This woman (I’ll call her Glinda) and I have been friends for a few years now. We met through work, though we were in different departments of a large organization and seldom had a chance to actually interact in the workplace. But we had similar interests, lived in the same part of town and had several mutual friends, so we became rather close friends–she confided in me about her personal life, threw me a baby shower when I got pregnant, etc.
Then our work arrangements changed and we found ourselves working a lot more closely together: currently, at any given time, there are at least two or three projects we’re both working on, sometimes sharing responsibility for most of it. And Captain, I’m on the brink of quitting my job (and the friendship).
Glinda is constantly freaking out. About EVERYTHING. And since I’m her friend, she comes to me about it and I have to reason with her and calm her down and reassure her, often multiples times about the same topic, until she moves on to a new one. Half the energy I’d normally spend on work is spent managing her emotionally. She feels underappreciated by our bosses–she talks to me about it. She’s having second thoughts about a perfectly good decision that our team has made and started implementing–she talks to me about it. She gets frustrated by her interactions with other colleagues–she talks to me about it.
And I can’t not deal with those things because they’re not just friendship-related, they’re work related. If I don’t reassure her about her capacities being appreciated, she’ll become sad and unproductive, which will affect our work. If I don’t reason with her about that decision that’s giving her second thoughts, she’ll call a new meeting to re-discuss everything and change everything, wasting everyone’s time (including mine). If I don’t calm her down when she’s frustrated and run interference between her and the other colleagues, they won’t want to work with her/our team and we won’t get anything done.
Everything is twice as hard and takes twice as long, because I have to deal with Glinda. She’s my friend and I love her, but I don’t want to be working with her anymore. It’s literally draining me and turning a job I used to love into a chore.
Do you have any tips on how to deal with this situation?
About to quit (she/her)
Dear About To Quit,
I co-taught a class with a “Glinda” at work in the pre-blog days and I do have some tips.
My Glinda carried a lot of anxiety and I think yours does, too. I don’t know if it’s clinically significant sort of anxiety (and it’s 100% not our job to determine that), but she displayed anxious behaviors and expressed a lot of verbal worry (“I’m very worried about…“, the checking and double-checking, the “I know we decided this already but can we go through it again?,” what you describe as “FREAKING OUT”) Once there was a 50+ message email thread about what snacks, if any to bring to the final class screening, to which I contributed a single message that said: “I don’t have time to pick up snacks but I can kick in $10. Get whatever you want, thanks!” which somehow prompted her to brainstorm various snacks at me, debate which snacks were best, and call me rude and un-collaborative when I didn’t answer any more questions about snacks b/c my name is not Professor Snack.
So, yeah, a lot of the stuff your Glinda is doing reads like anxious cycling to me. She feels upset about something work-related, she perseverates on it, she leans on you to soothe her, or calls the whole team in to a meeting to go back over the same ground, and all work pretty much stops until she gets soothed. I felt like my Glinda wasn’t satisfied unless I felt the exact same level of stress about an issue that she did, like she was working to transfer her worry to me, and I had no idea how to soothe her. I started second-guessing myself and feeling totally exhausted and avoiding her as much as possible, which made her chase me more, which made me more exhausted and avoidant.
What helped me, eventually, was to remind myself that her worry 1) sucks, for her more than anyone and 2) it didn’t have to become my worry. I carry a lot of anxiety (of the clinical sort) and one of my jobs in managing it is to not automatically offload it onto other people with the expectation that they will react to things the same way I do. I tried my best to reframe her behaviors as “She cares a lot about the work and the students, this is just her way of showing it, it doesn’t have to be my way, though” and strive for compassionate disengagement with the rest.
I set some boundaries, such as:
- “I can do one phone call a week and an in-person meeting every couple weeks, more than that is impossible.“
- “I can get back to you within 24 hours, there’s no need to call to see if I received an email.“
- After the 4th or 5th time she’d mention that a particular student hadn’t turned in an assignment and want to talk to me on the phone about it, I said “I can care about the students but I can’t do their caring for them. We’ve checked in with the student to see what’s going on, until they answer the email we can’t do anything, so I need to mentally cross the issue off my list for now.“
- I started answering once and then dropping the subject (as in the case of the snacks), and if she started a cycle of following up and second-guessing I’d say something like “You already know what I think.“
- I tried being really proactive in my communications.
- When possible I consulted her on things she’s an expert about, and also asking her about her extremely cool creative projects and things outside of work.
It never got awesome, but it did get better for me when I had more tools for stopping the cycle before it really got going, when we had some more positive interactions to chase the bad ones out, and when I was able to stop taking on her worry as my own.
Read on for some more gentle ways to reset this relationship.
