BibiRose at 7:42 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can also just 'mmmm' to them both, if you don't want to get so involved in the emotional labour of it all. When I want to have a vent at work it's pretty obvious to me pretty quickly if people are with me or not, and if they're not, I'm moving on. I think you're going to wear yourself out if you try to be utterly fair and scrupulously honest but not offensive in every situation.

Yes, 100% agree with this. It's great if you can engage them and be fair and honest and impart a fresh, positive perspective on their complaints/gossip/etc, but sometimes it's exhausting and a "Yeah, that sounds rough" or "Huh" is the best you can do.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:09 AM on December 8, 2017

I think that what you have a right idea in how your are handling it.

I would personally just make generic comments and change the topic to something else. You can be more supportive if they want to share something unrelated to work gossip.
posted by infinitygodess at 3:57 AM on December 10, 2017

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