I'm sorry to learn about your hard time at work, and I hope you find
in this answer a good input to help you overcome it.
To reassure you about the content of this answer, you may want to know
that I am a social psychologist, that I work as a facilitator in
different kind of organizations, and that -as a team leader- I've had
the opportunity to help an employee overcome a situation similar to
On the other hand, you should be aware that this answer can, at most,
provide you with an insightful perspective on your situation that you
might benefit from in your attempt to overcome it. But -as you can
read in the disclaimer at the bottom of this page- the answer can't be
taken as a professional advice, and your acting in accordance to its
content does not guarantee that you will succeed. That is so because,
among other reasons, a real professional advice of this kind would
require an in-site work -at least an in-person contact with you- which
is not possible for any Google Answers Researcher. Also, the situation
can be affected by variables that neither you nor an adviser can
That said, I'll offer to you my best so that you'll count with a
better understanding that may help you face the situation with better
chances -and feeling better. One additional warning, do not take any
course of action or change in your behavior unless you had carefully
read the whole content of the answer, and thought it over.
Understanding the Situation
You know the situation directly and I don't, so I have far less
information about it than yourself. But you're also *immersed* in the
situation, thus you might not clearly visualize and discern all the
aspects, and your subjective feelings toward it also interfere with a
beneficial understanding. If I were able to directly witness the
situation -or to have prolonged face to face talks about it with you-
I might get to reach a position in which I could plainly explain it to
you. Instead, what I can do within this frame is giving you some hints
to help you get a better understanding by yourself.
As you describe it, the situation type seems to be that of a team
conflict with one team member. So there are two poles to consider: you
and the group. We'll analyze first the group side.
When a group behaves in a way that marginalizes a member, with reasons
neither apparent nor justified by the member's behavior or
characteristics, it's highly likely that the person is being put in
the role of a *scapegoat* for unresolved, latent discontent in the
group. By unconsciously depositing the cause of the underlying
anxieties on the "scapegoat", the group feels and illusory short-term
relief for its anxieties, which in reality don't fade away, and
recurrently reemerge. But as long as the "scapegoat" is there, the
group is able to recreate the illusion of a relief over and over. Of
course, you can be certain that this mechanism doesn't lead to the
solution of the real causes for the discontent, which remains unsolved
and -very likely- increased as time elapses due to an accumulative
effect of this vicious circle. This "scapegoat" structure is a
spontaneous behavior of all groups, even functional ones, but in these
ones eventually the cycle breaks and the real causes come to light and
get solved, thus the scapegoat gets free of his/her burden.
This dysfunctional cycle can be graded depending on whether the
scapegoat role is fixed or rotates. Typically, when it rotates, the
dysfunction is less deeply installed and more likely to get broken
than when the scapegoat is continuously one same person.
In deeply stereotyped groups, the situation may lead to the exclusion
of the scapegoat person. Briefly, the accumulation of tension and
anxieties continuously unresolved and recurrently deposited on the
same person leads to the point in which either the group manages to
separate that person, or the person in this role can no longer
tolerate the anguish and quits. The group will feel the momentary
sensation of having got rid of its burden - incarnated in the excluded
person - but soon enough the discontent will reappear, and either
another person will assume the scapegoat role, or another group
defense mechanism will be activated, or the situation will explode in
an undesired manner, or eventually they find the path to resolve the
>> Identifying the sources of discontent <<
You have two interacting axis where to place the real causes of group
anxieties. One is emotional and the other one is the task. A work team
exists because it has a task to do, but those who are summoned for the
task have emotions. Despite what many still believe, it's been for
long a widely accepted fact that persons cannot leave their emotions
at home. Moreover, the emotional factor is not a burden we have to
keep at bay so we can do our job. Just the contrary, emotion is the
source of energy that motivates people to do a good job, when it is
*focused in the task*.
But emotions are by nature chaotic, and you can't keep them focused
*just* in the group task. I said it's a source of energy - think of it
as a water torrent that would spread anywhere if you don't tube it.
And, just like water, you cannot tube it all. Thus, people gather
around a work to do, but then they just can't help interrelating in an
emotional level. People like or dislike each other with no apparent
reason, they discover similar ways of thinking or tastes, affinities
or differences, attractions and rejections, and in time an intricate
net of feelings takes shape. The word shape is not trivial here,
because that net shapes patterns of group behavior, situations that
tend to repeat. It's very common that, for example, you can anticipate
the effects of certain events, according to the knowledge you already
have of the web of relationships.
