transcript of How to Cope With a Work Problem You Can’t Change”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “How to Cope With a Work Problem You Can’t Change.”

Alison: I get a lot of letters from people who are stuck in a difficult situation at work and it’s something that isn’t going to change — or at least they are not the one with the power to change it. It could be a terrible boss, or a really frustrating coworker, a terrible company culture, but whatever it is, it’s not something that they have the ability to resolve themselves. And they’re trying to figure out, knowing that I can’t change this, how do I avoid being driven crazy by it? And when our guest today wrote to me, that is the question that she posed. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Alison: So you have a situation at work with a new-ish coworker who is creating a lot of drama and unpleasantness. She’s doing things like throwing temper tantrums and slamming doors and throwing papers and complaining about everyone around her. And you’re not in a position to do anything about it, you’re lower in the hierarchy than she is. Is that right?

Guest: That is correct.

Alison: Throwing papers is pretty extreme. How do people around her react when she’s doing that?

Guest: We typically try and just avoid adding to the fire, if that makes sense. Depending on the day, if she’s frustrated with something, she really just will throw papers around at her desk. She kind of slams her drawers, she mutters to herself swearing, and slams various doors — the doors from the front of the office to the back of the office. And if there’s clients, she just will storm through the front of the office or she will be complaining about something that she also does if not more extreme. And it’s a very interesting time, to say the least.

Alison: (Laughs) I’m so curious about this. Has she behaved this way in front of her boss or in front of anyone else who’s senior to her?

Guest: She behaves that way to people senior to her. Absolutely. It’s a law firm, so she’s done that in front of associates. I haven’t seen her do it in front of partners as much, but she does still keep the same persona. Ever since she started, she’s been like that. She didn’t ever put on a face when she first started. She wasn’t her best self. You know, when you first start somewhere you are absolutely your best self.

Alison: (Laughs) Yeah.

Guest: I was kind of concerned because I was like, “If this is her best self, then we can only go down from here.”

Alison: It’s so ridiculous for anyone to be like this at work in general, but it’s so interesting that she’s doing it while she’s new because as you say, usually people who are going to eventually be over the line at least have the sense to wait until they’ve been there a while longer and are more woven into the organization and more comfortable. So it’s bizarre that she’s doing it while she’s still new. How new is she?

Guest: Now at this point, probably a couple months in, but when it first started becoming a very big issue she was less than a month in — she had already taken about four days off in a month span, whether it was calling in sick or I’m not quite sure. Again, I don’t deal with that as much, but yeah, a solid three Mondays and a Friday.

Alison: This is fascinating. Now, you said it’s a law firm, which actually made me think, “Oh, okay.” Because law firms are sort of notorious for bad behavior. Is she a lawyer?

Guest: She is not. She is a paralegal.

Alison: Okay. Interesting. But yeah, it does seem like law firms are just rife with bad behavior.

Guest: Absolutely.

Alison: Now, is your sense that it’s being addressed behind the scenes, just more slowly than it should be, or do you work somewhere with a culture where problems don’t always get addressed?

Guest: So it is a very small law firm, there’s less than ten of us total, so it is not the typical office environment. Law firms in general are notorious for being a little toxic and we’re definitely not a typical office. We’re very close, personal lives are very intertwined. One aspect of it did get addressed luckily actually after I had initially written into you. But as a whole it has not been addressed, and things typically don’t get addressed unless it really causes a huge problem to clients, if that makes sense. If it’s just between us, it doesn’t necessarily need to be addressed, or it does need to be addressed, but it is not a priority.

Alison: Yeah, that makes sense. And the fact that it’s such a small firm, I’m sure it makes it worse. Because if you had a couple of hundred people there, you wouldn’t be exposed to this all the time, but with only 10 of you it’s going to be hard to get away from that.

Guest: Oh, you can’t get away from it. Absolutely. Not only that but it’s a small physical office so it’s very open, so you can hear her constantly.

Alison: Yeah. Now you had said to me in your letter that aside from this, you really love your job. You’re really happy there, but what made you write into me was that you find yourself getting caught up in the drama that she creates and it gets you frazzled and stressed and your work suffers. Will you tell me more about that, about getting caught up in it and it affecting your work?

Guest: Absolutely. So typically, her temper tantrums and stuff like that, I’m not as privy to because I am separated. I have a door. She has slammed my door before (laughs), but I have a door. I’m away from her typically, but recently she sent a very passive-aggressive email to me, didn’t copy anyone — and she did it to another coworker that I found out later — that really, just thinking about it kind of gets me a little caught up again because it was just very frustrating to be on the receiving end of it. And it really affected me for the whole day. I kept thinking about it, it was just getting me really frustrated and I really couldn’t think about anything else.

