02 March 2009

Really Bad Boundaries: or, Slip Your Pals A Mickey

Back in the Golden Age of American pulp detective fiction, there was a dandy little cocktail known as a Mickey Finn. Hardboiled protagonists would routinely make the plot-furthering mistake of accepting an alcoholic beverage from Little Velma, or Mr. X, or whoever, and shortly thereafter find themselves fast asleep under the influence of [usually] chloral hydrate. Using this subterfuge to incapacitate a pesky shamus was known colloquially as 'slipping them a Mickey'.

Recently, I've been watching a rather different Mickey Finn being palmed off onto the - not unsuspecting, but perhaps unbelieving. It's been a very pertinent demonstration of Really Bad Boundaries.

This is going on where I work... where Mick, the recently hired friend of Jon, recently made a dubious name for himself by speaking ill of Jon, and of me, and of two or three other experienced professionals who've been asked to assist in training him.

It looks like classic 'splitting', i.e., Mick first speaks negatively of me to X, then tells me that it's X, rather than Mick, who is saying these things, in order to elicit negative input from me about X, which he can then tell X in order to fan the flames.

Yes, ostensibly grown men really do act like bratty third grade girls. The amazing thing is that they are very often lavishly rewarded for it. Which, of course, is why they continue to do it...

What Mick doesn't know, however, is that we have one of these already, and everyone is wise to him. Fortunately for us. Because that means that it's not necessary to explain the theory and practice of splitting and triangulation to everyone while issuing a Mick Alert; all one has to do is say, "Mick's doing the same thing Geoff does", and everyone gets it instantly.

To a point, anyway.

Over the last few weeks, I've seen a surprising degree of moral courage from several colleagues in response to Mick's attempted disruptions. Three different people have come to me to let me know he's been defaming me. Jon has apologized to me and to our immediate supervisor for bringing him into the workplace; it turns out they never actually worked on the same team before, and Jon had no idea this was his M.O. I've spoken to a colleague Mick defamed to me, and then to my supervisor in defense of that colleague [and found out that Mick had Been There Done That exactly one day earlier].

But nobody is talking to Mick.

What's more, there's palpable opposition to the very idea of talking to Mick. I've volunteered to do so, and my goodness, you could fry eggs in the heat of the glare I received. Which would be understandable, if the Powers that Be were planning to take the lad to the woodshed themselves, in which case I'd be usurping their authority and stuff like that. But they're not planning to do that.

What will happen instead, it appears, is that he will be transferring to a similar team in another department. Apparently one of the supervisors there participated in Mick's interview and hire, here, and heard about our little troubles, and thinks they're overblown. That The Ladies are Overreacting [that would be me and another defamed colleague] and Mick's Just Misunderstood.

Me, I think this is a Really Bad Boundary, not to mention a Colossal Mistake.

If I were the decisionmaker, which I'm not in this case, it would be time for Mick to get the Come-to-Jesus Talk; the one that starts off, "Are you TRYING to get your silly tail fired? Because the stunts you're pulling are going to GET you fired, if you keep doing this stuff..." and goes on from there to explain precisely what those stunts are, and why they're unacceptable behavior.

Having the CTJ Talk with him would put the onus where it belongs: on the Person Behaving Badly. And would make it very clear what the Bad Behavior is, and why it is Bad Behavior, and unacceptable. It also prepares the ground for the next step in the process, which is Sending Him Off To Re-Education Camp [aka, the EAP or mandated EEO training]. And the step after that, which is Firing His Silly Tail if he doesn't straighten up.

That is a hard verbal boundary, preparatory to a hard behavioral boundary, and it is also Owning Our Mess. We hired the guy, after all. It ought to be our job to deal with him. But it looks like nobody's going there.

Instead, it looks as though we're going to take advantage of that fellow manager, who is just a wee bit clueless, and just a wee bit sexist [it would seem]. But neither he nor his teammates quite deserve what they're going to get. And if they are clueless enough not to recognize triangulation and splitting when Mick starts it there [and he will, you know he will], and sexist enough to dismiss the pain and concern of the women in their own group when Mick starts on them [and he will, you know he will] we are preparing to do a huge and lasting amount of serious damage to people who have done nothing to deserve it.

Which, of course, leads me to consider my own boundaries, and issues of ethics. I know from much painful experience that there is little point in attempting to enlighten the clueless in these situations; refusing to believe in the problem is much easier than accepting the need to solve it, and few people really understand how much damage a badly placed splitter/triangulator can do in an organization. And yet, it is extremely difficult to sit on my hands, and watch my outfit Slip Our Pals A Mickey.

However, I'm afraid that's what I have to do for now, and there are very good reasons for it.

The first reason is that this is not my Role. I'm an Elder, a senior member of staff, a trusted and usually respected advisor. But my authority is intellectual and, to an extent, moral. I do not have direct authority of the type that I would need in order to intervene concretely. For me to attempt to do so would almost certainly backfire. I'm not a supervisor; I can give them advice, but I cannot act on their behalf and must not do so without appropriate delegation of authority.

This is a fact of life. It's a hard boundary. And a much needed source of humility, too. Just because I think I'm right doesn't always mean that I am...

The second reason would be Geoff ...

our Vintage Splitter and Triangulator ...

... who has never, as far as I know, been taken anywhere near the woodshed himself. He's simply been 'encysted', more and more isolated, as more and more people have become aware of his tricks.

Now: Walling Them Off / Sending Them Elsewhere, as a hard nonverbal boundary, is often very effective when you are setting boundaries in your personal life. And that's what appears to be happening here, first with Geoff and now with Mick. But in a workplace, there's a lot more at stake, and there's a lot less freedom of association. I can refuse to answer the phone at home if Mick were to call, but I can't refuse to respond to his calls or emails at work.

Failure to set a firm boundary at a supervisory level, in other words, forces all the lower-level people into continuous boundary-setting, and can allow much unnecessary damage to be done.

But I'm not the supervisor, and although I'm a Respected Elder of the Tribe, I got a pretty ferocious glare when I suggested direct intervention.

For whatever reason, that road's closed. I will tread lightly while I consider what this means, and respect the nonverbal [!] boundaries that I have been shown. There's more than enough constructive work to be done.

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