Jerks at work, boo
October 7, 2022 1:37 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop taking it personally when the people I work with are jerks, and it feels like I’m being set up to fail? Added difficulty: often the only woman in the room, and the only remote worker, too.

I work for a big multinational company that’s known for its competitive, high-pressure working culture. I’ve worked for about 4 years in a department that, in hindsight, has been a blissful bubble of more-or-less congenial working relationships, and really thrived here. Unfortunately, as a result of my continued success I have been asked to interface with other groups as a significant part of my job, and it feels like I’ve been sent into a pit of vipers.

In the past two months I’ve dealt with more condescension, politicking, jockeying for status, boy’s club vibe than the last 4 years combined. It feels that my entire job is now to present analysis and make recommendations that are inevitably received poorly, ranging from apathy to outright hostility. It certainly hasn’t helped that these groups have a strong in-person based culture and I’m currently working remotely - apparently after one particularly poorly-received presentation, an engineer got spittingly mad to everyone in the room about how I’d “stolen his work”, and I had no idea until word eventually trickled back to my manager. I’ve tried talking to my manager about the situation and he basically told me that we had to preserve our relationships with these groups by treading carefully and being tactful - basically, he can’t do anything and expects me to keep my head down and maintain the status quo (but still be effective at my job, somehow?)

I feel that in a lot of these situations the general advice is to a) find a new job, and b) stop caring in the meantime. New job might be in the works, but for various reasons I’d like to stick it out for at least a few more months. I would love to just be all DGAF until then, but I’m finding it really hard! As it turns out, I really do need to be able to take pride in doing good work (even if it’s boring and pointless) and I really value having good relationships with my colleagues - I can also be a bit of a people pleaser and I just want people to like me, ugh. I also realize that this won’t be the last time in my career I’ll have to work with unpleasant people, so I might as well start building coping mechanisms now. How do I keep my head on straight when I have to work with people who seem primed to dislike me?
posted by btfreek to Work & Money (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I really do need to be able to take pride in doing good work (even if it’s boring and pointless) and I really value having good relationships with my colleagues

I can't think of anything more useful to suggest to you than making a mantra out of the idea that of those two aims, only one is fully within your control.

Maintaining a genuinely good relationship with a jerk is simply not possible. If the jerk were willing to do their half of that maintenance then they wouldn't be a jerk. Your best pathway to maintaining an adequate sense of workplace satisfaction, then, is to put your focus squarely on getting astoundingly good at doing good work.

Unfortunately this is inevitably going to involve learning to brush off increasingly vicious and underhanded attacks from the jerk brigade; workplace jerks are the way they are exactly because they fear that other people doing excellent work is going to throw the sloppy inadequacy of their own into sharp relief, and they'll often go to quite ridiculous lengths to get in the way of that happening.

There is nothing wrong with being a people pleaser as long as you learn to get a bit selective about which people are actually worth pleasing. In general it's actually counterproductive to try to please jerks, who would usually rather hang onto their own petty resentments than be pleased, so they'll only ever twist your attempts to please around and use them to attack you. Mr "She stole my work!" is a perfect case in point.

Apart from it being very satisfying, the best thing about getting astoundingly good at doing good work is that it might well end up being your ticket out of the viper pit. People who are astoundingly good at what they do are generally in very high demand wherever they go.
posted by flabdablet at 3:22 AM on October 7, 2022 [8 favorites]

I really think people just dislike working, they find it unpleasant, they find the things we say & the things we make them look at unpleasant, and they lash out. I deal with all the same shit & it's all been exactly the same for me the whole time I've been working. I am getting better at not being surprised, which allows me to keep my cool. I try to remember it's all a big joke, and all I have to do is play my part.
posted by bleep at 3:40 AM on October 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Pretend you're in an episode of The Office. Generating comedy is the entire point. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger in which the sensible protagonist is yet again in some ridiculous situation with the various comical antagonists. If course it does, that's the structure of television! You just need to bounce back each episode until you can bring the series to a sensible close. The series doesn't necessarily have to end with the protagonist achieving all their goals, because the point is an interesting story arc and great ratings, not a successful business.
posted by quacks like a duck at 4:05 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