Alison: And was it just personal nastiness?

Guest: Yes and no. It was something that… what she was emailing about, which I’ve seen you talk about plenty of times, was actually a candle, which sounds very dramatic. So she emailed me about a candle I had burning and we had discussed it. She had emailed someone else about a candle they had burning and just complaining about it. Not saying it made her ill, but just saying she didn’t like it. And something that frustrated me about it especially was that she is a smoker. And so she’ll come into our tiny office space kind of reeking. And you know, unfortunately it is an addiction, and I understand that, but it’s just kind of a give and take that she doesn’t quite see, I guess, is that the reason we’re burning these candles is because we’re trying to cover up that smell. And so she’ll send a very passive-aggressive email that really, I mean just really got to me that day.

Alison: Okay. So I think there are two issues. One is this big question of, how do you avoid letting this kind of thing get to you when it’s happening around you and there’s nothing that you can do about it? And the other is how do you respond when she’s rude directly to you? I can’t believe she slammed your door, by the way. Was she storming out of your office in a huff?

Guest: She was actually just walking through. And the email actually came shortly after that one.

Alison: Ah, it’s all connected.

Guest: Yeah. She just kind of stomped through and slammed the door and I thought maybe something was going on with her, maybe she’s frustrated, but then it came to me so I was like, “Oh, you slammed the door because of me.”

Alison: Because of your candle (laughs).

Guest: It’s my fault.

Alison: God, I mean, it’s really hard to ignore stuff like that because other annoying habits — I mean, frankly, all annoying habits can be hard to ignore — but others you can kind of let them roll off you. But when someone is injecting that kind of aggressive anger into the environment you’re working in, that is really hard to tune out. That’s just a very disruptive energy to have around you.

I want to give you some advice. I think there’s probably two different questions here. There’s what do you do when she’s rude to you and there’s what do you do about this bigger situation that you can’t control? When she’s rude to you directly, I think you have a couple of options. With some people, you can address it pretty directly. I don’t think I would recommend that with her because she sounds like a loose cannon and I don’t know that there is a point in engaging. She sounds volatile and just generally kind of horrible, but if that weren’t the case then sometimes you can just name the rudeness and ask what’s going on. Like, “Hey, your tone here really surprised me. Is there something going on that I don’t know about?” Or, “I might be misinterpreting that you sound frustrated with me. What context am I missing?” And sometimes — again, I don’t think with her, but sometimes — just directly calling it out like that. Not being rude back, but just naming what you’re hearing and asking what’s up with it. Sometimes rude people will respect that and respond to it. Sometimes they’re so used to never having been called out in a direct, matter of fact way that they will actually back off. I actually did this with a coworker once ages ago. Some of the time he was fine, but sometimes he would get just really grumpy and aggressive out of nowhere. I think it was just when he was in a bad mood, he would take it out on everyone else. And I was finally like, “Look, you’re talking to me in a way that is really unpleasant. What am I missing here?” And he actually apologized and stopped doing it around me. So that was a success, but it doesn’t work every time and I don’t think it’s the solution here with this coworker because she just sounds too far gone for that.

There is another option, which is to just kind of ignore it. Like I was saying earlier, that’s really hard to do with that kind of hostility and anger, but you could try really internalizing that this behavior is all about her — and clearly it is because no rational person is doing this sort of thing. No rational person is routinely throwing papers at work or slamming people’s doors — I mean, people just don’t do that. So I think if you can internalize, this is 100% about her, sometimes you can kind of distance yourself from it because you work with this crazily hostile person and sometimes that is going to splatter on you because you’re standing nearby, but it’s not about you. And if you get really clear on that in your head, sometimes it can make it easier to just let it roll off you. You know, you get a rude email, you roll your eyes at it, maybe you even feel sorry for her, but then you move on with your day. But I know that that is really easier said than done with someone like this.

I do want to say more about this idea of feeling sorry for her that I just mentioned — because while that is probably the last instinct that you’re having right now, there might be something there that will help. I mea, you’re not required to feel sorry for her. She’s behaving wildly inappropriately, and she’s making your work environment really awful, and you don’t have to have sympathy for that if you don’t want to. But it is true that you’ve got to be a pretty unhappy person to routinely behave the way that she has. Imagine being her and going through your life that way. Imagine showing up at a new job that way. I don’t know what kind of relationship she can have with family and friends when she’s like this, but I would bet that they’re not great ones.

Guest: Absolutely.

Alison: And I bet she has a lot of weird stuff going on internally. Obviously anger at a minimum, but that is often a cover for other issues. Not to be overly sympathetic here because she is making your life pretty bad, but I bet it is fairly painful and frustrating to be her. And sometimes, if you can remember that, it can drain a lot of power from the person and make it easier to let their behavior off you. Because now she’s not this monster, now she’s kind of this sad situation that you can have pity for. Does any of that resonate?

Guest: 100%. It’s kind of been what I’ve been trying to do honestly, especially given the context — I hadn’t mentioned this earlier, but she’s not really even doing much work. She’s not really doing much of anything. If she gets projects, she maybe does one a day. So in that context, especially given that she’s claimed to have so much work history in this environment, I do feel sorry for her because I can’t imagine this lasting for very long. I do feel pity, but at the same time, it does get in your head eventually, no matter how much you can… I don’t want to say knock her down, but you know, knock a monster down.

Alison: Yeah. I wonder if the reason she’s not doing very much work is because people are hesitant to give her work because she’s difficult to work with.

Guest: Initially she got quite a bit of work — and of course with any new job, there’s a learning curve of how to do it at this specific office, even if you’ve been doing it for 20 or so years. Initially there was a learning curve and it was pretty steep. The people who worked immediately with her were a little alarmed at how steep that learning curve was. And even though they kept assigning projects, they would have to keep taking them back because again, it’s a law firm, there are deadlines to meet. So as much as they try to assign work, whatever that work is, she’ll complain about it. She’ll say, “This isn’t good enough for me. I don’t file.” Or, “I want to do this, I don’t want to do that.” And we all do these things. Whatever she is getting assigned, we all do them. So her thinking she’s better than whatever tasks she’s assigned is another very frustrating thing.

Alison: Yeah. I’m thinking about how you said that usually problems don’t really get forthrightly addressed there unless they’re impacting clients, but I wonder if this piece of it might eventually move it into that category where it does get addressed.

Guest: Absolutely. It is, again, since I’ve written in it has slowly gotten into the circle of what the upper levels are thinking about. They’re aware of it, they’ve discussed it with their upper levels and they’re finally realizing what we’ve all had to deal with for quite a bit of time.

Alison: Well, it’s good that it’s being seen and this might be the piece of it that does get it brought to a resolution. Who knows?

I want to talk also about the other piece of this, this question of how do you work somewhere that has a frustrating situation going on that you can’t stop and not let it get to you. We want to talk about the big question of your letter, which is when there is something really frustrating going on around you at work and you can’t stop it. What do you do? And I think there are a couple of different things I’m going to throw out there. We’ll see if any of them resonate with you. Maybe all of them will, maybe none of them will, but we’ll see what happens.

Guest: Hopefully all of them! (Laughs)

Alison: Hopefully all of them, that’s right. One of them is just trying to get some clarity about what the situation is. If you knew, for example, that your workplace was generally pretty good about addressing problems, but it just tended to take a few months, you might be able to safely assume, “Okay, my past experience here tells me that they are on this and something is going to get done, but I also know that it’s not the fastest process, but I do know enough to trust that it’s not being ignored and in time this will be dealt with.” Or in your case it might be, “It seems like this is on their radar now and there might be details of this that are going to mean that it will be addressed even if otherwise it might not have been.” Or if you were somewhere that never addressed problems no matter what, which is definitely the place some people work in — that in itself, as frustrating as it is, is actually another kind of clarity. Because in that case you can tell yourself, “You know, I really like working here because of X, Y, and Z, but I know that one of the tradeoffs is that they are way too accommodating of bad behavior. And this is probably going to go on for quite a while.”

And that doesn’t sound very helpful or very encouraging, I know, but it can help you avoid a situation where every time your coworker has an outburst you’re banging your head against the wall with frustration about why no one is dealing with it. Because you know why they’re not dealing with it. They’re conflict averse and they don’t deal with problems. And so you don’t need to gnash your teeth waiting for it to be handled. You know that it’s going to go on for a while, and there can be a kind of emotional freedom in just knowing that, so that you aren’t waiting and wondering and pulling out your hair about why no one is taking action. Does that make sense?

