A Patronizing Colleague

C.K. Gunsalus analyzes a situation without easy solutions.

February 18, 2011

Dear Survival Guide:

I am an associate dean in a liberal arts college in a large public university. I am the only woman, apart from the dean herself, on the team. One of my colleagues, with whom I have to work quite closely, is rather self-important, constantly mentioning his connections, the importance of his role, his attendance at key meetings, and how very busy he is. I just get on with my job, which I believe I am doing well. Each time I have to collaborate with this colleague, I have a sense that he is either telling me what to do, telling me what a good job I am doing (but in an evaluative tone), not listening to the key ideas I am presenting and often resisting these, pushing his own agenda, or otherwise patronizing me.

I am younger than he is by more than 20 years, and a woman, and I am also considerably more experienced administratively. I am by nature quite easygoing, but this is beginning to affect my working relationships and my personal well-being. I have thought of tackling the matter directly with him, but each time I raise a small question about our interactions, he just spouts a string of compliments that disarm me whenever I criticize him. In public, I find his remarks intolerable, but I do not want to discredit him in these arenas, so I put up with it even as I feel it does a disservice to me, my colleagues, and my area of responsibility. My dean is aware of the situation and is supportive, but I feel that the responsibility lies with me to address this situation.

--Tired of Being Put Down

Dear Tired:

I wish I had the perfect, or even a very good, answer for you. Maybe some of our readers will. My two main pieces of advice may sound familiar: first, success is the best revenge, and second, the only thing you get to change in this situation is you. This means that the strongest response that will leave you in the best situation long-term is to stick with your strategy of getting on with your job and make sure that your work is of the top quality, responsive to your dean’s needs and advancing the good of the college. Developing a selective deafness as to your colleague’s remarks and his tone might also help get through what is likely to continue being unpleasant.

As I see it, your dean may feel that she is being supportive, but by leaving the entire situation to you to handle, she has effectively sent you out on a limb by yourself. Just about anything you say in these situations, either in public or private, will be turned against you: you’re too sensitive, you’re reading things into the situation that are not there, you’re paranoid, you are too touchy, etc. Many of these comments are likely to be delivered in the same patronizing tone that is already bothering you.

It does occur to me that maybe the dean doesn’t know what to do that would make the situation any better and is too nice or too conflict averse to suggest you are being too thin-skinned. Or, it is possible that the dean sees the conduct, and is happy that the colleague is being patronizing to you and not to her. I respect your sense that this is up to you to handle; at the same time, you said your dean is supportive. A well-placed positive-about-your work comment from the dean in one of the public situations could help considerably and would not require her to deal with any outright conflict; whether he is insecure or more Machiavellian in what he is trying to do, her endorsement of you and your work might give him a different perspective on how the winds are blowing.

Test the situation by suggesting a phrase of endorsement she might drop into one of the public conversations when he is present about your work. Whatever the dean’s rationale or how this plays out, the only aspect of this situation that you get to change is you, not how your colleague behaves. One thing to consider is whether the compliments are indeed sincere. What is the chance that he’s simply terrible at ordinary interactions? For example, is the patronizing tone unique to his interactions with you, or does he talk down to everyone? To assess whether his conduct is targeted only at you, focus on others while he is talking: what kinds of reactions does he elicit? Is there eye-rolling or subtle or overt signals through body language or speech indicating that others are irritated, too? If it’s the latter, growing a thicker skin -- or training yourself not to notice his style of speaking -- may be your best defense.

Try to assess whether your colleague’s insecurities may be driving him to try to put you down, whether overtly or subtly. If so, then your best bet is to find effective coping mechanisms. If his tone and approach are special for you, the chances are good that others are noticing it, too, and your high-road, non-response will affect your reputation far more than anything he does -- particularly over time. Whether your colleague’s comments are targeted at you or are generally characteristic of his interaction style, one possible way to divert yourself is to start keeping a log. For starters, track what he says, the target, the setting/type of meeting, who else is present, and time of day, for starters, to see if you can find a pattern. If you see one, that could provide a key for devising an intervention that might improve the whole dynamic.

Even if it does not, keeping a log can be a strong coping mechanism for situations in which you have minimal control over what is otherwise happening: It gives you something concrete to do and something else to think about while he blathers on. When I had a scary major surgery some years back to remove a large brain tumor (thankfully benign), neither I nor my family had much control over how events unfolded. We adopted the logging approach, deciding to track five specific behaviors on the part of medical personnel with whom we interacted (eye contact, hand washing, etc.). Our record-keeping did not reduce how frightening the situation was, but it situated us more firmly in who we were and provided us with a structured activity and something to think and talk about with each other. As a bonus, at the end, we had some interesting data for a letter to the hospital CEO about the experience of being a patient in that environment with some suggestions for his consideration. We got this idea from Atul Gawande’s book Better, in which he provides five suggestions for being a positive deviant, for making a worthy difference. Suggestion three is “count something” to become a scientist in the world. So count we did.

--Survival Guide


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