I would also use a fantasy narrative. Mine would relate to the way all the Amazons talk about “men” and “the world of men” in the first Wonder Woman movie. Basically you are on an island of warriors and your remote link to boyzone is sometimes baffling or infuriating or amusing. But hey, you have horses and beaches and swords. ⚔️
posted by warriorqueen at 4:44 AM on October 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

I find recognizing the sexism involved makes it feel less personal, which makes stuff like this a bit easier to deal with.
posted by eviemath at 4:53 AM on October 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Just came back to link to this clip, which I have been known to watch before certain meetings.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:03 AM on October 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

I’ve worked for about 4 years in a department that, in hindsight, has been a blissful bubble of more-or-less congenial working relationships,

Do you have a strong enough informal relationship with some of these people (other than your manager) that you can continue to lean on them to help meet the "good relationships with colleagues" need, even if they're not as much a part of your current workflow? In an ideal situation that might include getting advice for better dealing with the politics of your current situation or a bit of moral support after a specific incident, but if those are perilous for whatever reason, it might still be nice to be reminded that there are decent people at your company who generally like and respect you.
posted by eponym at 5:12 AM on October 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

"It feels that my entire job is now to present analysis and make recommendations that are inevitably received poorly, ranging from apathy to outright hostility."

I was never the master of this sort of problem so take my comments with a grain of salt.

The solution, if there is a solution, is to have allies in the meeting. These could be people who have come to know and respect you as a person, or they could be people who have been pre-sold on your new ideas. Either way, it means more interaction with the outside departments. If you are going to make recommendations about something, you should be able to go to people who are affected and ask "is this going to fly, and if not, why not?" This to plant the seed, and also prepare a better defense.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:31 AM on October 7, 2022 [7 favorites]

(It’s probably sexism, but just in case that’s not all it is.) Is this a completely new task or was there someone else who had that role before? If so, what was their experience? What is the nature of the task and what is the buy-in of the groups you’re presenting to? From your description, it could very well be that your analysis and recommendations were not solicited by the groups themselves but imposed on them somehow and they’re resentful. It may be worth exploring whether your role is eliciting the jerk behavior (and sexism may make them act worse or lower their inhibitions), and not you personally. In any case, this is not acceptable and your manager or the respective groups’ managers need to figure this out.
posted by meijusa at 5:37 AM on October 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

You need a one or two allies in those groups. Identify someone who seems less snarky. This is probably someone who doesn't participate as much or looks uncomfortable. I would set up 1:1 time with that person, and ask for their candid advice on how to navigate group dynamics. Double kudos if this person is also more tenured / well-respected within the group. Over time, ask them for a favor -- hey, I noticed Andrew always focuses on X tiny issues, if this comes up in the next meeting, could you help re-direct the conversation?

Alternatively, find your predecessor or someone else who often works w/ the same people in the viper group. Get their advice as well.

Both of these strategies will get you: 1) context if these guys are just a-holes to everyone so it's not personal, and/or 2) what are some concrete things you could do differently -- e.g., before a presentation, make sure you review your analysis with Jim, or before you start scoping the next project, make sure you review it with Joe, or describe problems in ABC ways and skip content on XYZ.

The last thing I try to do is figure out if there's some way I can develop empathy for them. Maybe they are in a group that keeps getting defunded by management so it feels like a crabs in a bucket situation. Or they're not just toxic to you but also to each other, and doesn't that suck to be in that situation. Even if it may not apply to everyone, this helps me keep my own emotions in check -- your dealing with people who are in not so great circumstances and yes, they're terrible, but you could take the high road.
posted by ellerhodes at 6:54 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

"I can also be a bit of a people pleaser and I just want people to like me, ugh"

Oh, do I relate to this! I finally made progress with this by re-framing my thoughts a bit:
1. I want please people...who I respect.
2. I want people to like me...if I respect them.

