What Can I Do About A Coworker Who Says My Work Overshadows His?

A Question for Ask the Workplace Doctors:
What can I do to get along better with a coworker
who accuses me of overshadowing his work? 

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Question:
I have been working with this group in a creative arts position in a company working on a group project. It is very team oriented, and a very competitive workplace. At the same time we all, for the most part, work together like gears with little friction. A coworker I am going to call James has told me numerous times that he is tired of creating work just for it to be overshadowed by something I have contributed, and wants to surrender working for the company because he feels anything he contributes will be looked at as inferior compared to mine. I have tried all types of methods to support James and help boost his confidence in his abilities, by bumping it above mine to be reviewed instead of some of my ideas, working with him under the guise that I want to learn things from him, and constantly make positive, but not overbearing compliments on his work on a week to week basis. [Trying to make sure I don’t smother him].

I treat him like any other of the co-workers, but recently he made an outburst about me overshadowing everyone else. He makes a point to say that I want to disrupt his vision and the vision of others from the project, but I rarely contribute as much. I am quite passionate, and I love doing my job. My work is rarely rejected, but his is constantly scrutinized for its mistakes. I am kind of lost on how to try to give this person space, I am never near James and I do my best to never criticize his work unless he specifically asks me to do so. He is starting to cause a lot of drama in the workplace, constantly putting himself down, I don’t know if it’s suicidal ideations if he is going through personal emotional issues or what have you, but his lack of self-confidence in his work is lowering the overall morale of the group. He will sometimes refuse to share work, insisting that I be given the task instead because I will “Obviously do a better job”, and constantly makes remarks like “I don’t want to do that, she can do that perfectly why should I waste my time?”

I have had sleepless nights over this. His ability is very much below the caliber of what we expect of people in his position, but we tolerate him within the group, expecting him to improve over time. He has also been grandfathered into the project, so the probability of them letting him go unless he leaves, is very low.

Before I pull my hair out, how can I do anything to correct this? I want to focus on my job. He makes it very difficult to do so.

Response: 
This is not a problem you can solve on your own—and continuing to try to do so may result in you being considered part of the problem. The role you have taken, of giving your coworker, “James”, extra support, pushing his work forward, complimenting him, pretending to need his help, etc., could be viewed as patronizing and feeling sorry for him, instead of working with him as an equal. Your very first action toward improving this situation is to leave James alone to focus on his own work, except for needed teamwork and the daily cordial greetings you give everyone else. Shake off the idea that you are somehow responsible for helping James feel better about himself and his work.

I notice you don’t mention your manager or team leader at all, but all teams have someone who reviews work and makes decisions about assigning work and evaluating employees. That is the person who is responsible for dealing with this situation and also the person to whom you should be speaking about it. It’s a positive thing on your part that you have tried to solve this problem without involving a boss, but the description you provide of James indicates he will not respond to your efforts and may resent you more as a result.

Go to your manager and explain what you’ve told us and ask for assistance to stop James’s remarks, which are hurtful and disruptive. Put your emphasis on three main things: 1.) James’s continual negative remarks to you are distracting you from your work. 2.) You are concerned about James’s emotional stability and what he might do if he becomes even more upset. 3.) You would like to have some feedback about your performance and behavior, so you can be sure you have not inadvertently behaved ineffectively as part of the team.

By taking that approach you will hopefully receive reinforcement from your manager, so you won’t have to feel that James may be, in any way, even partially correct. In addition, your manager may come to realize, if he didn’t before, that there is a serious conflict going on that could threaten the stability and work of the team. He may be aware of undercurrents but not realize how severe the situation is.

Start anew, with the idea that James and you both are being paid to do a job and he has had the same opportunities you have had. If he has not, it is up to him to work with his manager to correct the situation. Do your job to the best of your ability, working with team members in a positive way, but do not sacrifice yourself or your work to make James feel more important. Your work is your work and you should not feel apologetic that it may be better than that of others.

The very next time James makes a statement about your work, get up—which always gets attention–and say, “James, let’s go talk to (the name of your manager) about the situation.” Or, “James, if you’re not happy with things, the person to talk to is (name of your manager). I don’t want to hear those kind of remarks again.” If you want to be even more forceful, you could say, “James, this is getting really old. We both have work to do and if you’re not happy about yours go talk to (the manager), not to me.”

The problem is, you’ve let James vent and whine to you for so long, he thinks it’s OK to do it. It will be uncomfortable for you and a bit shocking for him, when you tell him to stop, but I hope you will do it—and stick with it.

Do not try to convince him he is wrong, because he won’t believe you. Do not tell him about all you have done to make him feel better, because that will only upset him more. Just pass this problem to the manager, whose role it is to keep the team working together.

If coworkers have expressed concerns to you about James, suggest they speak to the manager as well, so he or he realizes it is not just your concerns he should be dealing with. It may be they have known of the issue, but were trying to stay out of the way of James’s unhappiness. At least they should take a stand to not let a team member be accused unfairly of being a problem.

It has become so habitual to deal with James that it will probably make you think of his issues more, as you try to clear out the mental clutter of his accusations, but keep at it. Find something more important that requires a lot of focus and effort or link with another teammate about something else, and let James work through his concerns and feelings of inadequacy by himself.

Do not respond to his complaints in any way except to tell him to talk to the manager or to get up and take him to the manager’s office. If he makes statements in front of others, consider asking them for their thoughts and force them to take a stand about his disruptive comments.

I hope these thoughts will encourage you to be confident about your own work and less stressful about the whining and rude comments by your coworker. Keep moving forward and let your light shine fully!

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things work out over time.

Best wishes,

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors