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THE INC. LIFE

My Coworkers Keep Complaining About Me

My boss says she has my back … but does she?

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BY Alison Green - 13 Aug 2018

My Coworkers Keep Complaining About Me

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I'm having a hard time fitting into the culture of my new office, and it's starting to wear on me. I'm kind of unorthodox here for a number of reasons, including that I work later hours than everyone else (which was part of my offer negotiation) and I'm not shy about jumping right in, asking questions, and making changes. I've only ever gotten positive feedback on those traits from managers, so I don't think I'm skirting the line into "pushy" or "rude."

My manager and her bosses love me and love my work. It's my coworkers who keep having problems with me: since I've been hired four months ago, my boss talked to me five times about complaints or questions others brought to her about my actions. This is about stuff like, "She comes and goes at odd hours," (yes, which are approved by my manager), "She has visitors to her cubicle," (yes, which isn't disallowed and other people have visitors too), "She should run questions like that through the supervisor" (really, asking if you would mind turning off your cell chime is something a manager should have to weigh in on?), and "She's asking too many questions, who does she think she is?" (I'm doing what I was told to do.) I even got a "warning" note left anonymously in my cubicle telling me to "mind my own business," which was taken very seriously by admin, but mostly just gossiped about by staff.

My boss has my back, and she's taken everything very seriously. Every time, she says, "I totally have your back, I don't think you're doing anything wrong, but I wanted you to know that this happened, and let's think of ways of appropriately addressing it if we can." Sometimes we can't address it because it's a problem of someone else's and I'm just the recipient; sometimes I can make some correction in my behavior to smooth things over.

The problem is: I think "smoothing things over" is actually code for "don't talk to anyone else about this" or "keep your head down" or "this is just the way things are." There seem to be a significant number of behavioral problems in this office coming from a number of different people that don't get dealt with: tantrums/crying in meetings, bullying/sniping comments towards coworkers, disrespectful emails, etc. It seems like the more highly emotional/negative people just get to do what they want and all of us polite folks are expected to just deal with it.

How can I survive in a culture where this happens? Or, better yet, how can I work with my boss to make things better, if possible? My boss thinks that some of our newly-hired higher-ups will start to make changes, and it's just a matter of time and we should trust them. But how can I make it through the long game if the short game kills me first? I keep bumping into people, being told I'm not wrong, but that I'm the one to have to make adjustments. It's hard, confusing, and isolating. I don't want to keep having negative run-ins, but I don't want to compromise my values (equality, respect, professionalism) either.

Green responds:

Do you want to stay in that culture?

If your boss truly thought these complaints by your coworkers were no big deal, she wouldn't be bringing them to you. But she is -- so there's a message there. The message might not be "you're in the wrong for doing X," but it seems to be "you need to do something differently so people don't complain about X" or "I'm troubled that people are complaining about X." It also seems to be, "I value harmony more than I value clear statements to people of what is and isn't okay."

The next time your boss brings someone's complaint to you, try asking her what she said to them in response. If you don't hear that she clearly corrected them -- telling them that she's happy with your work and that Complaint X isn't a concern to her and why -- then your boss doens't really have your back as much as she says she does.

If you're comfortable with it, you might try asking your boss head-on about this. For instance, you could say something like: "I appreciate you saying that you have my back on things like X and Y, but I have the sense from our discussions that you'd still like me to find a way to make people not be bothered by these things. I'm not sure there's a way to do that other than for me to stop doing X and Y. Can we talk about what you have in mind when you talk about appropriately addressing these things?"

However that conversation goes, you'll probably get additional information that will help you figure out how to think about all this.

But even beyond that, is this a culture you want to be in? One where people throw tantrums, cry in meetings, snipe at people, send rude emails, and everyone else is told to deal with it? One that you describe as feeling "hard, confusing, and isolating" and which you say is wearing on you every day?

Your boss is telling you that she hopes newly hired higher-ups will see this stuff and make changes .... but she's a higher-up to some of the people involved, and she doesn't seem to be making any changes. You might ask her specifically what changes she thinks will be made, and why she thinks that, and on what timeline -- because I'd be pretty skeptical of those claims unless you start to see real evidence that it's happening.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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