Remember how in high school people just didn’t like you, for no reason, or for stupid reasons like because you had the wrong color sneakers or you sat at the wrong table or they just didn’t like your face? And these same people maybe bullied you or isolated you or made you feel terrible about yourself or crazy or like you could do nothing good and sometimes even got you in trouble with the teacher even though it was not your fault?
This, every insidious, anxiety-producing, outrage-inducing part of it, happens at work too. Sometimes work will seem just like a giant high school, with much of the same bullshit. Sometimes people will hate you because you’re new and you’re busting up a comfortable ecosystem, one that the current employees have lived within for a long time and don’t want to end. Or they’ll hate you because hazing the new guy is part of the culture, and it’s just what they do. Sometimes it’s because you are naturally very good and very efficient at your job, and your goodness and efficiency expose someone else’s laziness and apathy and how they’ve been coasting under the radar, not doing much, for so long. Sometimes it’s because a senior person has been overpromoted, and can’t competently manage her daily tasks. Deep down, she’s insecure, and you, being your competent, best self, make her afraid she’ll be found out and lose her job.
Even under the best of circumstances, colleagues are a weird social construct. They’re people you’re forced to be around for longer periods than anyone else in your life, and because of this many become friends, almost family, by proximity. Just as in high school, you will eventually find the people who are your people at work. This will be exhilarating and comforting, but the process should not be rushed. You are not looking for instant friends; you will not find your work wife or husband on the first day. You are looking for true collaborators, real connections to people with whom you will build trust, over time. When you start a job, be friendly to everyone, but focus on observing how people interact, who speaks up when, who gossips about whom, how the boss reacts to it all. Listen, but don’t interject your opinions about office life, at least not yet. This may feel lonely for a while, but your loneliness will pay off. Soon the breakdown of the office ecosystem will reveal itself; soon you will identify the slackers versus the workers, the complainers versus the optimists, the scammers versus the generous and kind. Soon you’ll know the people you want to get to know more intimately and tell your secrets to, and the ones you definitely do not.
Sitting back now, letting the action happen around you, will put you in a stronger position later on if and when things get weird and dark—when people try to present your ideas as their own, when they cut you out of important meetings or gossip about you in the office kitchen, when they demean you in front of the boss and go for the promotion that should be yours, when your anxiety, social awkwardness, thin or thick boundaries—really, anything about you—earns you the dreaded label of “intimidating.”
“Intimidating” is an insult almost exclusively lobbed at women. You don’t hear strong men called intimidating. Strong men are spoken of as commanding, confident; people like how they “tell it like it is,” how much they kick ass at their jobs. Strong women, conversely, are seen as a threat, as pariahs; they rub people the wrong way. Unless you are intentionally acting like a dick, being intimidating is rarely about you. More likely it’s about other people projecting their feelings of inadequacy onto you. You can be intimidating to other people if you are tall, pretty, noisy, quiet, funny, stoic, shy; if you don’t look like everyone else; if you have a unique fashion sense; if you’re an intense, competitive person who plays the game of work like Monica Geller plays touch football. No matter how hard you try to bend and appease and please and hide yourself away to make those whom you “intimidate” happy, their feelings about you may never abate.
The best you can do is recognize that “I feel intimidated” is really code for “You threaten me/I need attention and love.” Recognizing this doesn’t mean you have to transform into a lovable, validation-parroting Furby. If it feels right, you can choose to be more open and emotionally generous at work; if it doesn’t, you can simply say “forget ’em,” keep your head down, and focus on your work.
With catty coworkers, don’t sweat it too much. It will most likely pass. Just stay above it, hold on to your people tightly, and ride out the storm. Remember that you are not obliged to meet anyone where they are emotionally, especially if where they are is toxic or unhinged. The more visibly upset you get, the more you perpetuate the negativity; the more rattled and distracted you are, the more you give the bullies what they want. Unless the bullying is so extreme that you have objective, tangible proof that it’s getting in the way of your capacity to do your job, don’t react. Don’t rat on the bulliers. Ratting will feel satisfying for the three minutes that you’re talking; after that, it will only serve to make the problem worse.
Take the high road. Be considerate and compassionate and empathetic; examine your own behavior constantly. Make sure you are not actually part of the problem, that in your enthusiasm to succeed you are not behaving thoughtlessly or carelessly. Try to right your wrongs, so you can look back at this time and feel good about how you behaved. But don’t diminish who you are just to play petty games. Remember that a little kindness goes a long way, but don’t cower: just quietly, respectfully, stand your ground. If it’s your boss who hates you, or someone else who has the power to end your job, you may just have to wait it out until you can quit, or get a promotion, or get what you want out of the job. It’s the worst, but unless the best decision for you is quitting today, it’s worth it to endure.
This is an excerpt from Weird in a World That’s Not, published by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.