At once, the task founds a net of organizational and emotional
relationships, and that net is the territory in which the task takes
place. Emotions may originate in the interrelation of emotions
themselves, but also in the relation with the task. You may feel
intimidated by someone's arrogant personality, and also anxious
because of a too close deadline, or even feel terrible because that
arrogant someone is the one who monitors your completion in time of
the task the deadline is for - just to put an example in simple terms.
Also, working in a team generates a number of expectations in its
members, such as working experience, professional development,
accomplishment satisfaction, meeting stimulating people, a motivating
environment. Expectation - even if very task-related - implies emotion
- gratifying or frustrating feelings. A working group as it becomes
dysfunctional generates frustration, hence emotional discontent. And
discontent begets more dysfunction.
As a rule of thumb, the more a group is focused in its task, the more
functional it is. Conversely, groups tend to be dysfunctional as far
as they miss the focus in their task. As the group focus moves off
from the task, the always-pushing torrent of emotions deviates the
attention to different objects - personal ambitions and desires,
preferences among the co-workers, competition for leadership or to
impose one's working criteria, etc - just because most individuals
refuse to resign their legitimate expectation, and they'll tend to
find consciously or unconsciously the path to satisfy them. If the
group functioning is healthy, their ways will tend to be so, if not,
their ways will tend to adapt accordingly. In many cases, people do
not even realize, at least for some time, that things are getting odd,
including their own actions.
So, the amount of emotion involved in work teams is not a problem as
long as it converges in the task as the core of the group's
motivation. The point is managing the emotional flow of the group
having its task as a pivotal center, rather than restraining the
emotional component of the in-group relationships.
So far, we've been considering the psychosocial level (the individual
subjectivity in relation with the group) and the socio-dynamic level
(the individuals relating among them). The whole picture includes the
environmental context in which the group is immersed, that is the
organizational level. There is an apparent impact of the organization
in the teams operating inside it. The organization typically commands
the tasks, imposes the rules, establishes the deadlines, determines a
work culture, in sum, it sets the frame and the conditions for the
group life. These conditions can facilitate or obstruct the team
performance, but normally the largest factors for success - or failure
- lie in the group itself.
The key element that completes the scenario is the leadership, which
is at once the interface between the group and the organizational
environment, and the in-group regulator of the working and emotional
flows. The team leader is responsible for keeping the team focus in
the task, and pursuing an emotional balance that enhances the group's
productive performance, instead of hindering it.
So then, where do we look at to find the sources of the group
discontent? Below there's a short set of questions intended to guide
your observation. Please try to focus on situations you're not
involved in - just your coworkers relating among them and with the
task - because we're trying to ponder how the group is beyond your
presence, and to avoid your subjectivity as much as possible. Consider
- Some amount of complaint is normal in work environments, but too
much complaint becomes detrimental for the task. Do you consider that
the level of complaint in your team is normal or detrimental?
- What do your coworkers complain about more frequently?
- When concentrated in their tasks, most of the team members, most of
the time appear to be: Excited? Bored? Stressed? Angry? Scared?
Indifferent? Irritable? Joyful? Lazy?
- When communicating with each other, the general attitude among your
coworkers is: Respectful? Tough? Friendly? Complaisant? Collaborative?
Teasing? Competitive? Trustful? Distrustful? Joyous?
- Do team-members' attitude change noticeably when communicating with
one coworker or another - as denoting marked preferences?
- Does most communication among team members contribute or interfere
with their work?
- Can people who don't get along well, or very unlike to each other,
partner tasks with good results?
- When relating with team-members, most times the team leader's
attitude is: Aggressive? Calm? Correct? Authoritarian? Demagogic?
- Do the messages from the leader to the group frequently contradict
his/her messages to individuals?
- Does most leader's communication with the team members relate to the
job or to other things?
- Do you notice important differences in the leader's attitude
depending on the team member he/she is talking to?
- Is the leadership orientating for the task, is it confusing, is it negligent?
- Does the leader care about interpersonal conflicts and/or personal
problems, or else tends to keep off? Does he/she intervene effectively
in their solution, or rather adds confusion, or is just ineffective?
- Is the leader happy with the current performance of the team?