Strategy 1: Uncross the Streams
Try to adopt a Coworker Hat and a Friend Hat, and make it explicit when you are switching between them. I learned this trick from my friend Megan whose boss at her old job was also a close friend. She would tell him, “I need you to put your Friend-hat on” or “I need you to put your Administrator hat on” or he would tell her “I say this with my Your Supervisor-hat on” so that the boundaries and context of the discussion could be clear. For example (I’m going to keep rocking with your Wicked references if that’s cool):
- “Glinda, as your friend Elphaba I want to listen and make soothing noises about how under-appreciated you are, but your coworker Elphaba needs to get this locked down so we can get it out the door.”
- “Glinda, as your friend Elphaba, I have all the sympathies, but I gotta put my coworker hat on right now. We don’t have time to have another meeting about this. Let’s move forward with the steps we agreed to – we can tackle the next steps once we’ve got this phase done.”
If you can make the distinctions between friend mode and professional mode a little clearer, hopefully she’ll adapt and also get better at making those distinctions. Right now I think her default answer to “Are you asking friend-Elphaba or colleague-Elphaba?” would be “BOTH, silly!” Down the road, you’ll know this is working if she starts making the distinctions when she asks.
Friend-mode and coworker-mode can also help you have the difficult conversation that is brewing.
“Glinda, as your friend, I’ve noticed that you are carrying a lot of worry about our projects right now. As your coworker, I need some emotional distance so I can focus on getting the stuff done. Is there someone else you can vent to about work stress while we’re trying to knock out work projects?
More specifically, [putting Coworker hat on] I feel like some of the emergencies you bring to my attention aren’t really emergencies, even if they feel that way for you. For example…[1 recent specific example]…I think it’s sapping my energy and the team’s momentum to be in crisis mode all the time. I’d love to find a way that we could get ahead of this and take some stress off your plate.
Can you and I sit down, switch 100% into Work Mode, generate a giant do-do list, and come up with some solutions together that we can use to move forward on the project? I think that will make us both feel more organized.
You might be avoiding this conversation because you don’t want to freak her out. But she’s already freaking out and it’s not getting better, and it’s starting to freak you out to the point that you’re ready to burn it all down. When you tell her this, she might have an emotional “Oh shit my friend is abandoning me and hates working with me” reaction. Ride it out and keep the focus on what you need her to do (find another outlet for work stress, plan out/divide up tasks better).
Setting boundaries with other people also means setting them with ourselves. You say that if you don’t reassure her constantly she gets “sad and unproductive.” What if you let Glinda be sad and unproductive for an afternoon? Resetting this dynamic means saying “Friend-Elphaba says hi and she likes your shoes. Coworker Elphaba needs to focus and can’t talk right now, sorry” and then letting her feelings be whatever they will be. You’re worried it will affect the work, but it’s already affecting the work (especially your work). Sometimes we have to figure out how to be both sad and sorta productive and not expect a coworker to solve that for us.
Strategy 2: Rituals
If you don’t already have this, establish distinct times and a clear structure for checking in with each other about project stuff. Set a hard start and end time: Like, a 10-minute morning catch-up meeting or a 10-minute end-of-day status check-in. If you want, set an actual timer and aim to get through as much of the to-do list as you can in 10 minutes. Leave no room for rehashing stuff or venting.
The timer thing will be artificial and weird and awkward as hell at first, but if you take on the awkwardness as your own personal quirk – “I’m really trying to be mindful of time and more efficient, especially around meetings and interruptions, please indulge my weird quirk while I try something new” or “Hey, I’ve got 10 minutes for you, go!“- and are rock-solid-reliable about checking in with her, she will probably adjust.
Don’t neglect “friend mode” when you schedule these catchups. What if you also took a weekly tea break or walk around the block or found some other tiny ritual to check in with Glinda-the-person? Make some ground rules: Set a maximum time, no work talk. Script: “Glinda, can we plan a little break once in a while to destress ourselves? I don’t want to lose my friend in among all this stressful work stuff. No work talk, first person to bring up work has to put a dollar in the work-talk jar” (You can use the jar contents for a nice lunch out when it inevitably fills up). This is a good time to ask her for her input on things she’s good at or interested in, or run your own dilemmas by her or otherwise break the dynamic of Soother/Soothee.
I sense that every part of you is running screaming from this idea. You want to contain Glinda, not release her freak-out-Kraken. The key here is adding structure. You can protect most of your workday from feelingsinterruptions, and Glinda won’t have to chase you if she knows there are a few times a day that she gets your full attention. If she starts cycling at you, you can redirect her to one of those ritual times – “I’m in the middle of something now, let’s discuss it when we catch up at the end of the day/first thing tomorrow.” If it’s still an issue then, you can talk about it. If she’s just venting free-floating anxiety and it’s not actually an urgent issue, it will go away on its own.
