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Reader Q & A: Escape from a toxic mentor

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QUESTION

Dear Irene,

 

Never thought I'd write but... years ago, when I started my current career, I was befriended by an older woman. She and I bonded and have become very, very close over the years. In the past few years, though, I've started to think of her as "toxic" - she's very negative about others, events, the profession, etc. and when she talks, it's like that old fairytale about the frogs and snails falling from her mouth. In one joint venture, she created problems that have taken about a year to clean up.

 

I've been pulling back: not sending as many e-mails, not calling, not spending time with her at meetings, etc. I don't want to hurt her, but I don't want my reputation to be hurt nor can I take the constant negativity. Any advice?

Signed, Amy


ANSWER

Dear Amy:

 

It sounds like as your own career has blossomed, you may have grown apart from—or simply outgrown your friend—who you once saw as a wise mentor. During this period of time, she may have also changed. It sounds like she is more jaded and negative about her work than she was when the two of you first met.

 

It’s great that you are aware of the growing schism between you and that you have instinctively done the right thing by pulling back from the relationship. You are also wise to be cautious about not alienating her since she is part of your professional circle.  

 

My advice would be to try to establish better boundaries between the personal and professional relationship. Do acknowledge her and say hello at meetings but don’t get into extended discussions. Send her work-related questions or information if you need to, but don’t send her personal emails or plan after-work dinners.

 

Unless she is clueless, she will probably recognize that you are pulling back. If she asks you why or confronts you, come up with an excuse that allows her to save face. Remember that she helped you become the person/professional you are today. You might say that you’re working on a relationship, working on a book, or realizing your own need for more down time.

 

Taking the time to write this note suggests that you are sensitive to your mentor’s feelings, as you should be. Because of that, I’m confident that you won’t do anything to provoke a backlash or damage your own professional reputation. If “frogs and snails” are spewing from your mentor’s mouth,” it’s likely that others will recognize her toxicity and won’t question your motives for backing off. They may be thinking, “Why didn’t she do it sooner?”

 

I think you are doing all the right things and hope your escape goes smoothly.

My best,
Irene

 

Reader Q & A: Friends@Work

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QUESTION:

Dear Irene:


A friend and I are about to start different jobs at the same place of business. We'll have different responsibilities and pay but will work on the same team so we will interact fairly often. This will not be a supervisory relationship but I'm anxious about it. I don't want to risk losing a friend (or have difficulty) and I want to do a good job - so does she.


She has less experience on the job and I have more in the field. She'd like me to mentor her when those opportunities present themselves. I'm okay with this but it is a new experience for me off the bat. I'm not sure but my friend seems more relaxed and doesn't understand why I am worrying about things that have not happened yet. I am moving to another state to take this new job. She lives in the state and it's her first job in 15 years. I want to learn what I can and not worry. Do you have any tips?


Signed,
Stephanie

 

ANSWER:

Hi Stephanie:

 

It is always a challenge to take on a new job, but this is particularly so when it involves a move to a new location. So you are wise to think about how it will affect your friendship-since it very well may do so.


You need to explicitly (and perhaps, repeatedly) remind your friend (now colleague) that you are anxious about taking on new responsibilities and that you will try to mentor her informally behind the scenes-but as a friend rather than as a supervisor. You need to get settled in to your new role yourself first. She may not realize that even though you have more experience, your job will be new-to-you. Hopefully, this discussion will ward off her leaning on you too much and she will let you set the pace in terms of how much time and energy you have to mentor her. Because she hasn't worked for 15 years, she may not remember the challenges of starting a new job, which can be formidable.


Having a friend who lives in a new state can be helpful to you in many ways. Those first weeks may be lonely and you may want to depend on her for certain things particularly with the holidays coming up. It sounds like your relationship can be one of give and take---as long as you both keep realistic boundaries.


Always remember that you need to put on your own life vest first before you can help others. It's great that you are aware of the potential pitfalls because that means you are less likely to fall into them. Best wishes for a successful move and transition. Let us know how things go.


Sincerely,
Irene

 

Reader Q & A: Trying to find the courage to end it

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QUESTION:


Dear Irene,

I am in the middle of a bad friendship and am so grateful to have found this site. Thanks everyone! I am trying to find the courage to "cut down" on the friendship but I am a person who generally will hold things in and then explode. I did this to a friend in high school and still regret it and I never want to shout horrible things at a person again. This is one of the reasons that I have been putting off cutting down or ending this current friendship. But I have been practicing being assertive instead of aggressive and I hope this will help me in this situation.