- Is the team-leader well ranked in the organization?
- Is the team performance well ranked in the organization?
- Is the organization a well organized one and effective? Does it
provide enough support for the team's task?
OK, the list was not that short ;-)
Anyway, it will help you configure a sort of a "map" where to place
possible origins of group distress. Also, you might find that some
situations that you thought were affecting you exclusively could be
affecting others as well - please notice that I'm not predicting it,
just suggesting the possibility. Now, if this was the case, seeing you
as a part of a wider problem rather than the protagonist of a problem
focused in you should give you some relief.
However, even though this observation confirmed that you are in a
particular problem, the better understanding might be of help to
withdraw from that position. The result of this observation will be no
more than a hypothesis - not a certainty - of how things are going,
but a mere hypothesis can be of help to take prudent steps to move to
a better situation.
Now, ATTENTION: No matter how certain you get to be about the source/s
of the discontent you may have recognized, DON'T PUT YOURSELF IN A
*SHOOT-THE-MESSANGER* SITUATION. The problem with the recognition of
the underlying circumstances for a group's anxiety, is that the
individual may feel compelled to speak it out -specially when being in
desperation for his/her being depositary of the distress - if this is
In the scapegoat structure, the scapegoat often ends - out of anxiety
- to switch to the role of the *spokesperson*, the one who reveals the
latent group distress and makes it explicit. Sometimes this leads the
group to overcome the discontent, and consequently the person gets rid
of the scapegoat position - with the intervention of a specialist from
outside, this is very likely. But, maybe more often, the group is not
prepared for this, and takes it as an "accusation" from which it has
to defend itself, and does so by condemning the "accuser". If you are
in a scapegoat situation, I would suggest you try other strategies to
move off before you get tense enough to fall in the spokesperson way
out - which in optimum conditions could lead to the best solution, but
such conditions are not that often, and thus the spokesperson
frequently ends by slamming the door and emptying their desk. Now, you
may eventually evaluate that the situation is propitious and try the
spokesperson strategy, but out of reflection, not desperation - that
would be different, but you'll still want to measure the risk.
>> Identifying your contribution to the situation <<
Well, this one might come to be the more difficult part. Even though
the scapegoat hypothesis was correct, it is not by chance that one
particular person fits the role in a given situation. Of course,
there's no need to "have a problem" to get placed in that position -
most likely everyone has fit that role once or more times in our
lives. So, understanding how you might be contributing to place
yourself in that position could help you move.
Like every family and every organization, every group has its
particular culture, determined by the set of behaviors and styles that
the group's consensus has been consecrating through time as the
accepted ones - and the unaccepted ones. Please observe that uses
perfectly normal and accepted elsewhere, may not be so in a particular
group, maybe with no rational at all, "just because". You probably
know by now what your work-team's culture is like, and the observation
exercise I suggested you above might have helped you get a better
understanding of it.
One of the most common ways to fit in the scapegoat role is by not
caring or failing to blend in with the preexistent group culture. If I
got it right, you're the last one (or so) who's joined that group, and
"newbies" are privileged candidates for scapegoat roles. It's a
commonplace that people have to "earn their place in the job" -
leaving aside ethical considerations about that fact, it *is* a fact
in most places - some are tougher and some are friendlier, but at a
certain level it happens in all working groups. For that reason, what
people spontaneously try to do when they begin a new job is to learn
and internalize their new working group culture and styles in order to
In respect of that, for example, you mentioned in your question that
you used to wear a suit while your coworkers wore casual, and also
that only executives did so. That might not be trivial. The way people
dress, move, talk, etc, are quite more than just that. These are
symbols, a language in itself expressing who you are, who you think
you are, where you belong or not, where you want to belong - or be
accepted - or not. Does the way you talk to people - customers,
supervisors, coworkers, for instance - also differ from how your
coworkers do? If it is so, you might consider revising it.
You might object - not without reason - that it's not a matter of
denaturalizing oneself. Of course, it's our right as individuals to
preserve our identity, principles, ethics, among other constitutive
aspects. However, there's an external nature of the self that we're
changing all the time - the social self. This kind of external
composition of ourselves that we "wear" depending on the situational
context changes permanently. We act different and even our features
look differently when we are dating a person we like than when we are
in a party, but we also change from one date to another, and we may be
different - even though slightly - in different parties. Similarly,
we'll be *externally* different in different working situations. Only
you can determine where's the limit between your inner self and its
exterior projection. That determines what you're ready to change and
what you are not - thus you'll decide who you're going to date and who
you're not, what party will you attend and what you won't, what
working team you'll want to belong to and which one you won't.
