How do you navigate office politics without making yourself a target?
October 13, 2020 6:09 PM   Subscribe

How do you navigate office politics with moody, unpredictable people without making yourself a target? How do you stay calm and deal with backstabbing, manipulative coworkers that gossip and cause drama? Snowflakes inside…

I’m having trouble with very social workplaces, especially dysfunctional ones. I try to keep my head down and stay out of the drama. Keeping to yourself doesn't keep you out of the game though - it just makes me a target and every extrovert in the office thinks I’m mean, rude, cold, aloof, or plotting against them. You can choose not to play, but you'll lose by default. It sucks.

The gossip is about very superficial things. Suzy hates Sally for not complimenting her report, Jim doesn't like the way Sandra scowls in meetings, John thinks Suzy's a bitch for not holding the door when she was carrying coffee. Lisa goes to the bathroom too much, etc.

I can’t seem to get the superficial stuff right though. l would like to have less enemies and more allies when the serious drama hits.

To complicate matters, “Fergus” (Whom I‘ve written about in previous Asks.) seems to have made me his scapegoat. He blames me for stuff, calls me names, pits other workers against me. One day he’ll act nice, the next he is mean and nasty. He mainly does this when we’re alone, so there are no witnesses.

Fergus now has a group of interns that he manages and has formed a clique where they gossip about others and hang out outside of work. I know how Fergus can be and want to stay far, far away from him and would prefer not to socialize with him outside of work.

Fergus loves to team up with the Queen Bee (“Lauren”) of the group of interns and they boss me around, ignore me, leave me out of things, etc. Fergus asked me to go to lunch with the group of interns and I declined. He told the boss that he was disappointed that I wasn't going, but then I overheard him tell Lauren that he just invited me to be nice.

Today he was avoiding me every time I tried to approach him and I confronted him about it and he of course denied everything and placed the blame on me. (Seriously, this guy is like teflon, it's ridiculous.)

I’m trying to grin and get through it, but it's really starting to bother me. I'm introverted and fine with not everyone liking me, but it seems to have made me the target. If they don't like me, fine, but why torment people?

Another woman who works there said that they talk about me, but they talk about everyone. Plus, you can’t stop people from talking about you.

There’s so much drama that I’m surprised any work gets accomplished. I don’t understand these environments because it’s less about getting stuff done, more about socializing and drama. Plus, if people don’t like you, they want you out of the place or try to get you fired. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hard worker- they seem to target people like that.

Until I can find a new position, how can I not let this get to me? Is there anything to say or do? Why do people like Lauren fit in so well, yet others like me struggle? Has anyone been through something similar? What did you do?
posted by lawgirl to Work & Money (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There isn't a magic spell that will stop you from being bothered when people treat you horribly.

Finding a new job is the only real solution.
posted by medusa at 6:30 PM on October 13 [7 favorites]

Are you an intern at a law firm? I ask because the politics and expectations are different from a lot of other workplaces.
posted by xammerboy at 7:03 PM on October 13

That sounds rough and not a good match for you.

My approach to this is to absolutely act 100% happy and pleasant agreeing with everyone and only stating facts (never emotions or conjectures or going off on a tangent). You cannot even see if someone is backstabbing or purposely unpleasant - invisible. So if someone expresses something negative - say oh no that is so difficult for you. Basically channel a kindergarten teacher. This may or may not work for you and may be too emotionally wearing. But when in doubt I put on my most chipper, happy, positive and supportive face. It is easier remotely when working virtually than in person for sure!
posted by RoadScholar at 7:10 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

Does it bother you that you don't seem to fit in?

I'm asking because here and in your previous questions, quite a bit of what you write is detailing all of your interactions and (failed) attempts to get along. There's a high sense of "unfairness" that truly resonates with me... but all the same, I would highly suggest that you work on both caring less and doing less. Easier said than done, but all of the advice from your previous questions still applies.

