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Coping with a Toxic Boss – “PHOEBE THE PHONY”

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 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, Bobby the Boss’s Relative, Cynthia the Silent Treatment Torturer, Phil the Philanderer, Ned the Negligent, Sal the Slave Driver, Porter the Political Soap Boxer, Michael the Micromanager, Wade the One Upper, and Betty the Battle Axe.

SITUATION
Phoebe the Phony is so artificial you would think a label of her ingredients would rival those on a cola can.  There is nothing real or genuine about her.  Phoebe the Phony has a great deal in common with Nancy the Narcissist, so it would help you to read that previous column of mine. They are both totally self-absorbed and must always look fashionable and perfect. They feel they are the center of the universe, and you are merely a planet revolving around their glory. They want everyone to believe whatever it is they tell you.  Beware – some, if not all of it, is usually shaded, false, or taken out of context.
 
The problem is you don’t trust Phoebe and you can’t depend on her because you know what a liar she is and that she will throw you under a bus to preserve her image, ego, and appearances.  She may set you up.  She may make you responsible for her work and then blame you when it’s not finished on time.  You must be very cautious of Phoebe because she has to win all the time and you may end up as her human sacrifice.  She’s probably doing the same thing to other people in the office, but they may not stand up to her.
 
The Phony Phoebes of the world usually come in two types –1) they know they are phonies and are doing everything they can to cover up and deny that they are faking it and 2) the ones who are totally clueless how fake they really are.  Either way, they are annoying at best and dangerous at worst. 
 
EXPLANATION
Both types of Phoebes are usually hiding something: their real name, family origins, background, education, experience, marital history, children they gave up for adoption or aborted, skills or lack thereof, and their secret agendas.
 
They may have a former spouse or close relative with a bad criminal record who is in prison and may have changed their name because of it. Phoebe may have escaped from an abusive spouse and/or an incestuous father, grandfather, brother, or uncle and doesn’t want to be found.  Can you blame her?  Have some compassion for her fear and desperation. She is operating out of survival and will do anything to protect herself.
 
She may have lied on her resume about her experience, or going to a certain college, if she even went at all. She may have been married before (or several times before) and may even have children from that marriage or previous relationships, and may have given them up for adoption or had abortions. 
 
Whatever it is she is hiding, Phoebe has a great deal of denial, shame, and embarrassment about it and she doesn’t want you or anyone else to know about any of it, so she makes up elaborate lies and stories to hide the truth.  Unless you hire a private investigator, you will never know. 
 
Remember the scene in “All About Eve” when theater critic Addison DeWitt confronts ingénue Eve Harrington about her past?  Phoebe, like Eve, can become a dirty street fighter right in front of your eyes.  Phoebe is highly manipulative and uses charm, flirtation, changing the subject, and whatever she can conjure to get her way and distract you from the truth.  Her best defense is an offense, so watch out when she attacks and accuses you. She’s not above digging for dirt about you to detour you off her trail.
 
Phoebe usually doesn’t have any friends and if she does, they are just like her – phony, superficial, materialistic, vain, and narcissistic. She doesn’t know how to be a deep, caring friend because it would entail her being deep and caring, which she is not.   She probably didn’t have a close, caring, loving relationship with her mother or father so she never learned it.
 
Phoebe has a great deal in common with Nancy the Narcissist in that they both want to appear “perfect” and will do anything to perpetuate the myth.  The reality is far from perfect, so be careful when you confront her. She is like a scorpion or a coiled poisonous snake – she bite can and she can kill you – literally.  She will do anything to hide her secrets and if it means killing you, she would.  So be aware of her lethality.
 
SOLUTION
If Phoebe is in a position of power over you, you must be prepared to be fired if and when you question or cross her.  If you can get other co-workers to agree with you and back you up, it makes your case stronger.  Most people don’t want to do this because they need their job, are frightened and not assertive, and will not speak up. However, if you can find colleagues who will go in on this with you, it is better for you and the entire department.
 
Confronting Phoebe by yourself is usually futile because she doesn’t listen and she doesn’t want to change. Her investment in her facades is like the Great Wall of China. It’s difficult to penetrate and overcome and you must have proof that she has lied. Even when you do have proof, she will continue to deny and make excuses.
 
Use HR and the powers that be that have influence over her to alter her behavior. Go to HR first with all of your facts in order, documented, and in front of you and a copy for the HR director, with one full copy locked up in your safety deposit box.  Make sure you have the date, time, and place of any and all of Phoebe’s transgressions with accurate re-creations of what happened, who said what, and when and where each situation occurred.
 
Keep your statements in this format to HR, “I experience Phoebe as lying to save herself. She tells me one thing and then I find out that it isn’t true. It makes me feel angry, powerless, and betrayed.” 
 
You can give specific examples of exactly what she has said and when.  Talk about how when you confront her about her lies, she doesn’t listen to you and denies even more.  She doesn’t want any feedback, doesn’t want to hear your opinion, and cuts you off.  Stress that her refusal to see the truth is costing the department money, time, and efficient productivity. That is what an HR director will respond to.  Most HR directors don’t really care about your “betrayed feelings,” or your “bruised ego,” but when the company is failing, losing profits, having increased turnover, higher absenteeism, and more accidents because of Phoebe’s lies, then they may pay attention, so gear your complaints in this vein.
 
Ask the HR director to speak to Phoebe first and see if there is any discernable change in Phoebe’s behavior and attitude.  If so, let it be and be grateful. If she starts backsliding, go back to HR and report it. 
 
If the HR director structures the confrontation, he or she may ask you to come to a meeting after she speaks to Phoebe, so she is doing the first step and is asking you to come to the second step, which is having a conference with you, the HR director, and Phoebe.  This is usually done like a law case – you get a chance to voice your complaints and Phoebe gets to respond, with the HR director facilitating the discussion, coming to an agreement about changes in behavior. 
 
Confronting Phoebe will demand that she come to grips with reality, which may cause her little delusional world to come crumbling down. She will defend herself at all costs because the truth is too painful, scary, and dirty to face. 
 
One tactic that works is to call process shots on her, which I discuss in Part II of my book, on communication techniques.  Keep bringing her back to the point of your discussion because she will deny your statements, distract you, and throw you off guard.  You can say things like, “That has nothing to do with the point, Phoebe which is you lied to me.”  And use the “broken record” technique – repeat it over and over again until she gets it.  To paraphrase Glenn Close as the character Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction,” you should say, “Phoebe, I will not be deterred or ignored.”
 
Be aware that Phoebe will “boomerang,” and what is her issue will land on your lap.  Call another process shot on this and say, “No, that is what YOU do, Phoebe.”  You may be asked by Phoebe and/or the HR director to change your behavior as well, so be prepared for that. It is usually done to placate Phoebe and strike a compromise.  Keep track of everything Phoebe does because my bet is she will continue with the phony behavior, lies, and deceit and you may have to go back to HR again.  If you feel she is plotting against you or can do you physical harm, tell HR immediately, ask for a transfer to another division, or get another job at another company.  Phoebe can turn into a stalker, just like Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction” did, so be aware.  Protect yourself at all costs.
 
I hope these tips will help you in dealing with Phoebe the Phony.

—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.

Coping with a Toxic Boss – “PHOEBE THE PHONY”
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