Did your personal style match the standard of the previous work
environment you came from? Do you consider it was a good style -
clothing, talking, working, etc - that is worth keeping and trying to
bring in among your new coworkers?
If any of these questions rings a bell in your mind, you may want to
give it a though and consider a change. It's not a matter of changing
our own nature, but of reaching a balance between keeping our identity
and adapting to new social environments.
You also mentioned having a personal crisis in the very beginning of
this job. Well, it's obvious that situations like such may get you
more vulnerable to social risks in a new team. Some groups - or some
individuals in the group - are more receptive to sympathize with their
member's personal problems, and when it is so and one's off-work
personal situation is quite desperate, sharing - without excessively
exposing oneself - with someone reliable at work - ideally the leader,
if a receptive person - may help soften the impact of the bad personal
moment in one's job. But that requires being very careful when
evaluating whether it's possible, and who is the right person to talk
In order to overcome what - after your description - looks like a
certain level of isolation, you may want to focus on the other members
of the team, trying to strengthen your links to them.
As to the four people you have trouble with, do not interrupt all
communication with them, but try to avoid the aspects that you've
already noticed that lead to discomfort. Start to identify how the way
in which each of them communicates with you differs from the others'.
Whenever you find receptiveness in them, be collaborative rather than
competitive, avoiding an involuntary didactic attitude. Clearly put
your skills at the team's service. Earn their trust in you by letting
them feel that they can count on what you know. In that way, a very
good professional who worked in a group I was the leader of some years
ago got to overcome a situation that seemed quite similar to that
you're describing. In about one month he went from a state in which
mostly everybody distrusted him to be accepted as a peer, and
ultimately respected as a professional referent.
You also asked if there are experts at relationships. Yes, there are:
social psychologists, organizational psychologists or analysts, work
psychologists, etc. However, this kind of specialists typically are
hired by organizations rather than individuals, and work with groups.
Nevertheless, please notice that your field of action actually is
yourself. It's very unlikely that you could achieve any change
whatsoever in the team directly, but you can do much about yourself,
and this may lead to changes in the team in the long run - like
happened in the example I mentioned above.
With that in mind, it could be of use if you consulted a counselor, in
order to help you analyze your situation and be more confident about
the steps you take. Also, having gone through a personal crisis
recently is an additional reason to benefit from a counselor's
I hope you find this answer helpful. In case you consider it
necessary, please request clarification and I'll do my best to provide
it. I wish you best of luck to overcome your present situation.
Clarification of Answer by
23 Nov 2005 12:10 PST
Please never mind about the time past :)
I understand your need and will try to help you further within a
reasonable carefulness, that is, as I told you in my answer, unless I
could have "an in-person contact with you- which is not possible for
any Google Answers Researcher", providing you with a "plan of action"
given our remote contact is too risky. Had the original question been
formulated in such specific terms, I doubt I would have addressed it.
Since the question had a more open formulation - why is this
happening? are there specialists for this? what can I do about it? - I
saw no problem in helping you, addressing the three aspects required,
but being deliberately prudent about recommending actions, while
explicitly letting you know the reasons.
Nevertheless, I won't fail in expanding about what you can do - always
keeping cautious - including orientation about available professional
Resuming what I recommended in my answer, I assume you have already
gone through the step of observation and that you now have some
hypothesis on whether there are distress factors in the group and what
the causes might be.
- So, first of all, make sure to keep away from that by not making
part of actions or situations that you have identified as causes for
people distress at work.
- Moreover, whenever you see a possibility to help others overcome a
hard time due to any of those causes, do not hesitate to do it -
provided the action you take is clearly within your skills and don't
imply other risks for you.
- Also, whenever you see an opportunity to make others effectively
realize of situations that are actual causes of group uneasiness,
don't miss it. But be ware, I'm talking about almost obvious
situations - if you unveil more latent and sensitive problems, you
risk to fall into a "shoot the messenger" situation, as I mentioned in
the answer. Now if you do it pertinently, it'll help you build an
image of self-confidence and cleverness, while *implicitly*
differentiating your person from the causes of unrest at work. I
highlight "implicitly" so that you be careful not to emphasize the
aspect of differentiating yourself from the problem, because that
would very likely have the opposite effect - they will have to make
that insight themselves, with time.