Keep in mind, you’re ready to blow up, but she doesn’t know it’s a problem yet, so for best results give her some time to adjust and be consistent and gentle as you make changes.
Strategy 3: Prompt for Solutions
I’ve written about him here before, but I still follow the way of my former boss, Stasys, who had to run daily status meetings for teams who were building complex proposals on tight deadlines. I will share The Way of Stasys, that it might spread through the world and make people less annoyed and more efficient:
- Meetings will start on time and end on time. Ideally they will last no more than 30 minutes.
- There will be an agenda and we will follow that agenda.
- You will be prepared for the meeting. That means: You’re in your seat a few minutes before the meeting start time, with all relevant materials ready to go and whatever beverages and pens you need. You will have thought about what you’re going to say ahead of time to keep it brief and on-topic.
- Relevant to You, Letter Writer: If you bring up a problem you must also suggest 1-3 possible solutions to that problem. Defining problems is important, but the bulk of our time should be on evaluating solutions.
- Everybody gets to be heard, nobody gets to dominate the floor. (i.e. Senior folks can’t drone on).
- Everyone takes turns moderating, keeping things on task & on time, and taking notes. (Note-taking and time-keeping aren’t automatically delegated to the junior and/or female).
- No multitasking (cell phones, email). If you have to do something that’s so vitally important you can’t put it down for 30 minutes to focus, go do that thing instead of half-assing your attention. You’ll get the notes/updates later and can fill us in by email.
I don’t know where you are relative to Glinda in the reporting structure or how much power you have in how things get run, but when Glinda “freaks out,” prompt her for solutions.
- “What do you think you’ll do about that?”
- “What do you suggest?”
- “I hear you! I need your help, though – can you break down for me what you think we should do?”
- “Is there one specific step you want to take that will fix this?”
- “How does this move the project forward?”
- “How will we justify this to the higher-ups/the clients/the team?”
- “Can you think of three solutions for that? We can call in the team for a meeting, but I don’t want to distract them from what they’re working on until you and I are on the same page and we have a plan.”
- “Have you told Oz and The Cowardly Lion what you’re telling me?”
Now, this is a self-care thing: In the absence of solutions and next steps, her problems don’t have to be your problems/the project’s problems. Friend-You can listen, you can make soothing “Hrm, that sucks” or “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that” or “Wow, that’s really stressful, what do you think you’ll do?” or “I agree, you really are under-appreciated here” noises, but until she says “I think we should do ____” or “I’d like to try _____,” Coworker-You does NOT have to call in the troops or revisit the plan. You can set a boundary with yourself that you can listen, affirm the feelings, and not take action unless it’s necessary for the work.
Strategy 4: Cover Your Ass
The needs of Glinda, You, and Your Company’s Projects are not necessarily congruent, and these needs can diverge without anyone being a villain. I don’t think you have to soothe and rework things for your friend at the expense of the projects or your own reputation and standing at work. To that end:
- Document team decisions in writing/by email so it’s clear who is doing what and when.
- If Glinda wants to change direction or call a meeting, get her on record for a meeting agenda and institute a general “1 problem = 3 solutions” practice on your team.
- Present trade-offs. “We can do that, but it means giving up this. Is that what you want to do?” Document that. “Ok, so we are going to focus on X and pull back on Y.“
- You get to have opinions about what will help the project and express those opinions. “I understand that you’re upset, but the project will best be served by _____ (staying the course/knocking this out/letting the team work/focusing on x and y, not z right now, so I’d prefer to do that.” (Document)
- Protect your team’s time, energy, and reputation. Do you have standing to say “No, we can’t revisit this now?” or “No, we can’t schedule another meeting to talk through this again” to Glinda and have that respected? (Document)
- Verbal comfort followed by direct, specific email requests work best in my experience:
- Glinda: “SAD STUFF!”
- You: (verbally) “So sad!”
- You: (by email) “Reminder, I need ______ by the end of the day tomorrow so I can get started on ______.“
- If Glinda gets “sad and unproductive” or calls unnecessary meetings anyway in a way that fucks up the project/relationships with the team, what can you do to address that? “Glinda, I want to be sympathetic but this is affecting my work, too. I really want you to talk to someone about how worried and upset you’re feeling here, and as your friend I hate that you’re carrying this much stress! But as your coworker, I need _____.” (_____ = You to tell the bosses why we’re behind schedule. You to apologize to the team for changing direction yet again. You to notify the client of the mistake. You need to figure this out on your own without calling a meeting.)
Finally, I don’t know your reporting structure or what your bosses are like. If you trust your boss with a “Glinda and I are great as friends, but we have really incompatible working styles and I’d like to move away from working closely together on future assignments” conversation, welp, that may well be the path of least resistance here.