 

My friend and I would see each other about twice a year and that was good. We would have fun and then I could get on with my life and spend time with the friends that I had more in common with. But, idiot me, I needed a job and she was able to offer me one. I then felt obligated to go out with her more.

 

She was recently separated and didn't have that many people to hang out with. I had nothing else really going on so I went. Since she only -- and I really mean only -- talks about herself (I just realized that I can't recall her ever asking anyone "How are you?") I got tired of going out all the time pretty fast. I am a super fantastic listener and do not even need to talk about myself a whole lot to be happy. This post is the most I've "talked" about this situation to anyone. But when you tell someone something and they say "uh-huh, so anyway..." it makes you feel like a doormat.

 

I have some very nice friends that I would love to spend more time with but I am so exhausted by this friend. I will actually daydream about the "real" conversations that I have with my other friends while this friend is telling me the same story for the tenth time. You remember those "real" conversations where one person says something while the other one listens and then the other person says something while the other person listens - Ah! the good old days!

 

So why, after a year, am I still a slave to the phone calls and "dropping-ins"? Well, first, I just had to hang out with her when her boyfriend was out of town (She has boundless energy and is easily bored, while I need ten hours [sleep] a night!). I would say to myself, "Okay, he'll be back and it's just one night and she's been going through hell with her ex-husband and needs a friend." But it wouldn't be one night because he would be gone for work for weeks at a time and so I was apparently supposed to be his stand in. At this point it was annoying but tolerable. Looking back (hindsight!!!) I should not have gone out with someone to have a tolerable time.

 

Now I feel like I missed the chance to get out of this because she is in a worse state than she was before. I kept thinking that she needed me because her ex-husband was making things difficult with child custody and after she got out of this rough patch I could slowly make myself less available. Well, now her boyfriend suddenly dumps her and she is semi-suicidal. I told her that she should consider seeing a therapist and gave her the suicide prevention hotline number. She is still saying things about suicide. Now how am I supposed to tell a suicidal person that they are annoying the crap out of me? Any advice would be greatly appreciated if anyone takes the time to read my ramblings.

 

Good luck everyone!

Signed,

Trying to find the courage

 

ANSWER:


Dear "Trying to Find the Courage:"

 

It sounds like you have gained quite a bit of insight into yourself and your relationships over time. That's good---but now you need to act on that self-knowledge. For some reason, it seems like you have been unable to extricate yourself from a relationship that has felt very draining. Admittedly, the timing now makes your situation more challenging.

 

As I understand from your note, you may also work with your friend or work for her. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to disengage or cut it off without worrying about its effect on your employment, so perhaps that is another reason holding you back from doing what you know you should do.

 

It's nice to be helpful and supportive to friends but relationships can't be consistently one-sided; they need to be reciprocal. I'm sorry that your friend is depressed and talks about suicide (as you are). Her threats need to be taken seriously. However, you aren't the person who can help her. It was wise (and appropriate) that you suggested she seek professional help. Do you know any other family members who should be informed and might be able to step up and help her? I think you also need to tell your friend that as much as you care about her and would like to help her, her issues are too complicated for you to handle.

 

Try to back off gradually and spend more time with other friends. Spending large amounts of time with someone who is very depressed can be depressing. I think you need a little respite from this difficult situation, which will help provide you with more perspective.

 

Let us know how things go.

Best,
Irene

 

 

 

 

Working friendly, working smart

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Gallup researcher Tom Rath says that friend-friendly workplaces are more apt to spur energy, creativity, and productivity. In his book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without (Gallup Press, 2006), Rath notes that employees who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

Some observers point to generational differences in attitudes towards workplace friendships. The old school baby-boomer thinking was that friendships and work don’t mix---and might even be downright dangerous. Friendships between supervisors and supervisees were considered even riskier than friendships among colleagues...
 

Friendship: Making It Work

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A recent article in USA Today posed the question about whether or not friendships in the workplace are good or bad. It simply isn’t that simple.

I just finished working on an article on workplace friendships for my monthly Mind Matters column in AAAS ScienceCareers.org (I’ll let you know when it’s posted). Depending on the setting, the task at hand, the players, and their social and organizational roles in relation to each other, the outcomes can go either way. At their best, these friendships can enhance job satisfaction and productivity---but many times, they can diminish one, the other, or both...

 
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