Asking Not Asking #20: Coworker Drama
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
This isn’t a letter about the work I do, but it is about a challenge I’m having at work. I’m a mid-level designer who works in-house at a lifestyle company in the Midwest and I’ve been here for 4 years. Like I said, the challenge isn’t the work. It’s actually a fellow team member who started a few months ago in a role that oversees some aspects of my team’s work. It seems like this person doesn’t like me and is maybe even trying to sabotage me. They haven’t done anything outright blatant, but I sense their resistance to my ideas when I bring them up in team meetings. Sometimes they talk over me or discount me. They are also very friendly with others, but cold toward me. I’m not sure what I did.
I’m pretty introverted and this other person is more extroverted. Maybe our styles are clashing, maybe I did something to offend them without knowing? I’ve enjoyed my job up until now, but the conflict with this coworker looms over me when I go to work every day and I wonder how I can resolve it. It’s making me miserable. I don’t know if talking to them would help and I’m not even sure what I would say.
Am I the problem? Am I the challenging coworker for them? Is it just a matter of perception or could this person really not like me? What can I do to resolve this so I can go back to enjoying work drama free?
Dear Coworker Drama,
We don’t have enough information here to know exactly where your coworker stands. Did you do something to offend them? Do they really not like you, or is that your perception? Are you the problem, or are they the problem? Do they feel the same way about you that you do them—do they think you are the problem? We can’t answer any of these questions, so we’ll have to move forward with what we have.
First, you like your job and you’ve been there for several years. This conflict is causing you to dislike a job you’d otherwise enjoy. As I see it, you have three options: 1) Continue on as is and accept whatever happens, 2) Decide to leave your job and make a plan to transition into a new job elsewhere, or 3) Make an attempt to resolve the tension you feel with your coworker to improve your situation so you can stay at the job you like.
A few years ago for my birthday, my friend Ben gifted me the book, The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone, the host of WNYC's On the Media. The book is a short and timely read that addresses the culture and political climate we are currently in where multiple truths seem to exist at once. This quote from Brooke stood out to me and I wrote it down and am now passing it onto you: "We breed infinite realities and they can never be reconciled. We cannot fully enter someone else's. But if we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person's eyes, and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem."
There are multiple realities here: your reality and your coworker’s reality. Right now the two realities feel irreconcilable. If you choose option 1—to continue on as is and accept whatever happens—the two realities will never be reconciled, and you’ll never know if they could have been. This is important to note because the challenge of reconciling multiple realities extends beyond our work and into our personal lives and it is a challenge we will be faced with over and over: Will we make an attempt to understand not only our truth, but the truth of everyone involved (your coworker in this case)?
The social worker and researcher, Brené Brown, offers a helpful framework to approach reconciling multiple realities. She says to use the phrase, “The story I’m making up is…” This is a great approach to any situation in which you don’t know the other person’s intentions or true feelings because it reminds you that you are making up a story about what you think is happening without actual confirmation from the other party. Right now, the story you are making up is that your coworker doesn’t like you and is possibly even trying to sabotage you. And maybe there are! But maybe they aren’t. Maybe they are going through their own challenging journey and there’s some kind of misunderstanding or miscommunication.
I believe you that there is tension. I believe you when you say you’ve felt singled out and discounted. You are not imagining those things. What I’m getting at is the intention or reason this coworker is behaving this way toward you is unclear. That’s what you need to find out, unless you decide to move ahead with option 2 and leave your job. If you do decide to leave, there is no judgement. However, please know that even if you remove yourself from this situation now and avoid dealing with your coworker, there will assuredly be another situation in the future, whether personal or professional, where you will be required to get a little uncomfortable to attempt resolution. Difficult situations are a part of life.
On a very important note, I would never advise anyone to stay in a toxic, unhealthy, or irresolvable situation. If you believe your coworker isn’t open to resolution, then maybe it is time to move on. If that’s your plan, think about how you want to transition. How long will you continue on? How much notice will you give? How will you begin to look for a new job elsewhere? And what do you need to do before you leave your current role? You’ll want to write down a game plan and look at your calendar to set a reasonable timeline for your transition so it isn’t abrupt and jarring.
Now, let’s talk about option 3: staying and trying to resolve the tension with your coworker. First, stop trying to guess what their intentions or feelings toward you are and accept that you don’t know. Now, I’m going to ask you a hard question: What have you done to reach out to them? When we feel offended or rejected, we tend to close up and go on the defense, which can cause the other person to also be defensive. It’s the same with any emotion. Have you ever gotten into an argument or disagreement and the other person raised their voice so you raised yours and they raised theirs and soon both of you were yelling? But it’s hard to yell at someone who is speaking calmly and with empathy. Reaching out can sometimes disarm coldness or defensiveness.
What are ways you could reach out and start a conversation? Could you ask for a coffee meeting or strike up conversation in a more casual moment than a team meeting? You mentioned you’re an introvert, so I’m guessing this could be a challenge for you, but if you want to try to resolve it, it will take effort on your part. So commit to making the effort.
When you are ready to have a conversation with this person, you’ll want to make sure you have privacy and consider the location and timing. A casual coffee meeting at a local spot could feel less intimidating than a formal meeting in the conference room. A conversation in the afternoon on a Tuesday might be less rushed than squeezing in time on a Friday afternoon when you are both trying to meet deadlines and leave the office for the weekend.
Once you sit down to talk, consider your approach. Will you directly or indirectly address your concerns. Directly addressing your concerns means pointing out specific behaviors and might sound like, “I want us to have a great working relationship, but sometimes in meetings you discredit my ideas and I’m not sure why.” Indirectly addressing your concerns could sound like, “I want to have the best collaborative relationship we can. Is there anything we can do to make it better?” Sometimes it’s easier to try an indirect approach first to see how open the other person is, unless you already have a strong rapport with them.
Go into the conversation with an open mind. Your job is to ask questions, listen, and create space for understanding. Hopefully they want that, too. Once you’ve heard them out, you’ll have more information and will be able to make a more informed decision. Their response will tell you everything you need to know. If they are defensive and resistant, you have your answer. If they are open and receptive, you have your answer. And I hope they are open and receptive so that the two of you can make a plan together to address your concerns and create a happier, more collaborative workplace for everyone.
To having the critical conversations,
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