How Can I Become Part of the Team If They Won’t Help Me Learn?

A new question to Ask the Workplace Doctors:
How can I become part of the team
if they won’t communicate with me or help me learn?

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Question:
I recently started a new job in a new field. I was extremely excited about this and ready to learn new things. That all ceased within my first 3 months. I am working in a small office, there are just 3 of us, my boss, my coworker and myself. I came from an office that employed 35 people at any given time and had been there for 20 years so I expected some “growing time” taking this new job. I have pretty much been on my own learning a new business and new tasks since day one.

The only time I receive any guidance or training from my coworkers is when I do something incorrectly. When I ask questions I am told that they “will not micromanage” me and to “figure it out”. I have found resources within the company to help but it’s frustrating not having communication with the team I work with daily.

I was recently told by my coworker that they are “mourning” the girl I replaced and that “everyone loved her immediately” so it’s been “hard on us because you’re not her.” My thought was, no kidding—I am me, not her. However, I said, “Hopefully with time you will be able to work with me as well.”

Things got better for a while, but now my coworker says things under her breath when I make an error instead of just saying it to me directly and she says it very sarcastically. I’m at a loss and not sure what to do. How can I play the “game” with this team if I 1: don’t know the rules and 2: can’t get training from them on the office politics.

Please help. I really like this company otherwise.

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Answer:
I can understand why you feel frustrated–and maybe lonely. You came from a busy office where you were a twenty-year, confident veteran, to an office where you’re the new, untrained person, with only two other people directly working with you–and at least one of them makes you feel unwelcome. You want to become part of the team but that isn’t happening. Probably you are doing some mourning yourself!

You ask how you can play the game if you don’t know the rules and can’t get training on office politics. That doesn’t seem to be the nature of the conflict between you and your coworker and boss. Even missing the former employee isn’t the problem. It seems your work performance is, from their viewpoint, not to standard, and that is the main problem. So, it would seem to me you will be more successful if you focus on that and on building more positive relationships in a genuine way, rather than being concerned about intricate networks or power plays. (You may have meant that statement differently, but I wanted to mention it, since some people really do replace work concerns with the concerns of office politics–rarely with good results.)

(1.)  The first place to start trying to improve the situation, since you say you like the company and want to stay, is to self-critique. Sometimes when a person has worked in the same place for a long time, they learn to do specific tasks well. If they change jobs, they have trouble getting their minds going in that direction.  They don’t realize how much less effective they are than the last person was or how much of an effort others have to make to help them. It is also sometimes the case that HR has assured a boss that the new employee is ready to start and keep going with minimal training. So, the boss is disappointed when it turns out that isn’t the case.

You say you have pretty much been on your own since day one. That was apparently what was expected by your boss. It’s a shame he or she didn’t reassess the situation and realize help was going to be needed.

Training is necessary for some of the work in a new job, but some activities, such as data entry, word processing, using an intuitive form or process, following a written procedure, etc., can be done correctly, even by an untrained employee, if there is attention to the details or if an effort is made to figure things out before asking for assistance. You may have done all of that. You probably will have to keep at it, since apparently they won’t be helping much.

It’s sometimes uncomfortable to do, but give this a try: Talk to yourself, from your boss’s point of view if he or she was asked these questions about you:

*Was she as knowledgeable and skillful as you thought she’d be when she was first hired?
*Did she learn the required tasks as quickly as you expected?
*How is her behavior and social skills? Is she a pleasure to have around or not?
*Does she make your work easier or more difficult?
*Does she present an excellent appearance in her clothing, grooming, make-up, and other issues?
*Are there any grooming or hygiene issues that bother you?
*What is the best thing she contributes to the office?
*What do you wish was different about her work product or her interactions?
*Knowing what you know now about her and her work, would you hire her again?

You may even want to talk to yourself from your coworker’s viewpoint:

*Did you think you were going to like her, but changed your mind, or have you never gotten along with her?
* Other than the fact that you miss your former coworker, what is it that bothers you the most about her?
*Do you think she likes you?
*Why are you so angry and sarcastic acting when she makes a mistake?
*What could she do to make things better?

I’m not implying this is your fault or that your coworker or boss have handled things well. But, since you only have control over yourself, it seems reasonable to see if there is anything at all you could do on your own to start the process of improvement. Trying to see their perspective is one way to do that.

(2.) Your boss and your coworker may both have what the Heath brothers referred to in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, as “the curse of knowledge. They may have forgotten what it’s like to not know how to do the work, so they don’t see why you would need help and they think you should be able to figure things out on your own. It may also be that although they know most of the elements of your work, they do not know how to teach someone else about it.

