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How to Deal with Workplace Drama When It's Unavoidable

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I got together for lunch to discuss the issues she was recently having with her boss. She was pretty upset about the way her boss had been treating her and wanted my advice on what to do.

My colleague, Rachel (that’s not her real name, but I’ll call her that to protect her privacy), had actually been friends with her boss—or so she thought. They would frequently have lunch together, swap stories about their lives outside of work, and even commiserate about the things that bugged them about their respective jobs.

It was a relief to feel like she and her boss had each other’s backs, especially in a work environment that wasn’t always very friendly. That’s why it came as a total shock to Rachel when, the Monday after a misunderstanding about the weekend work schedule (which Rachel had profusely apologized for), her boss went from friend to foe.

All of sudden, she stopped inviting Rachel to lunch and “reminded” her that lunch breaks were only an hour long.

She started dropping by Rachel’s desk every so often to ask what she was working on and comment that she seemed to not have enough work to do.

When Rachel called out sick a few weeks back, which she rarely does, her boss insinuated that she was being dishonest, “because she seemed fine” the day before. She even insisted that Rachel bring a doctor’s note when she returned to the office the next day.

At first Rachel was confused (and hurt) by her boss’ behavior, thinking she had missed something. She became infuriated, though, when her integrity was put into question. She didn’t want to confront her boss and risk creating more tension. But she was beyond frustrated by this point and feeling like her job was in jeopardy.

You never expect it to happen. But when working relationships turn sour, things can quickly escalate from awkward to uncomfortable to unbearable. Simply walking away isn’t always a feasible option.

How you handle the situation could mean the difference between being annoyed and walking on eggshells at work for a while, and blowing up in a moment of sheer frustration and being escorted out of the building for good. So here’s the advice I gave Rachel that you can benefit from, too.

Check your attitude

You may feel justified in having a ‘tude when your boss flips the script on you. But walking around with that chip on your shoulder is only antagonizing the situation. What you don’t realize (or maybe you do and just don’t care) is your attitude is reflected in your behavior. In other words, when you feel like you can’t stand to be around the person, you will act like you can’t.

It might not seem obvious to you, but trust me, your boss and other colleagues will notice the tension. Even “subtle” nuances in your behavior that you’d think would go undetected—avoiding eye contact with her, sighing heavily when she speaks or using an aloof tone in your conversations—are blaring signals of conflict.

Avoid the need to be right

When your boss is rude or condescending to you, you probably feel the urge to politely defend yourself. For one thing, you know you don’t deserve to be treated this way. For another, you don’t want her to think her behavior is okay. I get it.

Unfortunately, what you might see as setting a boundary for yourself can be easily misconstrued as hostility towards her. And if you’re both intent on being “right”, a simple disagreement can turn ugly. Fast.

Sometimes, in order to keep the peace (and your job), the best response is no response at all. At best, she’ll recognize that her attitude is uncalled for and perhaps stop being such a jerk. At worst, she’ll take your attitude as insubordination and make a point of bringing it up in your next employee review.

Make an exit strategy

Giving yourself an attitude check and holding your tongue are smart coping techniques when drama crops up. The objective in tempering your thoughts, feelings and reactions is to get you through a difficult situation.

However, it’s important to recognize when the drama you’re dealing with is more than just a phase. If you can’t find the common ground to at least work cooperatively with your boss, the situation can potentially become toxic. When that happens, it means your work environment is no longer viable for you. It’s time to take an honest look at your options and make a plan to move on.

Your turn -> Have you ever had to deal with workplace conflict? Were you able to ride the tide and get through the situation, or did you have to make an exit? Tell me about it in the comments or email me.

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