This helped me develop a bit thicker skin. Ask yourself: Do you respect these people? Do you even *like* these people? If the answer is no to both questions, then their opinion of you is really not worth considering.

The only thing that will win them over, or at least wear them down, is consistently professional behavior, and a placid response to their attacks. And that will take time and a bit of an obstinate attitude on your part. Good luck!
posted by BeBoth at 10:25 AM on October 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

Is there even one person in this group who has been less awful than the others? Could you work on building a relationship with him? This is how I've dealt with similar situations and it really does help.
posted by lunasol at 8:31 PM on October 7, 2022

I came to the realisation it is statistically possible to work with a massive group of a.holes. Ofcourse cultures compound this..
I am thinking back to an awful woman I worked under (I was far more experienced and nicer eheh).

I dreaded seeing her.

I tried a different tack, projecting a different mask to the sick dread I felt inside. Faked being pleased to see her. VERY UNCOMFY for someone who tries to be authentic.

To my utter shock she gave me her personal phone number.

I don't know if there's anything in that. But sometimes fake bubbles of self protection can buffer a tweak dynamics a tad.

Watching 'the Office', if your thing may be therapeutic.
posted by tanktop at 10:21 PM on October 7, 2022

I really value having good relationships with my colleagues - I can also be a bit of a people pleaser and I just want people to like me, ugh. I also realize that this won’t be the last time in my career I’ll have to work with unpleasant people, so I might as well start building coping mechanisms now.

So a lot of the following advice comes from a long time of listening to the Manager Tools podcast. The have quite a backlog!

For line staff, their most important org-psych insight is personality modeling. The DISC personality model permeates their podcasts as a shorthand for various personalities you are likely to encounter. The gruff "don't waste my time" manager, the "what about the outliers in the data on column H" engineer, the "this is how we've always done it" technician, etc. all get a letter designation, but the key point is that all of us are a mix of these traits and your communication needs to match their preferences. And effort must be taken to shape your presentations to appeal to multiple personality types. Key takeaways in at the start of the document high D's, data in the appendix for the High C's, etc.

This means that you will have to know your audience well enough to describe their personality to a stranger. Which is why their second key insight is building relationships and trust within your network. Specifically for presentations, they recommend a "prewarming" process where you privately and individually review the proposal with key stakeholders before the decision meeting. Very similar to Nemawashi, the point is to give people a chance (away from potentially toxic group dynamics) to give your proposal criticism, and for you to negotiate with them on how to improve it. This means you need to set aside time for coffee chats and maybe delay the schedule to accommodate this negotiation period. And you'll need to identify meeting participants long before the meeting is scheduled.

And yea, shopping projects to other teams is a much harder job, because you likely have no relationships with the other groups. That means at the start you have no idea how these people think or want to be communicated to, and they have no idea about you. As an outsider, you are seen more as a threat than an opportunity by default. We've all seen managers try to parley a tech they built for one team into a company wide project / fiefdom, and even when successful, it can mean the old tech team(s) lose their job. Or lose out on promotions when their keystone project is trashcanned and replaced with something they aren't an expert at.

Finally, some personal insights. Having been on the receiving end on some of these sales meetings, I (high C and high D) want to see attention to detail and results comparisons that aren't cherry picked / goldfish opponents. If you promise me an anomaly detection engine cribbed from a Facebook paper, it damn well better be compared to something humanity has known and used for decades like ARIMA or exponential triple smoothing, rather than just some pictures of your bespoke ML model working at all. Moreover, I shouldn't be able to replace your project with a week of my time writing Splunk queries, and I shouldn't be able to debug your own data better than you. Any of these are a sign that adopting your solution will cost me time rather than save it.
posted by pwnguin at 3:18 PM on October 11, 2022

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