What's your Problem?

How do I break the cycle of hostility?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I work in an environment where, to over-simplify, the technical and human sides of things are carried out by males and females respectively. A while ago, I had an established relationship with one of these males. Unfortunately, I had a miscarriage and health complications that put me in a rather delicate financial and work situation, as this partner walked out on me and has ignored me ever since. I've been back at work for a while and management has comforting words.

But I'm surrounded by disrespectful and challenging colleagues - so much so that I'm unable to achieve any further personal and professional growth. I find passive-aggressive attitudes all around me and fail to gain either their respect or their engagement in the tasks I manage. Recently, someone got pulled up for something I've been working hard on and I was given a verbal warning on the grounds that my team had lost confidence in me. What can I do to change things?

A: Groups of otherwise perfectly decent people often behave with senseless cruelty when they smell weakness in one of their number. It seems to be a very basic animal instinct - but is no more forgivable for that.

You were away from the herd through sickness, and when you returned, you'd lost your place in the unspoken hierarchy. To compound the problem, your former partner - conscious, no doubt, of his own standing in this group - chose to distance himself from you. Without anything being said, you've become the victim of a conspiracy. You've been sidelined and rejected.

It happens in schools. A child is away sick for the best part of a term and on return is treated as an outsider. It's horrible to watch, and formidably difficult for the individual in question. As confidence drains away, behaviour is affected - and so the process of alienation is further fuelled. One of the most hurtful mental persecutions ever devised is for a group of people to send one of its number to Coventry. What's happening to you is not dissimilar.

I've analysed all this at some length if only to reassure you that, vile though it is, your experience is not uncommon and certainly not of your own making. My fear is this: the longer it continues, the more likely it becomes that you'll be quite seriously damaged. It may seem defeatist, but I doubt very much if an appeal for management intervention is the answer - you'll just be portrayed as a sneak and a cry-baby. As with persecuted children at school, sometimes the only sensible course of action is to start again somewhere else: and that's what I think you should make up your mind to do.

Don't rush it; give yourself time to look around. But make a firm commitment to transfer your skills and experience to a more benign environment. Even before you find that new job, I think you'll discover that simply having made that decision will have lifted your spirits. It might even kick-start your return to confidence.

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