Our office manager is a dental despot!

Her boss won favorite dentist four years in a row, so she treats the rest of us like peons.

By Cary Tennis

Published October 26, 2007 10:26AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work in a dental office in which there are three full-time dentists: one owner and two associates. I am assistant to one of the associates. There is a lot of tension in the office between the dentist I work for and the owner, because they practice very differently.

Our local newspaper ran a "favorites" contest for local businesspeople, services, restaurants, etc., and the owner of the office won favorite dentist for the fourth year in a row. The newspaper awards the winners a half-page ad in the publication that announces the results.

The manager at the office decided, on her own, that as an office we should all "chip in" and upgrade the ad to a full page as a surprise to the owner, and then informed us of her decision.

I feel that it is not appropriate for her to have done this, for a number of reasons:

1) I don't think I should have to use part of my paycheck to advertise the place I work.
2) The dentist I assist did not win the contest.
3) We weren't told of the plan until it was already set up.
4) The whole affair savors strongly of hero worship.
5) He already won the "favorite" title; how much more advertising does he need? and
6) I am regularly reminded by the office manager of my (and my dentist's) "place" in the office.

However, the attitudes in the office are such that I will be somewhat ostracized if I do not put in "my share." All of the assistants have had problems with the office manager at some time or another, and it's pretty much every man for himself when it comes to disagreeing with her.

Anyway, do I have to put in my money? Or am I justified in declining?

Discontented Dental Assistant

Dear Discontented Dental Assistant,

Right now you are really steamed. I can tell because of how you enumerate your points. Dogs growl, birds shriek, humans enumerate their points and number them with half-parens.

I don't blame you for being steamed. Your feelings have been hurt by this woman who is in a position of power. She didn't consult you. She presumed to take your money to glorify her boss. She really presumed quite a bit. In a way, not to overstate it, but she denied your personhood. People with a deep need for power will do this. Given just a little power, they can turn into tiny tyrants: Despots of the desk! Fascists of the file room! Dental dictators!

And it can make you crazy if you let it.

So don't let it make you crazy. Have you watched "The Office" on TV? Do you recognize any of your co-workers in that show?

This is a common situation. Offices and office work offer so little in the way of genuine human satisfaction that our regular personalities can become grossly distorted. It's like we're all on a desert island with no food and we start eyeing each other like cannibals. It's emotional food we need. There isn't enough emotional satisfaction to go around. So people's personalities get distorted. If they need power, they become power-hungry. If they are meek, they become craven. If they are strange, they become stranger. Everyone's nature becomes magnified and distorted.

But nobody can force you to put your money in if you don't want to. It's a dental office, not the Comintern.

The thing is, though, people who are bent on having power over us will work day and night against us if we give them reason to. She will talk trash about you to others. She will work to stop you from getting raises. She will give you shitty assignments. You will have someone in a position of power working against you nonstop.

You may think, well, this isn't fair!

No, it's not fair. It's about power. Power isn't distributed fairly. Power is grabbed by those who want it and need it. The rest of us have to deal with that. So I would suggest that unless you want to fight a battle that, in all honesty, you can't really win, you go along with the scheme, but make a suggestion, if this isn't already part of the plan: Everybody should be in a big photograph. All three dentists, the assistants and the office manager: Everybody should be in the photograph. It will be interesting to see how people jockey for position in the photo, and how the power arrangements and the hierarchy naturally express themselves.

This may give you some small, bitter, secret satisfaction.

Meanwhile, act nice, but start looking for a new job. You may need some cooperation from this person in the way of a reference.

And when you get your new job, you can take that photograph in the full-page ad and you can cut yourself out of it and pin it on your wall, with you missing! You'll be gone. It will feel good to be gone. Then you can have a good laugh about the petty despot and her toadying schemes.

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