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Advice for the Modern Man: Workplace Woes

Frustrated worker

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

Apparently, my office hates me, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I started this job almost a year ago, but recently a co-worker pulled me aside and told me that my entire department hates me, especially my boss. She told me that my boss thinks I find problems with everything, and I’m annoying because I ask too many questions.

I’m the only one in my department who sits in a completely different area, so I don’t know when anyone else is free or busy until I arrive in their cube area. There was a time I worried about being too needy, so I decided to lay off going over there. Then I started hearing comments like, “Oh, I didn’t even know you were here today.” At one point, my boss even sent me an email with the subject line, “Stop Hiding :-)” (as though the smiley face was meant to be genuine).

It’s frustrating because I feel like I’m getting mixed signals. Either I work by myself in my own little corner and everyone assumes I do nothing all day, or I go over to their area and come off as needy and nerdy.

I’m still kind of new and learning the ropes, but I feel like I have no direction at this job. I’m not even sure what my primary responsibilities are. I get a lot of, “Here, do this,” with no clear objective or timeline, and nobody is willing to train me. And it’s usually not things that are in my wheelhouse.

So what’s your advice? Quit and go make sandwiches at Subway?
–Forever Frustrated; Cranbury, NJ

Talk about difficult work environments. I’ve worked in some strange ones, but nothing like this. This one sounds more like high school with its pettiness, exclusion and outright meanness.

Who pulls a co-worker aside to make sure the co-worker knows everyone hates him? The person who would do that is the person who should be seeking advice.

As you’ve made clear, nobody’s helping you assimilate to the office culture, which means that if you’re going to stay, you have to do it yourself.

And sadly, when dealing with such a hostile atmosphere, there’s not much you can do to change it. Causing a ruckus and calling out others only digs a deeper hole.

But what you can do is work on changing yourself.

There’s a mantra sports coaches invoke all the time, and it’s a mantra I believe could help you:

Control what you can control.

Think of a football or basketball game, and the countless variables that shape the outcome: the other team, the referees, the bounce of the ball, the suspension of gravity.

If players allowed themselves to be consumed by those wildcards, they’d wonder if it’s even worth it to show up.

Which is what you’re wondering now. To this point, you’ve been concentrating on peripheral problems, from your horrific co-workers and boss to your desk next to Milton in storage room B. And understandably so.

But now it’s time to turn your attention inward, to set those issues aside and focus on the factors that fall within your jurisdiction…

Control your communication.

Along with DVR and King’s Hawaiian Sweet Rolls, email has changed my life more than just about anything.

I struggle at times with interpersonal interactions, mainly because I’m constantly worried about inconveniencing the other person. I’m worried that I’m interrupting them, or putting them out, or annoying them with my presence. And email allows me to mitigate that discomfort.

This is especially true at work, when everyone is getting pulled in a million different directions. Which is why when I need anybody’s help or a minute of their time, I first send them a message.

In doing so, I’m not barging in on them unannounced, and they can process my request on their own schedule. They don’t have to deal with me until they’re ready. Though I may still be a burden, I’m no longer a surprise.

It’d be worthwhile for you to take a similar approach. Yes, in a perfect world, you’d be able to randomly talk to anyone at any time. But your co-workers and boss have already expressed frustration with your current communication style, and this is a minor adjustment that could end up paying major dividends.

Control your effort.

Probably the first email you send should be to your boss.

The two of you are not on the same page, and that has to change. Because until you are, nothing else will.

Requesting a meeting with her to go over your role and her expectations shows initiative. It’s a signal that you’re not taking this job for granted, that despite what others may think, you’re there to work and make a contribution.

You mentioned that you have no real direction in this position, and you’re intermittently given assignments, many of which aren’t of interest. That’s common in many jobs, especially at the lower levels.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t attack those assignments and complete them to the best of your abilities. Do that enough, and you’ll prove your worth — and you’ll prove you’re worthy of tasks that are closer to your wheelhouse.

Control your attitude.

This could be the most difficult thing to control, but it’s arguably the most important.

I know what it’s like to have a job you can’t stand, or a job that doesn’t match up with your expectations. There’s a sense that it’s all a waste of time, that your life would be better if you were doing anything but going to that office every day.

But whether you’re aware of it or not, that dissatisfaction is something others can pick up on. It seeps through your psyche and engulfs you, infiltrating your demeanor and overall vibe. And suddenly, everybody processes their interactions with you through that prism of negativity.

I have no idea if that’s what has happened here. But for whatever reason, the rest of your office has developed this bias toward you.

Granted, it may simply be because they’re jerks, or some other unknown reason. But you can attempt to change their attitude by better managing yours.

Show up each day with (remnants of) a smile. Be respectful of everyone, and go about your business of doing the best job you can do.

Don’t give anyone anything with which to (unfairly) indict you. You’re playing the long game here, and it’s little steps like these that ultimately add up to something more.

Of course, if you can’t fake it till you make it, it might be time to move on. And who doesn’t love a Subway sandwich artist?


This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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