How Can I Cope With A Problem Co-Worker Who is Now My Boss?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to cope with
a problem coworker who is now the boss.

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Question: 

I have been in my industry for 10 years. I came to my new company almost 3 years ago. I love it here. My boss is a hard charger and I have in the past loved working for her.  About a year ago my whole department noticed that one coworker was slowly gaining 100 percent of boss’s trust. This problem coworker is not an easy person to get along with, but she never pulls anything unless our boss is gone.

In the last three years, three people have quit because of her. Two of them were very vocal about their reasons. Here is an example of her behavior:
*She is very condescending and she has told me and my coworkers that we needed to deal with it , that is just who she is.
*She never admits to being wrong. If she behaves badly, when she gets caught she says it’s because she is socially awkward.
*She is a grammar corrector and believe me she will research and research until she can prove you wrong.
*When she gets called out she always plays the victim.

Our group when out of town for a conference. We were invited to a cocktail party to celebrate the success of some work I had done for an important client. We had been in meetings all day and as we were leaving to go to the party, she and I were in the elevator together. She asked me to take her bag to my room and she would go down to the lobby and wait for me.

I literally rode the elevator up went into my room dropped the bag off brushed my hair and went downstairs. In the literal 5 minutes it took me to get back downstairs they had left me. I tried calling but she wouldn’t pick up. The next day she asked me for her bag and in her baby talking, “feel sorry” for her voice she said “I felt so bad that we left you. Are you okay?”

Our boss recently gave her a promotion and now my coworker is my boss. When our boss (the department head) told me, she said to me that my new boss makes all the decisions and that if we don’t like it she didn’t care, that we better get used to it. HOW can I cope and how can we make the department head see what we see?

Response:

I’m sorry things have changed so much, from the time when you enjoyed work until now. I wish I could give you some strong hope that you and others can turn this situation around, but it doesn’t seem likely. There are only two things that could make that happen:

1.) If something occurs that makes your department head see your former problem coworker (now your boss) in a completely different way and your coworker is either demoted or fired. (You would know better than I would, what it would take for someone to be fired or severely sanctioned. In many businesses it’s a rare thing, unless there is illegal activity.)

2.) If your new boss becomes a better manager than you think she will be. (Even though that probably doesn’t seem likely to you, there is a chance it could work out that way.)

A third option might be that you and your coworkers decide to fully support the new boss and find a way to get accustomed to her irritating ways, so you can enjoy her as much as you formerly enjoyed working with your department head—or at least be able to tolerate her enough to feel good about work again. I doubt that will happen, but if it does, let me know so I can put your name in for a sainthood! Your former coworker doesn’t sound like someone you or others will warm up to unless she changes many things about her style of interacting.

The things you describe as her bad actions do not sound so terrible to me, but I would imagine dealing with it day after day has increased the irritant factor. Nevertheless, her behaviors do seem to be irritants rather than some of the bullying and harassment that happens in some workplaces. Probably the coworkers who left have found that some of their current co-workers are equally irritating.

Consider the reality of things: The head of your department (DH) trusts “Lisa”. Other employees have quit because of Lisa and told the DH why they were leaving, but that didn’t have an effect on your Department Head. Lisa has seemed to be condescending to almost everyone, but there have been no negative results for her. It even sounds as though coworkers tolerated her rather than confronting her. It might have been helpful, when all of this started to ask the DH to be present when you talked to Lisa.

Think about the situation when you were out of town: You took her bag to your room, rather than telling her you didn’t like to be responsible for someone else’s items. You don’t say if you went to the function or not, but you certainly could have taken a taxi and gotten to the event, in spite of her. After that trip, would have been a good time to talk to the Department Head and ask her to mediate the long-term conflict—and maybe you did so. But, the whole thing is a picture of you putting yourself in a situation where Lisa could take advantage of you, even though you knew what she was like.

Now she is your boss and the DH has told you that Lisa makes the decisions and you and others should get used to it and do what Lisa says. Clearly your DH values Lisa very much and thinks that you and others are the ones who are creating problems. I wonder what your DH’s view of the whole situation really is? Have you asked her?

Either your department head is so mistaken that she is incompetent about her judgment of people–or Lisa does, in fact, have significant value to the business and the team and is being rewarded for that by being given a higher position than her co-workers. If she is going to be making decisions, as your Department Head said, it could be that the DH thinks there has been a lack of close oversight and that someone is needed to direct or correct work, such as schedules, staffing, use of resources, etc.

Consider the fact that the department head probably had other options for who to pick as a manager. She chose Lisa—someone who she knows is disliked by employees and who she has been told was the reason several employees quit. She obviously knew you and others would be opposed to having Lisa made a manager, because she came to you and essentially told you to stop complaining about Lisa and do what Lisa says. That is tough talk, to make it clear that she is tired of hearing whispers or open complaints about Lisa and she wants you to stop it and fall in line behind Lisa. I think you would have to agree that there is obviously a huge gap between how you see Lisa’s actions and the responses of her coworkers (including you) and how your Department Head sees things.

This situation sounds as though it isn’t just about Lisa being viewed better by your Department Head than you think she should be, it is an issue of you and the others being viewed more negatively by your Department Head than you might realize. That’s not a good thing and something you should be concerned about, no matter what happens with Lisa.

Now you have to decide what to do next. If Lisa was just recently promoted, she is even more likely to be supported, since any errors she makes can be viewed as part of the learning process or blamed on her newness to the position or the lack of help she has been given by her former coworkers. Your choices are to do as Dr. Gorden often suggests, and “vote with your feet”, by finding someplace else to work. Or, bide your time and figure that many things can change organizationally, so maybe Lisa won’t be your boss for long anyway. You could also cope better by putting your focus on your own work. If you are doing an excellent job, even Lisa will be appreciative. If you refuse to badmouth Lisa to co-workers you may be able to reset your relationship with your Department Head and with Lisa as well—they will know if you aren’t doing it, just as they know who is doing it now. (Someone in your group of coworkers probably has hinted about it to the Department Head or to Lisa herself.)

None of these thoughts are surefire ways to make things better, but I hope they will encourage you to move your attention from your new boss and put it on keeping a positive reputation and being a valued member of the department in the mind of your department head and others.

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how you resolve the matter or at least what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors