Overbearing Coworker

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a new older overbearing coworker:

I work in a school where I oversee a caseload of students. I am well liked by my students, parents, and I’m seen as a good worker. Last year we had a new counselor join the team and she is older. She frequently inserts herself into my projects when I haven’t asked her for help nor has my boss asked her to help me. If I don’t include her in my work she complains that she doesn’t feel included and that I’m being territorial. I’m doing my regular work duties that pertain to my caseload and extra projects that I volunteered to do. She has her own caseload of students to work with but always seems preoccupied with what I am doing.

She also frequently interrupts me throughout the day with questions to the point of distracting me from my work. If I say I’m busy she comes back 10 minutes later or complains to higher ups that I’m not helping her. She also needs everything repeated multiple times and still has no clue what is going on. She will also ask me how to do something and then later when we are in meetings with our principal ask the same question again and then ask me in front of everyone how I do it. When she is working with students she frequently stops to leave her office to interrupt me to ask me how to do simple tasks she should know how to do.

When she walks past my office, she checks to see what I’m doing multiple times throughout the day. I’m doing my job. I suspect she is slightly obsessed with me. She also complained to our union rep because I went to a luncheon for counselors that I was personally invited to that she didn’t know about. Another example: she mentioned seeing a picture of me on Facebook wearing a pretty dress. Which means she is online stalking me.

She also once sent an email to me with my boss cc d that I don t seem to have time for her in my busy schedule. I was told not to reply back to that email. My boss has been made aware of all this and she has an underdog mentality and nothing is being done to address the behavior.
I have tried asking her to write down all her questions so we could go over them at one time; she got offended. She refuses to work with the other counselor on our team. I also tried having an individual meeting with her but that didn’t go well either. I’m now in my second year of having to deal with this odd behavior. I do document everything that occurs with her.

–Signed, Coping, But Unhappy

Dear Coping, But Unhappy:

Case work is no walk in the park, and probably your irritation with a coworker partly hinges on the fact that you are efficient and effect as is possible for a case worker. If you were incompetent you, you might be more tolerant. Working solo is difficult in itself. Without doubt occasionally, our jobs become more difficult because of coworkers. You are learning this fact. How might you cope more effectively? Maybe you can and must learn to tolerate Ms. Overbearing; however, I predict you have more ways to do that than the ways you say you have tried that have failed. I’ll partition, my remarks along the lines of topics you have mentioned in your lament: boss, interrupt, repeating, stalking, and team.

Boss: You say you have brought the older worker’s annoying behavior to the attention of your boss; that she “has been made aware of all this and she has an underdog mentality and nothing is being done to address the behavior.” Sometimes “doing nothing is doing something” and that is an action that a boss can take because of her lake of confidence, incompetence or to say you must work this out between you. You are correct in documenting Ms. Overbearing annoyances and bringing them to the attention of your boss and you are correct in thinking she should handle it. How? Have you in your own mind thought through how this should be handled if you were boss? You might think that through and provide your boss options she could take if you go to her again about Ms. O. Perhaps, those options will entail using more than one channel–oral and written in that order (the order of a channel’s delivery affects its acceptability) or written and oral and a three-party meeting and a follow-up to see how a plan for less interaction was working after a period of time.

I suggest that your demeaning characterization of your boss may say more about your distress than it is wise for you to say is true of her—as underdog mentality. From this distance of course you may have ample evidence to say your boss has earned this description, but you might well ask if harboring this characterization of her will help your bossed-boss relationship. Before I suggest several ways to cope with your new older coworker, I recommend for your consideration four communication rules, I have found helpful. They have relevance for how you cope with your boss and with your overbearing coworker:
1. Assume another has good intentions.
2. Misunderstanding is the rule and not the exception.
3. Talk about talk.
4. We don’t learn new dance steps without repeated practice

Your boss could function as a directive counselor could. If she bossed this way, you could blame her if her orders were unsuccessful and you could say she micro-mismanaged. On the other hand if she takes her job of bossing as an indirective counselor would—depending on the situation and the maturity of the counselee—she would not say how you should handle it. I’m sure you know these approaches because of your training. Let’s assume her “underdog mentality” is purposeful in that it has motivated you to find constructive and creative ways to deal with this unusual annoyance of a new older coworker. Such an assumption is one that would do each of us well to have—to assume that what was done by your boss or by anyone was based on good intentions. The opposite assumption–that your boss’ lack of action was based on lack of ability or meant to do you harm, inevitably is a self-fulfilling consequence. What I assume matters. Next let’s apply our four communication rules to interruption and repetition.