- Be patient: situations like this one do not change fast and easy.
- Be as proficient as you can; make them feel that whatever bad image
they may have of you as a person - for now - you're still someone they
can count on to solve work problems, as I said in the answer. But make
sure to be so in action rather than discourse, i.e., apply your skills
as much as you can to solve specific work problems, and talk about
your capabilities as little as you can. You want, of course, your
merits and your cooperativeness to be known, but let them be apparent
in a natural way, as they happen and in their results, avoid your
mentioning them unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Be friendly, but don't try to be a friend - neither avoid it if it
naturally happens after the other party initiative, and you feel like
it. But as a general rule, rather offer yourself as a good partner.
- However, don't let your intention of being proficient and
cooperative put you in a situation of getting overloaded with other
people's work. Your goal is to gain respect from your coworkers, and
this includes letting them know the limits of a reasonable
cooperation, in a gentle but firm way.
- Try to be as timely as possible with your work outputs - as opposed
to making your internal clients expect them earlier than possible - so
that you'll get an image of being reliable in the workflow.
- For every person you work with and dislike, identify their most
worthy aspects and always have them in mind whenever you interact with
that person. Let them know what you value of them, but also tell them
what you dislike if it comes to it. Be appreciative but do not seem
obsequious, and let them know when something they do upsets you - in a
professional and sober manner, avoiding to seem complaining.
- In that regard, it's definitely not a good policy to pass over the
unpleasant behavior of other people toward oneself with a joke or
pretending it being unimportant, as it isn't good either to address it
with a belligerent reaction. A brief, firm, respectful and sober
remark would just make it.
- Encourage your occasional working partners to focus your relation in
your common task, by doing so rather than talking about it, specially
with those you don't get along well, or when the mood is not
favorable. But don't miss the opportunity of improving the human side
of the relationship if the other party's attitude is affable.
- As I said in the answer, try to broaden your circle of relationships
in the company with the people who haven't shown hostile attitudes
- Also quoting my answer, be a good observer of the current culture of
your present working place and try to blend in, like in the example of
wearing or not a suit, use of vocabulary, etc. Habits that you bring
with you from previous experiences and fitted perfectly elsewhere,
even though you think are better than what is the norm in your current
job, will not be that good if they help excluding you from your social
environment at work. Conversely, if you are accepted first, later some
of your previous uses and style might be accepted with you and, maybe,
even adopted by this group. This is a matter of mutual adaptation, but
in the encounter between the individual and the group/organization, it
is the individual who needs to make the first and bigger effort to
adapt, and the group/organization will do in time, up to a certain
I really don't think it would be prudent to expand further about
actions to take. Now, regarding professional advice, I can see the
- Individual counseling / psychotherapy. Let's avoid misunderstandings
about it: I'm definitely not implying that you are somehow wrong about
the situation you're referring, or that you might have whatever a
problem. Not at all. The point is that if you're immersed in a
situation of psychological characteristics, even though created by
others, it involves you in a psychological way - you are suffering -
and its mechanics respond to the same aspect. Therefore, a counselor
or psychotherapist may help you to both relieve your anxiety and to
operate in the situation in order to overcome it.
- Social / organizational / work psychology. While it's not the usual
approach to work with individuals, you may try to contact a
professional and maybe have an orientative interview.
- A third approach, relatively new, is the one called "philosophical
counseling". I read about it and, while I don't know about its results
first hand, I found it interesting enough to - at least - make contact
and find out. It's method consists in applying philosophical knowledge
and viewpoints to concrete situations of life, selecting from the vast
field of philosophy those approaches more akin to the clients ways of
thinking and living. Their practitioners claim that this approach
suits specially those individuals who are facing problems that
originate not in their personal psychology but in concrete situations
of their lives that they are going through.
I cannot recommend you a professional directly, but the following
links may help you to start a search:
The American Counseling Association: http://www.counseling.org/
The American Psychoanalytic Association: http://apsa.org/
The Social Psychology Network: http://www.socialpsychology.org/
The American Philosophical Practitioners Association: http://www.appa.edu/
I hope this clarification proves to be helpful. Otherwise, please just
call me back. Once more, I wish you the best.