Dear Office-Politics,

Here is my problem. I am a senior manager of a 50-person non-profit organization, and serve on the small Executive Management Committee (EMC). My boss is the President, and although she is a lousy leader in many ways, we actually get along well and have a solid relationship, thanks to my figuring out how to work with her. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues, ‘Jolynn’ who is senior to me and also a member of the EMC, is a thorn in my side, to say the least. She is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character if ever there was one—half the time she is in my office joking around, confiding in me, complaining about our boss, complimenting me and my work, etc., BUT, the other half, she is nasty and negative. Because she has a job involving overseeing operations, I am accountable, though indirectly, to her on some things:

  1. Jolynn imposes unreasonable and unrealistic deadlines
  2. Gets furious if she feels I (or anyone) is challenging her authority
  3. She is extremely insecure though walks around like she’s hot stuff
  4. Jolynn is on a power trip that is completely inappropriate and destructive.
  5. Jolynn is critical of other departments, and holds them to a high standard, while managing to weasel out of accountability for her own.

When people make suggestions to Jolynn about how to do things differently (or better) in her department, she will either ignore the idea, or lash out, yet doesn’t hesitate to butt into others’ work.

I have tried to stay in Jolynn’s good graces by keeping a sense of humor, being supportive and complimentary, and avoiding pushing back, unless absolutely necessary. But because she is so mercurial and unpredictable, it’s difficult to maintain equilibrium with her. My question is, do you have any advice on how to keep the bad side of her to a minimum, and how to confront her when she acts out? I usually let things blow over, but don’t want her to feel she can push me around. Frankly, Jolynn is a huge source of anxiety and stress, which I want to minimize.

Thank you,

Tired of Coping


Dear Tired of Coping,

My heart goes out to you. Having a colleague like Jolynn can feel like playing emotional Russian roulette.

It sounds like you’re using a whole toolkit full of coping mechanisms, all of which seem reasonable and appropriate as you’ve described them.

Here’s the bad news: You probably can’t minimize Jolynn’s “bad side” much more than you are doing right now. I suspect her volatility and negativity have very little to do with you (or anyone), and trying to figure out how to change her could become a full-time job if you let it, and is almost certainly a lost cause.

Here’s the good news: You can set clear and respectful boundaries of your own. When Jolynn “acts out”, I’d suggest you give yourself a chance to sort through what she’s done, clarify the unacceptable behaviors, and find a time (as soon as possible), to do the following:

Ask Jolynn’s permission to bring up an important topic—then tell her what you see and ask for what you’d like to be different. For instance, let’s say she yells at one of your employees in a meeting. Resist talking to her about her “emotionality,” “disrespect,” “unprofessionalism,” etc.—these loaded, non-behavioral words are almost sure to wind her up even more! Instead, take Jolynn aside as soon as possible, and say something like. “Jolynn, I have something important I want to discuss with you. Is this a good time?” if and when she says yes, continue by saying something like, “I understand that you raised your voice to Sue in the meeting yesterday, and told her you thought she wasn’t doing her job. I’d like you not to raise your voice to my employees, and if you have issues with their performance, I’d like you to come to me.”

If Jolynn makes excuses, gets angry or defensive, etc., stay very calm. Then, summarize her point of view, so she feels heard, and then restate your own observation and request, using basically the same words. You may have to do this a couple of times. If you stay calm, neutral, and behavioral—and don’t get tangled into reacting to her defensiveness—it will probably turn out OK (she may not change, but you will have made your best effort and that, at least, will feel good to you).

Having said all that, I want to remind you that you also have a larger decision to make. Since she’s senior to you, and secure in her position (if it seemed she was likely to get fired, I assume you wouldn’t have written this letter), and since you’re probably not going to be able to change her in any significant way, you have to decide whether you want to put up with her behavior long-term. You say she’s a huge source of stress and anxiety; remember that you can choose to look for another job with more congenial colleagues. Dealing with people like this can make you feel trapped: it’s important to remember that you do have a choice.

Let us know how it goes, and thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Erika Andersen, Author