Interruption and repeating: Your analysis of interrupting behavior appears to be summed up in that the new older worker has a psychic need for reassurance and that she seeks that repeatedly. Moreover that she sometimes does that in the presence of others, possibly is to humiliate you—to put you down as uncooperative. Your analysis might be accurate—in light of the log you have made of the interruptions. Q-Soooooo can you stop interruptions and voicing them at the wrong time and wrong place? A-Probably not and maintain a pleasant working relationship with her. You say of your one meeting “that didn’t go well.” I don’t know what occurred in that one meeting, but I do know that one meeting was not enough, just as going over one dance step would never enable anyone to dance alone or with the stars. How to do something well requires language clarification and repetition, especially because words are susceptible to different interpretation, they are slippery and colored by different experience and ill-will or good will. Even establishing an interpersonal coworker rule for the word STOP, could require guidelines of when it is appropriate and acceptable for you to say to Ms. Overbearing, STOP. This is to suggest that it might take more than one meeting to establish a “buy-in” to what, when, and why she should and shouldn’t interrupt you. Two overlapping techniques you might try are charting and rule making, either in one-on-one seessions or in three-party sessions including your boss.

Charting is helpful in designating who does what. On a vertical axis list tasks. On a horizontal list names—yours, your older coworker, boss and other relevant parties. Then with a code such as Me Alone, Co-operative With Co-worker, Boss informed, Boss approved, etc. you can designate action that for each party. Such a chart if built collaboratively defines and clarifies job descriptions in relationship with coworkers. Rule-making can also accomplish that, even when the rules are boss-made, but are more likely psychically owned when rules are made in deliberated and monitored collaboratively. Talk about talk in that sense is collaboratively surfacing what is often not talked about. For example gossiping and complaining about another person is often an unspoken practice, but when discussed as to what talk is healthy for a work group, what then happens is articulation of a rule: Don’t say something about a coworker that you haven’t and wouldn’t say to her/him first and openly.

Talk about talk is to acknowledge that words matter—they can hurt; they can help. As I implied earlier, STOP could become a one word rule between Ms. O and you—especially when she is complaining that she’s not included or is repeatedly doing something you and she have made a rule not to do. Maybe even a hand calmly raised can signal I’m working; can’t that wait until later unless it is crucial?

Stalking. Probably it is because you sense that Ms. Overbearing watches you that you have linked her comment about seeing you on Facebook in a pretty dress adds up to stalking. Here again I suggest that words we use matters—they color how we think about ourselves and others. Words such as stalking make us fearful and persuade us to watch our backs. However, being watched may be rooted in emulation, envy, curiosity and simply seeking ways to make the day go differently. In any case, can’t we agree that her behavior was not stalking?

Team. In your closing paragraph you say, “She refuses to work with the other counselor on our team.” Is team the correct word or might it be more accurate to describe those with whom you associate as a work group? A team takes both an attitude and a process. A team attitude hinges on we, we, we. Our effectiveness is interdependent. Each of us is not working solo in a silo. A team process entails collaborative talk about talk and rule making. It means acts that cut wasted time, wasted supplies, wasted energy and innovative ways to recycle and utilizes waste. The process entails shared leadership and rotating disliked and liked roles. Get the point? How many and sessions has your work group met to applaud and/or clarify those tasks you each has and those matters that determine your collective success?

No doubt by now you will say this sermon is more than enough. That’s your right to say this Workplace Doctor has not worked with Ms. O; he simply doesn’t know what’s really going on. You are right. He doesn’t. The time given to address your concerns might be interpreted as a waste of time or you may reflect upon them and say if any of them ring true. They are embodied in my signature: Working together with hands head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Do make time to try those suggestions that you see have possibilities or that spur you to see your situation differently and to create ways to cope, hopefully more positively.
–William Gorden