Guest: Absolutely. There is so much freedom in just accepting the fact that nothing will be done about this. So let me just move on with what I have to do and just try and truck along best I can. There is absolutely a clarity in that.

Alison: Yeah. And I think seen from one angle that can sound really pessimistic, but it really is liberating to not have to think, “Do I have to tell someone about this? Is there something that I should be doing? Is it going to be tomorrow that they deal with it?” You can kind of relax sometimes when you realize that this is just going to be how it is.

Another thing you can sometimes do is to talk to your own boss about the situation. Not always, but if you do have a pretty good relationship with your boss and she seems to have good judgment and be reasonably clued into what is going on in your office, sometimes you can say something like, “Hey, do you have any sense of what is going on with Jane? Do you think someone is working on it behind the scenes?” And who knows? You might hear, “Oh it is definitely being handled,” which would give you some comfort. Or you might hear, “Well you know, Jane’s boss has her hands full with other stuff. So I think it’s probably not getting very much attention right now.” Or “Jane’s uncle plays golf with the CEO and so no one’s going to touch her.” Who knows, but it might give you just some more context for what’s happening.

But the big thing that I want to recommend, and if you’ve read Ask a Manager for any length of time you’ve probably heard me say this before, and it’s because I’m a huge fan of this — sometimes when you’re stuck in a situation where there is bad behavior going on that you can’t do anything about, it can be helpful to reframe it in your head so that you find it entertaining. My sister actually told me a long time ago that when she is stuck in a situation with irritating people and she can’t get away from them, she pretends that she is a heroine in a Jane Austen novel and she is a poor relation who’s stuck around these rich relatives who are behaving badly, and she’s dependent on them so she can’t do anything about it. Which is a common theme in Jane Austen novels. And she said it really changes her perspective because she loves Jane Austen. She’s able to find it amusing instead of just annoying and I love this advice for work things. It doesn’t have to be Jane Austen. You could pretend it’s a workplace comedy like The Office, or any other form of entertainment, because your coworker sounds like she is behaving badly enough that she could be a character on a TV show — maybe even one where you would watch it and think, “This is such an unrealistic portrayal because no one would get away with behaving that badly.” Or a variation on that, you can pretend that you’re an anthropologist who’s studying a different species or an alien life form.

With all of these, I think the reason they work to whatever extent they do work is that you’re putting some emotional distance between you and the situation. And when you step back, it’s easier to find some humor in it, and that drains a lot of power from the person and can make the whole thing more bearable. Does any of that resonate?

Guest: Absolutely. Especially picturing it, I was thinking as you said The Office, I’m just thinking of watching a TV show about a workplace and having her as a character. I mean, it would be completely comical watching people having to deal with her and seeing the things she does and even seeing the things that I don’t see that she does, I’m sure are incredibly entertaining. So that absolutely does. I’m just thinking about it now and it’s kind of hilarious.

Alison: Yeah, it is. I mean, when you are living it, it is very often not hilarious. But if you can get yourself into a headspace where you have distanced yourself and you are thinking, “My God, she’s like a caricature of a bad coworker,” there really can be humor in it. And there is so much power in being able to do that, because it does take you out of this space where you’re frazzled and on edge, and it puts you on almost a completely different plane where you do have emotional distance.

Guest: Absolutely.

Alison: And you do have a lot of other things going for you here. The fact that you love your job is huge, and when she gets really annoying you might even just focus on that — the reasons that you’re there, all the things you like about working there, and that one person doesn’t cancel all of those things out.

Guest: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of what’s kept me going is just knowing how it can be without her. Again, I do get to fairly separate myself from her for the most part. A lot of people have to deal with her a lot more than I do. So I just kind of focus on that and focus on my little bubble and how much I like my bubble.

Alison: Yes, your candles in your bubble (laughs).

Guest: Yes, my awesome candle.

Alison: And at least you have a door. That’s a silver lining.

Guest: Absolutely.

Alison: Well, that is my advice. Does that help, and is there anything else we should talk about that would be helpful?

Guest: No, I think even just that last bit about imagining other people watching it and imagining myself watching it, I think that is something I’m definitely going to apply and try and think about a lot more. Because again, thinking about it right now just away from her is so comical to imagine this kind of person, so I think that’ll definitely help day to day. If it does kind of impede on me anymore, I’ll just imagine, I’m a character in a show and watching her doing something like that.

Alison: And maybe you can get a successful screenplay out of it.

Guest: Maybe (laughs). That’s my new calling.

Alison: (Laughs) That’s right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: It was a pleasure.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.