You may need to be a bit more assertive about asking for assistance, using a pleasant, requesting tone. “Jan, I appreciate you not wanting to micromanage, but I do need helping learning this report, so I can do it right in the future. Would you help me with a couple of questions I have?”  Or, “This document is important to (the end user) so I want to make sure it’s 100% right. I’ve figured out most of it, but I have three questions I need help with.”  Or, you could be a bit more adamant. “I’ve tried to figure this out but I can’t. If I’m going to get it done on time I’m going to have to get some assistance with it. I’d appreciate it if you’d help me.”

You know your work situation and what words would be right and not sound angry or excuse-making.  Every employee, of any tenure, may sometimes need assistance with work, so it’s not too much to ask, as long as you’re not asking often and every day, about things you should know by now.

It would be good to put your requests in an email, so you will have documentation of what you asked about and the responses you received. But, you may find it easier to keep building a relationship by talking to your boss directly and showing him or her that you have valid questions and once those are answered you don’t make a mistake.

(3.) Even though you want to get along with your coworker and feel that you are part of the team in the office, the most important person in the three-person office is the person who does your performance evaluations or makes decisions about you. Make sure you do not let a wall build up between the two of you.  Aim for cordial, courteous and pleasant communication every day and keep gaining knowledge and skills at the same time. At least aim to not be making errors that can be avoided by working carefully.

You don’t mention talking to your boss about how things are going, but you need to be doing that now and then. It may seem uncomfortable to do so or it may seem your boss wouldn’t welcome it, but that is the only way you ensure you are on the right path as far as he or she is concerned. You certainly don’t want to get all of your feedback about your work from an unpleasant coworker instead of from your boss.

Most open-space offices have conference rooms for private conversations. If so, you can send an email and say you want to meet with him/her to discuss some work questions and would like about ten minutes where you can have some private conversation. The should be considered part of your boss’s work, so hopefully he or she will be willing to meet with you.

When you meet, be friendly and casual and say you appreciate the time. Come up with some reason you’ve decided to have the conversation now. (You just finished a complicated task, it’s the end of the year, it’s close to your XX work anniversary, etc.) Say you feel that you’ve settled in to work, but you have two things to discuss. One is how he or she thinks you are doing, generally and Two, are there some areas you need to be improving? Just ask those two things and wait. You don’t need to give a long preface to your conversation, ask for that feedback and listen to it, responding if needed to clarify something.

(4.) If there is some part of your work you feel you have never learned fully and do not think you can learn it on your own, be prepared to talk about that and have some suggestions for how you can learn it without interfering with your work or the work of the coworker.

  Even if you don’t feel you get a lot of useful information out of the conversation, it’s a positive action on your part, if you handle it that way.

(5.) Your co-worker may never be close to you, but she may at least one day become cordial. One thing is for sure: Her sarcastic, muttered criticisms are rude and inappropriate and should not be permitted. They are hurtful,  they distract you from your work and that discourage you. You’ve worked there long enough to have some status and I hope you will use some of it to confront that behavior.  She knows you can hear her muttering, so there is no point in pretending you don’t hear her. When you don’t say anything, it may irritate her further, making her think you don’t care about your errors or other issues—so she feels she has to get to you even more.

Try being direct: “Lisa, I can hear you and I can tell you’re upset. But, saying things like that doesn’t help either of us.” You may be surprised at how she will shut down her snide remarks if she knows you will confront her about them. Or, it might get things out in the open enough to solve some conflicts or at least allow you to hear her voice her thoughts.

Since she felt so positive about the former coworker, sometime consider asking her about that person and let her have the pleasure of talking about her workplace friend. Maybe being open to such a discussion will allow your coworker to realize that she isn’t being disloyal if she gets along well with you.

(6.) Consider talking to the HR person who assisted you when you were interviewed and hired. He or she may have some insights or may be able to make suggestions to help you. If you think HR will report your conversation to your boss, you may decide to not talk to them, or you may choose your words carefully, knowing they will be repeated.

(7.) Even if your small group of three is not as congenial as you had hoped, you apparently work for a larger company. Identify some people you like and respect. Without making the conversation gossipy, ask them for their perspectives. Or, don’t do that, just enjoy them and figure their friendships at least show you can make friends there, no matter how your coworker acts.

The bottom line is that unless something happens that results in you leaving or your coworker and/or boss leaving, you will be there and they will be there. So, it’s to your benefit to brainstorm on your own or maybe with someone else who knows the situation, to find some solutions you can start working on, on your own if necessary.

One way to do that is to completely clean your work surface and pretend it’s your first day. Tidy things up, look at your work with fresh eyes and at your coworker and boss as though you haven’t had bad relationships and aren’t going to.  Tackle your work as though you have no one to help you and only yourself to ask mentally for assistance. (Which is what you’ve been doing!)

You said you realized things weren’t going to go well after about three months. I’m sorry about that and wish it had been smooth sailing, as it should have been. But, if you want to stay and if you want things to improve, you may need to be very innovative about your approach. Maybe some of these ideas will help.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors