Workplace Undercover: How to deal with stress at work when people let you down

Preface:  Workplace Undercover is a recurring segment of this blog, featuring a workplace scenario and a response by a guest consultant.  The scenario below was written by Eillen Bui, our research associate.  Jo Bowens Lewis, a licensed psychologist, organizational consultant, and Leading Consciously practitioner will respond.

Vicky screamed through the phone, “I called you yesterday to make sure you were going to send me the final version of the newsletter before it went to print! I have enough stress at work without this.”

“I’m really sorry,” the voice on the other line said quietly. “I don’t understand what happened. I looked at the newsletter twice before I sent you back the final version this morning.  It should have all the revisions made already.”

“Well, it doesn’t,” Vicky sneered. “You are so lucky that I glanced at the copy as I was walking to the printers. You know this newsletter is not my responsibility and yet I offered to hand it in to the printers for you this time.  Since I was the one submitting it, the errors could have been considered my fault.  Are you trying to ruin my reputation?!!!”

“Vicky, I am not trying to ruin you,” Saul said with more force. “I did not do this on purpose.”

Vicky gripped the phone tighter and her voice shook with unrestrained anger.  “You know this newsletter is supposed to go out to our customers by the end of today but now with your mistake, everything is delayed.  The printers need the final copy in an hour if you want to meet the deadline.”

Saul wanted to get off the phone with Vicky as soon as possible, so he promised, “I’ll look over the newsletter again and make all the necessary changes.  I’ll e-mail you the correct version by 9.”

After hanging up, Saul sat and fumed.  Why didn’t someone do something about Vicky?  No one wanted to talk with her because she was constantly on edge and screaming at people.

Back in her office, Vicky collapsed in her chair, nearly in tears.  Why wasn’t anyone respecting her work and her time?  Was she the only one in the company who cared about producing quality work?

Response from Jo Bowens Lewis, PsyD:

If Vicky and Saul are to continue working together and both want to repair and improve their relationship, I’d suggest they individually acknowledge their contribution to the outcome of this interaction.  The intensity of their unpleasant feelings and conclusions are not simply because of what the other did or didn’t do.  Each of them seems to have used this interaction as evidence for what they already believed, perceived, and felt about the other and the work environment:

  • Saul sat and fumed, wondering why someone didn’t do something about Vicki. He thought she was constantly on edge.
  • Vicki was nearly in tears, wondering why no one was respecting her work and she was the only one in the company who cared.

I will analyze this scenario through the framework of transactional analysis (TA), a social theory of human personality. TA provides a deep understanding of communication patterns that are functional and dysfunctional. As a theory and technique, TA is used in “people helping” professions, parenting situations, and organizational settings.

Many people are familiar with the seminal book, Games People Play, by Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis, that describes psychological games. A later book, TA Today, by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, lays out some of the basic tenets of TA.  Fundamental to TA are the descriptions of personality structure composed of three ego states: the Parent, Adult, and Child (P-A-C).  The P-A-C Model can be utilized to describe the part of the personality energized in response to different situations.

Let’s look at the interaction through a TA framework

Both Vickie and Saul are engaging in what transactional analysts refer to as a “game.” A “game” is a series of communication transactions in which spoken and unspoken messages are exchanged. The unspoken (covert) level of communication determines the negative outcome of the communication.

The outcome for the participants will contain unpleasant feelings, thoughts and conclusions that feel familiar but were not fully anticipated. This is because games are not fully conscious. They reflect “old habits” of getting emotional needs met.  These habits are repetitive, although there are many more direct ways of expression that result in resolution to conflict, while getting emotional needs met.

Vicky screams out what she had done to assure her input and prevent delay, and adds an accusation.  In the language of Transactional Analysis, Vickie is playing “Now I Got You.” This game is played when one wants or tends to criticize, negatively judge, or punish another. The pattern reinforces false positive beliefs in the player’s “ok-ness.” By verbally punishing Saul, Vicki has a temporary surge of feeling that she is okay and Saul is not okay. This is a false belief because one’s value and worth as a human being is not contingent on existential conditions.

Saul is apologetic, without accounting for not sending the final version of the newsletter to press.  To account is to self-reflect and express to another what one as done (or said) that had a negative impact. It also means letting others know what’s going on with you. It avoids the collection of misinterpretations of one’s motivations or intent, thus allowing resolution of conflict. Instead of accounting for his behavior Saul denies the accusations, and promises to do additional work by a certain time. His intent is to end the conversation while withholding his feelings.

Saul is playing “Kick Me,” a game played to subconsciously invite criticism, negative judgment, or punishment from another. This pattern reinforces false negative beliefs of the player’s “ok-ness”. Saul uses this interaction with Vicki to subconsciously confirm his false belief that he is “not okay.”

* * *

How might they resolve their conflict and reduce their stress at work?  The next post will continue my response.


  1. In what situations have you had that “oh, here we go again” feeling in your interactions with another person?
  2. What beliefs about yourself and the other person does it confirm?
  3. What’s the payoff?
  4. Do you think it’s possible for the situation to change?


Dr. Jo Bowens Lewis (PsyD) is a licensed clinical psychologist, a certified teaching and supervising transactional analyst, and a Leading Consciously practitioner. She also serves as an organizational process consultant and trainer-consultant for clinicians, managers, and educators, taking into account matters of diversity.  She is founder of the Center for Cooperative Change, Decatur, GA.




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