Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where prog-thinkers, prog-rockers, and Porgs alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about intraoffice dynamics and a new boss.
I work in a small office where we are all very close. We got a new boss several months back who definitely runs the office in a less laid-back, intimate style, bringing in a lot of corporate techniques that make most of us uncomfortable. That being said, he is a really good person and, I believe, cares about all of us. One person who has been on staff the longest is really digging in their heels, and finds the way the boss is changing the environment toxic. This person and I are very close, but I am beginning to worry about the obvious conflict brewing there and the potential of getting caught in the cross fire. How should I navigate this situation?
Not-Quite-Hostile Work Environment
At the risk of revealing my inner (and outer) cat lady, this reminds me a lot of getting a new pet. You might have two cats (or three, or five, or…) who get along fabulously, but once you add Snufflekins IV to the mix, fur is flying, every glass in your home has been shoved off the counter, and you can barely sleep for all the yowling. Right now, your new boss is Snufflekins, and it sounds like your coworker (let’s call them Fluffy) is not having it.
I’m sympathetic to them both: Snufflekins is an outsider trying simultaneously to adapt to an existing dynamic and to affect changes he thinks will help your office. Fluffy, however, only sees this upstart barging in and messing with a system that, to Fluffy, ain’t broke and don’t need fixing. Just who the hell does Snufflekins think he is?
More importantly, however, I notice you don’t mention how you feel about the changes Snufflekins has brought to your work space. Is that because you don’t have an opinion, or because having one would mean picking a side in a confrontation that clearly makes you feel uncomfortable? Your first step here is to take a moment to figure out how you feel about this situation, and to recognize that you don’t have to fully agree with either of the parties: you might like some of the things Snufflekins has implemented, but still miss the intimacy your old boss helped to foster.
Once you’ve done that, you have two options: action or inaction. Your concern, as you phrased it, is avoiding getting caught in the crossfire between your boss and your coworker. If that’s the case, your best course of action might be to do nothing at all. When Snufflekins issues a directive or makes a request, do your job to the best of your ability. When Fluffy tries to vent to you about their issues with the new regime, stay non-committal and change the subject or eject from the conversation (noting that you have to get back to work is a great get-out-of-jail-free card for awkward workplace interactions). Then, if Snufflekins and Fluffy ever do get into a hissing match, all you have to do is stay out of the way, and they’ll sort it out on their own.
I’m not sure that’s what you really want, though. Though you don’t say as much in your letter, I think Fluffy’s antipathy toward your new boss is making you unhappy, and causing you stress. That’s not uncommon — confrontation is never pleasant, especially when it comes up in an environment you can’t escape, like work. If you want to try to diffuse the situation, however, it’s going to take some communication on your part.
Since you describe your relationship with Fluffy as “very close,” I’d probably start there. Tell them that you appreciate their objections to Snufflekin’s changes in your office, but that you wish they would give him a chance. Be honest with Fluffy here: you believe your boss is sincere in his efforts to manage your team, and that he’s not trying to poison the water. Hopefully, Fluffy will take your feelings into account; if you’re as close as your letter indicates, I think they will.
However, you may also wish to speak with Snufflekins. You’re very careful in your letter not to say that his “corporate techniques” make you uncomfortable, but I suspect they do. Part of being a good boss is listening to those you manage, and hopefully he’s established an environment in which you feel safe bringing issues to his attention. If you do speak to him, focus on the dynamic at work rather than on your problems with his individual policies: at the end of the day, he’s the boss, and he gets to decide how he runs your office. But he should be aware of, and care about, any tension that his approach is creating for you and your coworkers.
Don’t throw Fluffy under the bus here; if they wanted to talk to Snufflekins about this, they would. Instead, approach this personally, noting that you feel as though your office culture has shifted since he came on board, and while you support his choices and understand that his methods may be different from those you’re used to, you’re concerned about the hurt feelings you have observed as a result. Of course, having a conversation like this isn’t without risk: you have to be the judge of whether Snufflekins is the kind of person who will be open to a discussion like this. Your description of your office indicates to me that you likely don’t have a dedicated HR department, but if you do, that may be another avenue to pursue that doesn’t put your neck on the line. If not, if Snufflekins is a good boss, and if you handle this with tact, hopefully he’ll be open to hearing what you have to say.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to email@example.com.