Friday, September 8, 2017

Why Don't They Like Her?

One sympathizes with Polly this week. A woman who dubs herself Need to Be Liked has written to ask why half of her co-workers and teammates do not like her. It’s not merely that they do not like her. They are not even polite. They shun her and ignore her.

And yet, we and Polly do not really know enough to know what the problem is. We know that NTBL is nonwhite, but we do not know what that means. Is she Indian or Chinese or African-American? We do not know. Is she an overachiever or a diversity hire? We do not know.

We know that she is full of herself, that she thinks the world of herself, that she has everything going for her and that, as Polly will emphasize, she does not like her coworkers anyway.

NTBL has six co-workers. We do not know whether they are male or female, whether they are in her age group or not, what the nature of the non-profit is and so on.

Clearly, NTBL does not fit in. And, one feels that she does not know how to fit in. She asserts herself and shares ideas that she considers to be brilliant. Some of her co-workers consider her to be a show-off and believe that she is just making them look bad. She attempts to limit the number of brilliant ideas she shares at any meeting, but still, she must be sitting there at the meeting, wide-eyed and full of energy, barely controlling her brilliance. It must be irritating and grating for all present. If you stand out, if you try to lean in and to show how great you are, you will alienate other people.

The first job you have when joining a group is to fit in. That means, to shut up and to adapt to the ambient culture. Not showing off. We do not know what the dress codes are, whether she dresses more elegantly than the others or less elegantly than them. Of course, we do not know the gender of any of her co-workers, so we are guessing. Clearly, NTBL is not a team player. And has never been a team player. Of course, we do not know whether her great ideas are as great as she thinks or whether she is just blowing smoke.

One also suspects that she thinks she is better than they are and that she shows it with disdainful looks and a bad attitude. After all, she does not like them. If you think you can hide that much contempt you are seriously in error.

You will note throughout her letter that it is impossible to tell the gender of anyone involved. NTBL does have a romantic relationship, but naturally she does not know the person’s gender. So, neither do we.

For your edification, her are some excerpts from her letter:

I work on a team of six people and have struck up a good relationship with half of them, but the other half give me the cold shoulder while being friendly and warm to all my other team members. They go out to lunch with my teammates, ask about their weekends, spend time together, and often flat-out ignore me. Sometimes when I ask a question to the group, they don’t answer it. When I enter the room and say hello, they don’t say hi back. I ask them questions about their interests and projects, but they never ask about me or my life. Earlier this year, as a new team member, I invited everyone to hang out after work … and only one co-worker showed up. What really drove all this home for me is I got into a serious car accident recently, and half my team didn’t say anything at all to me about it. The other half showed me they valued my existence, asked me how I’m doing, and took an interest in my well-being. The team is dominated by the half that doesn’t like me. I feel like such an outcast. I want to rise above it and just focus on my work and the people who I do connect with, but I can’t seem to overcome that half my team doesn’t like talking to me or being around me. I can’t help but feel like they see that something is deeply wrong with me and I have no clue what it is. And it’s turning into anger toward them.

Her explanation: she is just too good for them:

On the surface, it looks like I’ve won the life lottery. I graduated from one of the top schools in the country, one that many people presume you must be wealthy to attend (I attended on full financial aid); I make great contributions at work that management recognizes often; and I’m in a loving, long-term relationship with someone who has a lucrative job at one of the top tech companies in the world, one that sets the bar for benefits, work culture, and compensation.

In her mind, sorely lacking in humility, she has it all, so her co-workers do not want to give her any more. Note also that she has had privileges—and yet, if she is not white how can she have privileges:

My theory: Just based on surface details, they think I have so much already, and they don’t want to give me any more. So when I point out improvements or share new ideas at work, or when I talk about experiences I’ve had, they just check out and completely disengage. Noticing this, I’ve started to really try not to mention anything that could show my privileges, of which I know I have many. I have started even being more quiet at work; even if I have something to contribute in the meeting, I keep it to myself. I have limited myself to one “smart” statement per meeting. I worry they will get annoyed that I am showing off or making them look bad if I really share all the areas I see for improvement and impact. I recognize I’m still relatively new to the organization, and the “you make us look bad” comment is something I’ve gotten in past jobs before.

And then, the point that Polly will emphasize, NTBL does not like the people who are shunning her:

Also, I don’t even like the people in question. Their personalities really grate on me. I really, really want them to like me, even though I can’t stand them. Maybe they are cold to me because they can sense my disdain, even though I try my best to put on a professional, friendly face. Maybe they think I’m aloof and snobby because I’m smart and know what I stand for, yet I’m shy and introverted.

Obviously, as Polly replies, you cannot expect people to like you if you can’t stand them. NTBL, who has happily regaled us with all of her greatness has forgotten the most obvious point about human relations. If you are throwing off contempt, you are going to get it back:

When you don’t like people that much but you want them to like you, it never works. You’re friendly and you try really hard, but not only can they tell that you’re ambivalent, they can also tell that you’re putting in an effort because you’re a high-strung overachiever who wants their approval, not because you really care about them.

One suspects that NTBL is “seriously irritating,” as Polly says, but that she is not, as Polly also says, “a reasonably friendly person.”

Maybe your co-workers dislike you because you are seriously irritating. Sure, you could take a poll and try to get to the bottom of why you irritate people like that. But my hunch is that you need to just drop it completely. Because look, you’re a reasonably friendly person and you’re just doing your goddamn job.

