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Surviving the Toxic Workplace, by Linnda DurreBy Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.

As a business and corporate consultant and psychotherapist, I’ve analyzed, worked with, and consulted with many difficult bosses over the years.  In order to cope and deal with them, you need to know why they act the way they do and how best to deal with them, in order to earn their respect, get things accomplished, change negative situations to positive ones, and preserve your sanity.
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. And remember – all of these toxic bosses in all of my columns can be of either gender.  Toxicity does not discriminate according to the sexes. The previous ones include: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, Sewell the Sexual Harasser, Carl the Control Freak, Paula the Passive Aggressive, Clayton the Clueless, Greta the Gossip, Susie the Sugar Coater, Ian the Idea Stealer, Al the Alcoholic, Nancy the Narcissist, Donald the Deal Maker, Vernon the Verbal Attacker. and Bobby the Boss’s Relative.

This week is another difficult boss – the person who is passive aggressive and who shuts you out with silence – Cynthia the Silent Treatment Torturer. 


SITUATION: Cynthia the Silent Treatment person shuts you out by saying nothing to you–not an email, not a nod, not a hello. You may have displeased her, crossed her in some way, not done what she wanted or the way she wanted it done, and if so, you will be punished in her passive aggressive and childish way with her silent treatment.  Passive aggressive behavior means doing something nasty and aggressive in a passive manner – being resistant, withholding, obstructionistic, and slow to respond, ignoring you, and/or giving you the silent treatment – even some or all of the above!  And she does it in spades!

Cynthia conveys negative body language that can include, but isn’t limited to, the following – sneering, eye rolling, sighing in a displeased manner, shaking her head negatively, red penciling your drafts, shaking her head, glaring, and crossing her arms.   She can be deliberate and methodical in her plotting or spontaneous and spur of the moment in conveying her disappointment in and rejection of you.  This is how she tries to control you – by fear, intimidation, shame, and lack of information by keeping you in the dark.

Cynthia creates an impenetrable stone wall that is insurmountable.  She only allows communication when she deigns to speak to you, like the queen. You may wait days or weeks or even months.  As a result, you don’t know what she wants or when she wants it, so she creates a Catch 22 – a double bind – by not telling you.  When you ask her for feedback, she might say, “You should know,” or she’ll shrug her shoulders, or she’ll put up her palm as if to say “Don’t talk to me” or “Talk to the hand,” instructing you to leave her office, and/or she will shut her door in your face.

She can be notorious for not getting mad but getting even.  She might plot to avenge the tiniest slight against her. She can get you where you are most vulnerable, and she’ll even do it at the worst time – like in front of people you want to impress or her boss.  What makes it difficult is that you may have to go to her boss or to HR to get her to talk and cooperate.   You also may have to get an attorney because she’s creating a hostile work environment.  That may be your best solution.

EXPLANATION:  Cynthia is very angry and punishes people with silence.  Inside she feels insecure and powerless, but she’d never let you know that. Being silent, judgmental, and avoidant is where she feels she has power and control.  She has a facade of power, coolness, and control, but inwardly she can be as fragile as glass. 

Cynthia is a maddening person to deal with. She has a sadistic streak in her.  Because she feels powerless about her anger and is a bad communicator, she resorts to this passive-aggressive level because she knows it’s effective, painful, hurtful, upsetting, and that it will drive people crazy.  She believes that the workplace and relationships are a war or a battle, so she won’t communicate because she doesn’t want to lose.  In her mind, communication would put her on an even playing field and she doesn’t want to be even or fair.  She wants to be one up on you constantly, with you under her thumb.

Communicating would demand that she be mature, reasonable, rational, fair, and logical.  She probably doesn’t consider her behavior as being immature, unreasonable, irrational, unfair, and illogical, but it is and she is.  She feels justified in acting this way because she knows it will drive you nuts and keep her in the power seat.  Don’t let her get away with this behavior.

Cynthia needs to be confronted about what she does because she thinks you can’t see it, can’t tell, or that you don’t know it when she does something nasty.  She thinks you’re stupid.  You must inform her that you’d rather have her voice her discontent to you than sabotage you.  Then give her the space to be assertive, which may be scary for her, given her programming.  Get ready to hear negative feedback and have a dialogue with her, but let her talk first and get it all out, and then respond.

Cynthia may also have somaticized her anger and she may have migraines, headaches, ulcers, kidney stones, acid reflux, gall stones, hemorrhoids, colitis, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), constipation, backaches, neck aches, or other ailments where her anger has lodged in her body.  This is what happens to people who don’t communicate or who keep their anger internalized.

Cynthia should take a solid course in assertiveness training, listen to CD’s, and read as many books about it as possible.  She should also get into counseling and psychotherapy with a qualified, licensed professional.  Cynthia must realize that anger is a normal emotion and learn how to deal with it in an assertive, clear manner and not somaticize it or take it out on other people in passive aggressive ways.  If she takes your advice and does all or any of that, she will grow, mature, and be better off for it.  She will be incredibly grateful to you for freeing her from her own emotional prison.  She may or may not tell you and express gratitude, however.  But know that you have done her a huge service in telling her. 

