update: my needy boss wants me to “adopt” her

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager, when I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose needy boss tried to invite herself on the letter-writer’s vacations and nights out with her husband? Here’s the update.

Alison, thanks so very much for responding to my letter, and many thanks also to all the readers who shared their insights. Both your observations and those of the commentariat were immensely helpful, and while Wanda is still Wanda, I feel as though I have gained a measure of control in handling the situation.

As I read and reread the replies to my letter, I realized that a big part of the issue for me has been that while Wanda makes herself very, very clear about what she wants, she does so with passive-aggressive manipulation tactics rather than by outright asking for things. And because I had a parent who did the same thing (and on whose account I spent a number of years in therapy), I am rather more susceptible to that approach than I’d like to be. Your comments, and those of your readers, were incredibly useful in helping me realize how deeply I had gotten pulled back into the same kind of unhealthy relationship that had caused me so much angst when I was young.

The first thing I did was to sit down with my husband and explain the whole thing to him. I wanted him to know that I was going to start setting limits with Wanda, and that part of the limit-setting would involve casting him in the role of a hopeless romantic who insists on lots of couples-only time.

Once we both stopped howling with laughter – which took a while, because Bob is just about as romantic as a box of hammers – he readily agreed to take the heat for me. He’s a good guy.

So when I put in my vacation request for this summer and Wanda asked archly “and where are we going this year,” I chuckled ruefully and said, “Bob is such a romantic that he insists on us taking a ‘mini-moon’ together every year and he doesn’t want anyone to know where we’re going, even our kids.” She pushed a little, even to the point of saying she could easily take that same week off, but I basically took the approach you suggested, treating it as a joke, which worked quite well. Then of course the pandemic came along and we had to cancel our plans – but if it worked once, it’ll work again.

When I started planning a ticket purchase for an autumn concert series that Bob and I always attend with friends, one that Wanda also likes and used to attend with her sister who moved out of state, I offered to include her for the one performance that we take a large group to. She immediately replied “yes, I’ll go with you for that one, and then you can go with me to all the rest,” to which I responded “oh, the rest of the series are dates for Bob and me – such a romantic old guy he is, still wanting go out on dates with his wife.” She pushed a little, but blaming it all on someone else, and especially on someone who is a man, was quite effective. She pretty much already assumes that all men are scoundrels whose only goal is to thwart and frustrate her anyway.

Redirection and deflection have been useful tools as well. A couple of months ago, Wanda stopped by my desk one afternoon and complained, “My stupid brother wants me to give my mother’s ring to his obnoxious stepdaughter at their Easter dinner, she’s so greedy that she’ll probably go pawn it, I really, really don’t want to go to their place for Easter, I really, really wish I had someplace else to go for the holiday, it would be SOOOO nice if only someone else would invite me to their Easter dinner.” I just replied, “Hey, did you hear that Fergus in Legal sent back his edits on that policy document we drafted on llama-herding? He completely changed the meaning of the middle section, and we’ll be in violation of the llama management ordinance if the guidance is released that way.”

That produced a very predictable response, one that successfully kept the topic of Easter dinner out of the conversation for the rest of the day. It takes a bit of planning to keep a distraction like that ready in my back pocket, so to speak, but there’s always some new crisis or controversy looming in our organization, so it’s not all that huge of a stretch. And it has been well worthwhile in terms of deflecting Wanda’s attempts to manipulate me into including her in my personal life.

The pandemic has honestly helped the situation, too, strange though that may sound. As stressful and horrifying and tragic as the pandemic is, the social distancing requirement has been a godsend in helping me establish and maintain a healthier degree of emotional distance.

For example, it is essentially impossible at our workplace to get away from Wanda. Even though she is considered a mid-level executive and is eligible for a private office, she insists on having a desk right out in the middle of the cube farm “to be close to her people” – which translates to being up in everyone’s business at all times.

When we went to telecommuting, however, that all changed, because we’re all scattered to our own homes and Wanda can’t do the kind of spontaneous drop-by meeting where she traps a hapless victim in their cubicle and babbles at them for half the afternoon. We don’t do video meetings either, thank goodness, and it’s downright amazing how much more work I can produce in a day now.

There are still phone conferences, of course, but for some reason, whenever the phone rings, my dog wakes up and insists on going out for a potty break. It’s so odd, I can’t seem to talk for more than five or ten minutes – just long enough to cover the business purpose for the call but no longer – and the minute Wanda goes off on another rant about Easter dinner with her horrible brother, Daisy starts whining at the door and I have to end the call to take her outside.

Of course I know that at some point, we’ll all be back in the office again, and I have no doubt that Wanda will resume her spontaneous drop-by meetings and her passive-aggressive attempts to manipulate me into “adopting” her. But with the insights I’ve gained from AAM, I expect to have no trouble at all in keeping the Oblivious Meter™ set to MAXIMUM CLUELESS and just let that manipulation roll right off my back.

Thank you again, Alison, for your help in joggling me out of the unhealthy place I had allowed myself to be pulled back to! Take care, be well, and stay away from those immersion blenders!

update: my needy boss wants me to “adopt” her was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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