Work climate gets hot for employee in the middle

Dear Joan:
I am currently working part-time as an administrative assistant and secretary. In my position, I assist three professionals and the department director with their individual projects. I constantly prioritize my time in order to accomplish everyone's assignments without playing favorites.

I have frequently found myself placed in an uncomfortable position. The professionals I work for use me as a sounding board for their grievances: with the boss, the job, the equipment and with each other. The director is as bad as the rest of the staff. (They do not respect each other and are attempting to get me on "their side.")

In my effort to please everyone, I have listened to their complaints. I have acknowledged that I have heard them, but I refrain from voicing my own. Unfortunately, the most unhappy person in the department thought that her bitterness was well founded - since I had listened to her without commenting - and instigated a feud with everyone. (She asked me what someone else in the office was saying behind her back and I was drawn into telling her.)

I am frustrated with the position I find myself in. How can I function as part of the team and not be accused of taking sides or spreading rumors? I don't want any part of the games they play; I only seek to maintain a good working relationship with each of them.

The drama you are witnessing is what gives office politics a bad name. The director, who has the leading role, is setting the tone. Theatrics like these drive ethical, organization-minded people from a company, leaving behind the weak, insecure and adolescent.

In the case of your colleagues, the title, "professional" is not an adjective. You are wise to keep your opinion to yourself and continue to set objective priorities for the work they give you - no matter how much they try to manipulate you. If you can't determine the priorities, give the individuals the responsibility to decide among themselves or ask your manager what has priority.

I'm sure you now recognize the two errors that got you into trouble; telling one person what another person said behind his or her back. And listening attentively to a bitter person looking for someone to side with her. Although you meant well, you forgot the (selfish) motivations of the people with whom you are dealing.

Even the well-intentioned and innocent can be caught in this crossfire.

I doubt you can change your environment and working in that climate can be hazardous to your health. Consider looking for another job. Try to have another position before you leave, since it's easier to find a job if you already are employed. Temporary agencies are worth checking out if you can't find something on a permanent basis. If you want part-time work, they will be able to accommodate your schedule.

In the meantime, the next time one of the "professionals" approaches you with a juicy worm, give no encouragement, no smiles, no nods, and no nibble. When he or she is finished, pleasantly say, "What do you think you'll do to improve the situation?" Then don't judge the answer.

Those who really want to solve the problem will welcome your question. Those who relish the nasty games will find other people to use as pawns.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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