Penelope: Toxic Workplace

Penelope came to see me emotionally and physically exhausted dealing with the stress of her new management job at a finance company. She had replaced a manager who had been well-liked by her team and the rest of the firm, but viewed as unproductive by senior management. Unfortunately, that person – a woman named Sandy – was still there, demoted and now reporting to Penelope. Many of the team felt Sandy had been badly treated and resented Penelope’s arrival, ignoring her as she walked down corridors, and talking behind her back.

Penelope wanted to do the job she’d been hired to do, and make changes to improve the department’s performance. But these were met with resistance in team meetings, often by Sandy, who used connections with influential people in the company to leak Penelope’s ideas and sabotage them before they could be implemented.


In our first session. Penelope confessed she had no clear vision of how to resolve this messy situation and felt isolated, unsupported by both senior management and her team. I immediately saw it breaking down into three specific issues, each with its own action plan:

  1. Day to day: the Sandy situation, and team acceptance 
  2. Medium term: Creating buy-in for the new ideas
  3. Long-term: Positioning herself within the company as a whole.

Day to day: A one-on-one meeting with Sandy was needed. Penelope should show empathy for Sandy (which was real, since Penelope had only been informed of the situation a few days before joining) but make clear she was running the department now. “You can leave if you’d like, but I’d like to work with you. It’s your choice.” If Sandy agreed to stay, Penelope should lay out expectations – and tie them to the next performance review. One should be that content of team meetings stayed solely within the team. That way, any sabotage of Penelope’s ideas could be stopped in its tracks. 

For her colleagues, we agreed upon a “kill them with kindness” approach. She should say good morning to everyone, regardless of the response, and show interest in their lives. Negative perceptions of her would eventually change. 

Medium-term: To get her ideas through, Penelope adopted a “consultative” mind set, and meet with key decision makers in the company. She would find out what was keeping them up at night, and match her ideas with their interests. If they saw potential benefits, they’d quickly become her supporters. By helping to solve their problems, they would help solve hers. 

Long-term: By getting buy in for her ideas, and implementing the changes, the resulting improvements would immeasurably add to her position in the company.

Result: Penelope met with Sandy, who decided to stay on. The situation became less tense, and her ideas were no longer leaked. (After a year, however, Sandy left the company). Penelope took care to be friendly with everyone in her department, and after a while, the Sandy/Penelope issue stopped being the main topic of conversation. And after a while, Penelope was able to successfully implement her changes, which gave her new respect among senior managers.