Personally, I have spent my fair share of time crying over how hurt I felt that I wasn't accepted in my workplace and obsessing over my own behaviors and wondering what was wrong with me. All that wasted energy has never changed anything.
posted by sm1tten at 7:18 PM on October 13 [6 favorites]

If, and I do mean if you are looking for another position elsewhere then to stall for time I personally like having some type of mantra. It draws the mind away from whatever horrible thing it would otherwise be contemplating.

I'm fond of Dante, myself:

Io non piangëa, sì dentro impetrai
(Inferno, Canto 33)

...and just keep repeating to yourself as necessary. I've gotten through some pretty terrible funerals and the like this way.
posted by aramaic at 8:13 PM on October 13

Just smile beatifically, confident in the knowledge that your self-worth is assured and fully independent of Fergus & Lauren's high-school opinions, while their sense of self-worth is obviously dependent on your opinion of them, since they feel the need to gauge themselves against you. Pity them.
posted by at at 8:18 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

This sounds very annoying and high school. But I would really try as hard as possible not to give in to superficial popularity contest dynamics. It won't get you anywhere with regards to actual work. Start focusing on the things you can add to your CV or can talk about in your next job interview. While teamwork and people skills are important, no one's going to care about whether you were part of the popular clique or not. That stuff does not follow you from job to job.

So if you want to stay far away from Fergus, really try to cultivate a sense of not giving a shit whether he invited you to his stupid lunch (and what he says about inviting you just to be nice etc). You say you want to stay far away from him, but you also say you confronted him about what he said about inviting you. Why do you care what he says to Lauren? She may be popular but she has no power over you in the workplace.

It's possible he goes around badmouthing you, but when someone is like that, everyone knows the kind of person they are. No one is going to take him seriously when he talks shit about you, knowing that he's the sort of person who talks shit about everyone.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:20 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

@ unicorn chaser-I confronted him about avoiding me. Our boss wanted us to work on a report and I needed information from him. I didn't discuss anything about the lunch- it's not worth it.
posted by lawgirl at 4:20 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

@sm1tten - I worry because I don't want to seem like I'm not a "team player" for not attending group things, but I want to spend less time around Fergus. I also worry that Fergus wanted or wants Lauren in my position. When I started my position, he said that a lot of the interns had applied for it, so if they were acting mean towards me, that's why. I'm worried that he'll sabotage me to get her in my role or just get me out of the work place because he doesn't seem to like working with me.

I also wish that he wouldn't undermine me, but I don't know how to get him to stop.

It just feels like a battle, every single day. One day we sort of get along, the next someone is giving you the cold shoulder or screaming at you. It's so unpredictable. It doesn't seem normal...
posted by lawgirl at 4:30 AM on October 14

I have some experience with your situation. There's not a lot you can do, and nothing is guaranteed to work anyway. You are already doing some of the things I would recommend including keeping your head down, staying out of the drama, keeping your cool, and most importantly, looking for work elsewhere.

Your strategy should be to convey in every regard that you are not a problem. You are polite, friendly, hard working, etc. You are not a problem, and therefore if someone has a problem with you they must be the problem.

You can try to cultivate your own friendships and allies. This isn't always possible. You are working from a limited pool. If you can though, it will help greatly, if even just for your own well being. It's also helpful to be perceived as having ties other people in the office. The easiest way to do this is to ask someone for advice in regards to a subject they are interested in and then listen. Repeat until you find a connection.

A more drastic step in terms of playing politics is inventing a reason to clear the air. In these cases, the card you play is the same. Someone appears to have a personal problem with you, and it's confusing because you don't have any problem with them. There seems to be drama and you simply don't understand it and don't want any drama. It can be tricky to play this card, because just raising the issue may be perceived as creating drama.

In short, there are really no good options, and you can execute all of this perfectly, be an excellent worker, make friends in the office, and still have things turn out really badly.
posted by xammerboy at 7:56 AM on October 14 [3 favorites]

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