You may even want to give her several books – The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner, The Anger Habit: Proven Principles to Calm the Stormy Mind by Carl Semmelroth, Taking Charge of Anger by Robert Nay, Keeping Your Cool: The Anger Management Workbook by Michael Nelson and AJ Finch, Jr., and The Real Solution Anger Control Workbook by Richard Pfeiffer.
Calling process – or a “process shot” – is what an ump or a referee does and it’s one of the most effective things to do with Cynthia so she knows you’re on to her game, that you know exactly what she’s doing, and you’re not going to tolerate it.  Tell her you know how she tries to punish you with her silence and that it’s not working.  That puts you in the driver’s seat even when you feel powerless.  If you feel brave enough, tell her that you know how insecure she must feel about communicating directly and how afraid she really must be of expressing anger – because that will drive her crazy. 

However, with someone like Cynthia, you need someone who has power above her and over her to intercede and negotiate – like HR and/or her boss.  She might continue to pull her nasty little passive aggressive moves, but it’s going to come to a stop when you go over her head and report it.  You’re going to have to do that – and soon – because she usually won’t stop on her own. And you’re going to need documentation of her nasty deeds, so start keeping a record.

When you confront Cynthia, she can lie, deny anything you say, and protest that she’s innocent. You must vigilantly guard against her stonewalling you by documenting everything with emails, phone logs, and letters – all with date and time stamps.  See if you can get witnesses as well.  Sometimes co-workers are too frightened to stand up along side of you, but if you can find them, they will bolster your case.  Make sure you “cc” any emails to other co-workers who are affected by her behavior, as well as to Cynthia’s boss and the HR department. Always keep a file at home and lock a separate copy away in your safety deposit box at the bank.  Stealing your files or breaking into your computer are things that Cynthia can be capable of, so protect yourself. 

When you go to Cynthia’s boss and/or to HR, arrive prepared and give them a photocopy of everything you have, so they can’t falsify documents.  Ask HR and/or Cynthia’s boss to talk with her to stop her negative behavior. You may want to ask for a face-to-face meeting with all of you present.  You may need to bring your attorney with you.  Be direct.  Have your attorney inform them that Cynthia is creating a “hostile work environment,” which is illegal and it must end or they can be sued.  Ask her to change her attitude and behavior.  If not, then request a transfer and/or have someone else as your boss. 

You may want to see if she will change, although I doubt it – unless her job is on the line and she has been informed that she will be demoted or fired if her behavior doesn’t change. Companies do not like being sued for anything, especially a “hostile work environment,” so you may have that as pressure on her.  If she doesn’t change, then ask for a transfer to another department and/or to report to another boss.

SOLUTION:  Use the Sandwich Technique – start out with a positive remark, then deliver the difficult feedback, and end positively.  If and when you confront Cynthia by yourself or with co-workers, you may want to say something like this:  “Cynthia, I know that you’re a very competent person and I appreciate that about you.  I have difficulty when you give me and others the silent treatment by not telling me what you need or want, or if I’m doing the assignments according to what you expected.  If you’re angry or displeased at my work, please directly tell me what I did so we can have a discussion about it and resolve it.  I’d like you to communicate with me so I know that your expectations are being met.” 

If you feel brave enough, you may want to continue with this next section: “Cynthia, I know you’re giving me the silent treatment to punish me or try to control me, and it’s not working.  I would like to know what I did to warrant this.  I think underneath it all you’re really very insecure and you’re afraid to communicate directly because you don’t feel you can win.  It’s all about winning, power, and control to you. You’re resorting to immature, unreasonable, irrational, and illogical tactics that won’t clear up the problem.  I recommend that you get into counseling and take a course in assertiveness training, listen to CD’s, and read as many books about it as possible.  You need to realize that anger is a normal emotion and learn how to deal with it in an assertive, clear manner and not somaticized it or take it out on me or other people in passive aggressive ways.”

If you didn’t feel brave enough to add that section, then end with this: “Cynthia, if you don’t change this attitude, I’m afraid I’ll have to go to HR or your boss because this is creating a hostile work environment and that is illegal and I can sue the company for this.  I prefer not to do that, so please let me know that you will stop the silent treatment and communicate honestly, openly, and frequently with me.  I’d like to work cooperatively with you because I do think you’re a competent person.”

If she changes, then it has worked.  If she doesn’t change, then go directly to HR and/or her boss and report this either by yourself or with other co-workers, if any will go with you.  Pick and chose from the above statements what you want to HR and/or her boss.   If you have decided to go to HR and/or Cynthia’s boss with your attorney, you may want the attorney to do all of the talking and threaten them with a hostile work environment lawsuit if she doesn’t change, and to follow it up with a letter.  These techniques can work well with someone as passive aggressive as Cynthia.  Be prepared to look for another job if HR and/or her boss side with Cynthia against you.  Then you can sue them for wrongful termination.  Good luck!

—Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, national speaker, and columnist. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Orlando. She is the author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day” (2010 – McGraw-Hill). The book’s website is: www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com

She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, Canada AM, and The O’Reilly Factor (twice), and the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW.  She has written for Forbes, CareerBuilder, Monster, A&U Magazine, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.

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