I serve in a central administrative role for a regional office of the nonprofit I work for. My supervisor, whom I have a good relationship with, works in our main office in a nearby city. I get frequent positive feedback from him and am routinely the highest achiever among my peers. There is also a regional director in charge of operations at my location, and while it makes day-to-day life in the office more pleasant if I get along with this person, he doesn’t have any authority over me or my work. The regional director, Bob, was recently promoted from another part of the organization. Our relationship was strained before he even started, based on a bad experience working on a project together when he was in his previous role, but I was open to making a fresh start. My supervisor was aware of the tension and sympathetic, but urged me to try and make it work. And I have tried. But I am at my wit’s end.
Bob is a very touchy-feely sort, which is pretty consistent with the kind of social-justice work we do, but not my style at all. I just want to keep my head down and do good work. He wants us to be a happy family and has been organizing an endless schedule of team-building activities, ranging from a weekend potluck at his house to group yoga in the break room. I’m not the only one who finds all of this to be awkward, but he seems to think it’s especially urgent that he and I “get past our issues” and pouts when I don’t participate. But if I am anything less than chilly toward him, he wants to clasp my hands in his and talk about our feelings. He doesn’t understand that demanding a hug will not improve our relationship.
And now he’s made plans for everyone in the office to do a sweat-lodge ceremony together. I’m starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it, and about what could possibly come next.
I know my supervisor is supportive and there are limits on his expectations that I “make it work,” but he’s also some distance away and doesn’t really know the new director. Complicating matters further, the director is dismissive of the work I do. I’m a licensed professional with a busy schedule, but he assumed I (a woman) would be available to answer his phone when his assistant was out and got annoyed that I couldn’t help set up for a office party because I had an off-site meeting with a client. I dread going to work now. How do I address this, especially since he doesn’t seem to respect me?
A sweat-lodge ceremony?! With your co-workers?!
To say nothing of the demands for hugs (!), the group yoga, and the casual sexism about your role in the office.
My blood pressure is rising just reading this. This guy has a fundamental misunderstanding of what most people want from their workplaces: Typically, people want things like good pay and benefits, clear expectations, useful feedback, and the resources to do their jobs well. Generally they are not looking to spiritually cleanse themselves in religious rituals with colleagues, nor to do Downward-Facing Dog with the people they’re trying to chase down expense reports from.
And yet I get an astonishing number of letters about offices run by managers who are convinced, utterly convinced, that pressuring people to participate in all manner of non-work-related activities — from ropes courses to singalongs to trust falls — will meet some amorphous, ill-defined goal about improving morale. In reality, it often achieves the opposite because so many people find this stuff off-putting and invasive, and it leaves them resentful and annoyed. (To be clear, there are people who enjoy this kind of thing. The problem is when the people who don’t are officially or unofficially expected to participate.)
In any case, there are two pieces of good news here: the fact that the regional director has no real authority over you, and the fact that at least some other people in your office find this as awkward as you do. The first means that you can be straightforward and explain what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and the second means that you can potentially speak up as a group to get him to back off on the bonding activities. (In fact, even if he were your manager, ideally you could still be straightforward with him, but there potentially could be more complicated dynamics if that were the case.)
So. Start by talking to him one on one. At a minimum, you should let him know that you’re not planning to do the sweat lodge. But since there’s a broader pattern, too, I’d the opportunity to address that as well. You could say something like: “Bob, I want to be up-front with you that I’m not a very touchy-feely person at work. I don’t want to hug you, and I’m not really up for so much team-building. While I certainly want to have warm relationships with co-workers, I prefer to let those relationships develop naturally through the normal course of working together. When I’m at work, I want to focus on work. And when I’m not at work, I often want to use that time for other things rather than office social events. I get the sense that you’ve been disappointed by that, so I want to be clear with you about where I’m coming from. It’s not an issue between you and me; it’s simply how I prefer to use my time.”
(And here’s an optional add-on, depending on whether you just want to get out of the sweat-lodge ceremony or whether you want to push him to reconsider it entirely: “While I understand and respect that people have different preferences on this stuff — just as I hope you’ll understand and respect that about me — I think doing a sweat-lodge ceremony is inappropriate for work. It’s a spiritual ceremony — a sacred religious tradition for Native Americans. It’s something that many people are going to be uncomfortable with, although they might feel pressured to participate because it’s being presented as a work activity. I hope you’ll reconsider.”)
If he pouts or tries to make this all about capital-F Feelings, say this: “I want to keep the focus here on work. Our working relationship is what’s important, and I think we can have an excellent working relationship now that you understand that these activities just aren’t my thing.”
Then, in the future, if he tries to clasp your hands or hug you, remove your hands from his grasp or just tell him no: “I’d rather not hug, thanks.” Say it cheerfully, and let him be hurt if he’s hurt; he’s going to look really weird if he tries to assert some right to physical contact with you.
And speaking of letting him be hurt, I’d follow the same path if he acts hurt about your lack of future participation in office meditation sessions or sleepovers or whatever else he might propose. Go with a brisk, cheerful “no thanks!” and move along as if of course he’s professional enough to accept that, even if you see him pouting.
Now, the sexism. You could actually address this as part of the first conversation if you want to, but I suspect the easiest way would be to just wait for the next time he asks you do something like answer his phone when his assistant is out. When that happens, you’ll have a pretty natural opportunity both to erect clear boundaries in the moment and to clarify your role more broadly. For example, if he asks you to answer his phone, you can look slightly surprised and say, “I’m in the middle of a project and can’t do that.” And then follow up with him later and say, “I want to clarify my role here. My priorities are X, Y, and Z, and I’m not administrative backup. I think Joe and Leah are typically backup for admin work if you need it.”
Also, make sure that you loop in your boss on what’s going on. If Bob mentions to him that you’re being cold or even hostile, you want your boss to have the right context to put those comments in. It doesn’t have to be a big serious We Need to Talk About Bob conversation — it can just be something like, “Hey, I’ve got this covered, but I thought I should mention to you that Bob is really into group bonding activities like break-room yoga and weekend parties, and he’s seemed disappointed that not everyone is super into that stuff, including me. I’ve explained to him that it’s nothing personal, just not my thing. He’s also pretty touchy-feely and I asked him to stop hugging me. Again, I’ve got it covered, but I wanted you to have the context in case it ever comes up with him.” (And if the steps above don’t curtail Bob’s sexist assumptions about your role, you should raise that with your manager too — but there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be able to shut it down on your own. But if that doesn’t work, the next stop is your boss.)
Last, it might be worth talking to some of your co-workers and seeing whether people are willing to speak up as a group to ask Bob to chill out on the forced team bonding. Some people who won’t speak up on their own will be willing to speak up when they can do it with the cover of a group, and getting pushback from a group of people will make it harder for Bob to write this off as you just being a cold fish who doesn’t appreciate weekend potlucks and the glories of post-staff-meeting yoga.
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