Curious Colleague

Question:

I have been at my company for 9 years and this particular position (trainer) for 8 months. I used to work with this colleague prior and when he found I was moving into training he followed and came over too. He is from outside and has been at the company for 5 years but cannot cope with the fact that I have been there for longer and know more people. I don’t have any advantage because of this fact but every time I speak with someone he comes over the top to try and control the conversation and undermine me. Every task my manager gives me comes with a very polite but predictable question ‘oh what is that you’re working on?’ I know he is very curious and maybe threatened but it is extremely annoying as I like this guy but am about to lose it.

Signed,

More Than Frustrated


Answer:

Dear More Than Frustrated:

You’re a trainer so you probably have strong verbal, interpersonal, and problem solving skills in the classroom or one-on-one. This will be a good time to use those in your own work situation. 1. Analyze the actions of your coworker and decide what seems to be negative, mean-spirited, harmful or purposely disruptive of your work, and what is merely reflective of a different approach to working with others but not meant in a negative way. Those latter things may need to be handled to avoid further frustration, but can be handled differently than the former. Once you have your list, see if they fit categories of actions, or perhaps see if they happen at some times but not others. You will probably be able to identify specific situations that prompt his questions or concerns and others that do not.

You should also take the time to ask yourself: What about this specific action creates a problem for me? What is it that harms me or my work or makes me feel threatened or frustrated? I think that is needed so you can say, to him or your manager, why you think his actions should stop.

From an outsider’s viewpoint, it doesn’t seem negative for one colleague to ask another, “What is that you’re working on?” In many training assignments everyone knows what everyone is working on, as way to share knowledge and to stay aware of projects. Or, if someone thinks a colleague is a friend, it might not be unusual to use that as small talk.

So, you may find you have become so sensitized to everything he does that you are reacting to something you would have a very hard time convincing your manager or others, should be stopped. Probably there is more to it than you can describe in your question. But, that is a reminder that your frustrations may have become generalized.

2. If you have a manager, perhaps you can talk to him or her about the situation, with a positive and problem-solving approach. It wouldn’t seem likely that your colleage was accepted as a trainer just because he wanted to be one, so he must have something to offer there. Your manager may be aware of the situation and have feelings about it that would be good for you to know.

It may be that your manager would like more open conversation about work and a better sense of teamwork than you feel comfortable with, and he actually prefers your colleagues approach. Or, he may say that he too has noticed some problems with your colleague’s behavior and has some suggestions–or will say something himself.

3. I would imagine, since you say you like this person, that you haven’t said anything to him about your frustrations over his actions. I can understand that, because it’s not easy to do. But, I think you will need to get this out in the open a bit, even though it may create some awkwardness for awhile.

The best way to do it is the way I recommend to supervisors who have a situation that has gone on for awhile: Make the most recent time or last few times, as though they are the first time. Rather than confronting his eight months of asking, “What are you working on?” say, right after the next time he questions you, “Jim gave me a project for computer training to work on. Is there something about it you were wondering about?” Keep conversation about it brief and visually shut off your sharing about it by getting back to work, but in a pleasant way. When he asks again you can show a bit more exasperation, still in a courteous, even friendly, way, “Greg, what is going on? Are you going to ask me what I’m working on every time Jim gives me something? I don’t do that to you. It makes me feel like I have to report to you or something. Stop doing that.” (That can be said in a playful but obviously serious way that certainly will send a message.) If he asks yet again, you can be more firm, “I don’t know why you keep checking on my work, but it’s irritating for you to do that. We’ve worked together long enough for you to know that’s not my style. So, please stop asking all the time. Go ask Jim what I’m working on if you’re so curious. I don’t want us to lose our friendship over this, but it’s bothering me.”

4. I picked that one issue for you to handle, because it’s similar to one I have seen handled in that way just in the last few weeks. But obviously you have many more concerns than that. What often happens though if that clearing up one issue puts the working relationship on a different level and it has an effect on everything else.

Your colleague, once he is aware of your feelings, may start re-thinking how he has been acting and will make some changes on his own. Or, if he has had negative motives, he may realize that you are aware of his ploys and will back off rather than have a confrontation. Or, he may say or do something more obvious, allowing you to either confront him more or to take the matter to your manager and ask for assistance.

One thing is for sure, unless you do something specific to stop your colleague’s actions, he will have no reason to change his behavior. He may not even think there is any problem with it and it now is his habitual way of communicating with you.

He may see his butting into conversations as merely being friendly or helpful and his questions as just being interested. So, there might be some hurt feelings. That is a price that may be worth paying to get some peace.

Training is a fun assignment for most, and there is a tendency to interact differently than in other assignments. It may be that you and your colleague will have to each do some accomodating to your different approaches. But, that will not happen until there is an acknowledgement, at least in some way, of the differences and your preferences.

Be prepared for him to have some suggestions for changes in your behavior as well, because it may be he sees this situation very differently than you do.

5. While all of this is going on, it’s easy to become distracted from your own work. This will be a good time to renew your commitment to your students or to those for whom you are preparing training materials. You shouldn’t isolate yourself, but you can immerse yourself to the point of making it clear you have things to do.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to suggest to your manager that once a month (no more often) the staff could meet for twenty minutes and do a quick run-down of projects, when people could ask each other for input or simply let others know what is going on. I’m not big on that kind of meeting because I have found them to be self-promoting times for many. But, by keeping them very brief it might be a way to let you an others (if there are others besides you and your colleague) know what is in the works.

I don’t know if any of these ideas will work for your situation but perhaps they can be adapted. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. This type of edgy conflict that is hard to pin down, is the type we hear about often and perhaps we can use your experiences to help others. Best wishes to you.

Tina Lewis Rowe