You can either fit seamlessly and facelessly into the group, or you’re treated with disdain. This is just how insecure herd animals treat an outsider.

I agree that NTBL would do best to turn down the pressure meter and just do her job. True enough, she is being treated by an outsider, but only by half the group. She might simply be too intense, too different, too full of herself, and too self-aggrandizing. We do not know whether she is acting like an outsider, or why half the group seems to be courteous. We suspect that the half that is polite does not like her either.

Polly is being nice here and I consider that a good tactic. She tries to point out that NTBL is so full of herself that… how could anyone like her? And yet, she blames it on the culture, which is a meaningless distraction.

I tend to agree with her that when NTBL keeps trying harder, in all the wrong ways, this offers other people an opportunity to keep rejecting her:

Your high-strung nature, your baggage, your achievements, your defenses, even your garrulous, confident nature — all of these things are often interpreted as a selfish inability to play nicely with others. That’s a reflection of our culture more than a reflection of anyone’s jealousy. Your complexity makes you untrustworthy. Your sharp mind makes you suspicious. Your separateness makes you unlikable. And even a supernatural effort to be friendlier, better, simpler, sweeter, quieter, and more agreeable will only make it worse. You will only seem fake. You will try too hard. They will delight in the luxury of rejecting you, over and over again.

While NTBL thinks that her coworkers are threatened by her brilliance and success, Polly and I do not think that that is the case. We both agree that NTBL is simply not a team player and does not know how to be one. We disagree about whether everyone should envy NTBL—Polly thinks that they should; I think that the point is immaterial:

It’s easy to imagine that these co-workers are envious of you. But I really don’t think that’s the case. I’m betting that even if you didn’t have the things that you have, these people still wouldn’t like you. Maybe they could sense from the start that you were incapable of subsuming your entire ego and agenda to theirs, the way some of the other team members have. They could smell a whiff of anger and conflict within you. It really doesn’t matter why they don’t like you, though. They were never going to like you. You don’t match them.

Polly continues:

What does work, I think, is to notice when you’re starting to want to scamper around and win people over. That manic placating energy is a bad energy. It’s conflicted: half–goofy clown, half–tenacious predator. When I was younger, I could make you smile, but I also had vicious claws to rip your face off. I was self-deprecating, but I was still a raccoon: adorable and clumsy and also mean as a motherfucker….

No one is that jealous of you, NTBL. But they probably should be. Because you have so much energy, so much emotion, so many wild, brilliant thoughts in your great big head, and you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You are focused, and you don’t mind working hard, and underneath all of this people-pleasing, you really don’t give a fuck. You are a raccoon with hearts bursting over your head, but your claws are ready to strike. They should be envious, and they should also be afraid. Forgive them for not caring that much. Forgive them for not knowing how formidable you are.

I would only add one point. NTBL is so completely full of herself that she really has very little idea of how she looks to other people. One suspects that her therapist is puffing up her already bloated self-esteem. She needs, above all else, to know how she looks to other people. And  yet, she is so completely in touch with her feelings that she has no clue about how others see her.


Jack Fisher said...

With her obvious superiority in all things, I wonder why she "needs to be liked". I doubt Napoleon had this need.

Sam L. said...

She is so full of herself there is no room (NO ROOM) for any one of her co-workers. Or so it seems to me. I could be wrong.

Ares Olympus said...

A failure of "external self-awareness" strikes again, but of course this is hard for all of us.

It might be the only way she can see how she is seen is to look into her own past or wider relationships to people that annoy her, and whom she gives a cold shoulder to. At least then she could imagine "What would one of those people need to do to gain her esteem or attention?"

I can imagine if she had ONE friend in the office she could trust, and ask that friend to be an objective observer, and discern how much animosity is real or imagined.

Also this blog has in the past shown how first impressions matter, and if we come across as a prick, or prickly, to others, its much harder to change that, even if you try to change. But again, collectively she's outnumbered, and so a single friend can make all the difference. You don't have to make everyone like you, but if one person, does, others may look again and wonder why.

JPL17 said...

I somewhat sympathize with NTBL (within limits), because being well-liked by co-workers isn't always something one can fully control. I.e., sometimes it just "starts at the top", meaning that it depends entirely on whether the person in charge likes you, because everyone below the top level responds to cues coming from the top.

For example, I've worked for some organizations where I objectively didn't fit in (e.g., due to age, experience, values, etc.) and wasn't well-liked by co-workers; but others where I also didn't fit in but was well-liked by co-workers. I've also had jobs where I objectively did fit in and was well-liked by co-workers; but others where I also did fit in but wasn't well-liked by co-workers. In all cases, it depended entirely on whether the person in charge personally liked me. (Indeed, this was true even within the same organization. I.e., co-workers who avoided me while reporting to a CEO who didn't care for me suddenly became my best friend when that CEO was replaced with someone who valued me.) So sometimes it just can't be fully controlled by the employee.

That said, I guess anyone who's really adept at the game will always manage to get the support of whoever's in charge, even if it means changing (or at least pretending to change) his or her values, standards, priorities, etc.

My sympathy for NTBL has limits, however. In particular, I doubt her problem is an inability to kiss the boss's butt. It seems more like a lack of ability and humility necessary to "read" her co-workers and adjust.

AesopFan said...

Has NTBL ever considered why half of the team DOES like her? What's the difference in the half that don't?