How To Deal With An Overbearing Colleague Who Pulls Rank In An Inter-Office Team Project?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a colleague who pulls rank
in an inter-office team: How can I handle this in a way
that doesn’t reflect badly on my work? 

Question:

I have had some tension with a female colleague (herein after I refer to her as “T”). I think T. is getting more and more overbearing and I would like to know how to deal with or handle this conflict professionally so as not to affect my work product. I work for a large multinational organization and I have been working here for a little over two months.. I interviewed for a Vice President of Implementation role but was offered the role as an Assistant Vice President, with the promise of promotion to VP next year, which I am completely fine with. T. has worked here for 10 months and is a Vice President, but I do not report to her, although I work on a project team with her and another colleague, “N.”

Our department is new and our mandate includes writing policy and procedures, putting on trainings and overseeing anything related to our department’s function in the organization. When I started, my director explained to me that some of the implementation activities will have to be shared with another group and they were still trying to figure out how that will all work. He wanted me to be flexible, doing some of the required writing assignments with two other members of my team (T. and a male colleague, N.) as well as my other responsibilities in figuring out the implementation piece.

This arrangement brought about some confusion since there was no defined responsibility for each person on the team. Also, when working on the same document, we needed to figure out how and when each person is able to contribute material into it. Eventually, we did. N. and I did most of the writing and it seemed like when T. would go into the document, she would make mostly stylistic and grammatical corrections and would tell us to change or fix them. Or she would change one or two words. That was fine but irritating. She would also take credit for work she didn’t write.

A month into it, my director hadn’t still defined what our roles would be going forward, so in a meeting he said since there was a lot of writing to be done, T. should be the functional reporter for the group as it concerns the policies and procedures aspects. What that exactly means is unclear.
Soon after, I met with my manager after my first month to catch-up on my integration into the team. He expressed gratitude for my contributions thus far and expressed his excitement for my future with the team. We also discussed the team dynamics and he wanted to know if things were going alright. I told him that our roles weren’t quite defined and I wanted to be careful to not overstep my duties and to be able to recognize when someone else was doing the same. He clarified that the arrangement with T. being the functional reporter only relates to her coordinating some of the team’s efforts on projects we work on as a group. He stated that I’ll have my separate projects which will be my responsibility and also team projects which I will do with the team.

I’ve had some personal projects already which I’ve worked on with my director and/or my manager separately. I’ve created the requirements and process for implementing and tracking gaps on the new global sanctions compliance policy we just completed. After my manager and I were comfortable with the implementation process, I shared it with the rest of the team (T. and the other team member) in a meeting. I told them the process and how we envision rolling it out globally and the challenges we anticipate etc.

I said I’ll create some templates to support the process and will have all these documents uploaded into a SharePoint site accessible to my team once they were completed. They were happy with the progress.  About 2 hours later, T. sent me an email saying: “Please create two folders in SharePoint and upload the respective documents.” I was surprised at her “instruction” as I had offered that in the meeting. I said sure, I was planning on doing that.

I created the folders that day but didn’t upload any documents as I still needed to figure out how many other folders I need for this process as several components of this effort require separate documentation. Please keep in mind that before the meeting, I had sent them both a copy of the document in case they wanted copies for whatever reason.

The following day, she emailed me around noon that she had checked and “it doesn’t appear you have uploaded the documents as I requested. Please do so.” I was a bit taken aback given that it was my project, I had given each a copy, I had suggested I would create and upload them, I had created the folders and I had said I was going to upload them.

Annoyed by this, I didn’t respond to her email until later that night around 10 p.m., telling her I was still working on the documents and would upload them once I was done, as I mentioned in our meeting the day before. She responded less than an hour later, copying my manager saying “Please upload the draft into SharePoint (to the folder you created as I requested) and save changes as you update. This is our team’s process for the creation/update of documents and ensures documents are accessible to all team members, should the need arise.”

Even though she tried to create a need for the document, none existed. Additionally, all members of the team had copies and when I said I would create a folder and upload them, there was not a time requirement because of the nature of this specific document. I think she copied my manager to create a need and to portray me as uncooperative to the “team’s process”. I never responded to her email and my manager did not respond on it either.

The following morning, I was done with the document and uploaded it. Then I was given a project to create a process for gathering certain information that is relevant for assessing the risk related to unusual product/service offerings by my organization. I worked directly with my director and manager and drafted an analysis for them. This set the stage for a uniform process which I created that we can use going forward for all these type of assessments. My director and manager were pleased, I shared the success of the first case with the team in an email detailing the vision for this process and how we plan on gathering this information and formalizing it across the organization.

A few days later (last Wednesday to be precise) we received a second request for the product assessment, my director forwarded the emails to me early that morning to start the process and coordinate with the necessary stakeholders to complete the assessment within the deadline they requested. Later that afternoon, T. asked me if I had gotten those emails and if I had spoken to the director on next steps.

I told her of course I had gotten the emails and I’m already working on the next steps with the director. She stated that she would like to be copied on emails on this case and all other cases going forward since at some point she would be brought into it. I didn’t understand what she meant by “brought into it” nor did I know why she wanted to be copied on them. I figured I will copy the rest of the team once it’s complete for their awareness like it was done in the prior case.

I have had several communications with my director and manager and the other stakeholders requiring the assessment. I did not copy her in any of the emails and neither did my director or manager. In one email, my director copied her and more people and she responded to me copying my manager and director, saying for me to ensure she was copied on all emails regarding this case and others for her awareness. Still my manager and director didn’t copy her and neither did I.

I was setting up a meeting with another team to discuss an assessment request and emailed my director for his approval. He approved the findings and gave me the go ahead to set up the meeting and to copy the rest of the team for their awareness. I copied her and the other colleague as optional attendees.

This morning T. told me that she didn’t know what was going on with the case I referred to in the email and asked if there had been other emails relating to it. I said yes there has been a few more logistic related. She stated she specifically requested that I copy her on them. I responded that I didn’t see the value in copying her or any other one on emails that did not need their input. Further, I stated that I copied the team on the meeting invite as optional attendees as the meeting was the only substantive communication we have. I said I’ll copy her on substantive emails but didn’t see the value or utility in copying her on purely logistical and other emails that not even my manager and director have been copied on. She said she wants me to copy her on all my emails relating to this matter and others, I responded. “Sure.”

She then got up quickly and requested to speak to me quickly in a conference room. I followed. Getting in there I sat down, while she stood. She started by saying it seems we have a problem, I don’t respond to her emails, I don’t do what she asks me to, like copying her, and she doesn’t need to have to explain herself to me more than once and there’s something in organizations called lines of reporting.

Still standing she proceeds to say she’s a Vice President and I’m an Assistant Vice President, therefore I have report to her. I said I completely understand reporting lines and I know my reporting lines, but I report to my manager and director. I only work on a team with her and my other colleague

She proceeded to say no that’s not what she understands; that she was told I would report to her. I told her that’s not what was explained to me. She then asked, “What’s your title and what’s mine?” I said it is irrelevant, the fact that she’s a VP and I’m an AVP doesn’t mean I have to report to her. VPs and AVPs as well as associates only determine a pay grade; we can all be in the same team with reporting only to the manager.

She got upset saying she didn’t need to argue with me and we’ll need to set a meeting with the director and manager to settle this and she didn’t like my tone. Please note, I had no tone, I even smiled in some instances and she was standing while I sat and it appeared like I was being scolded. She was condescending and rude and probably did not expect me to respond to her. The other colleague in the team has also worked here for about 11 months and says he almost was looking for a new job because of her demeanor towards him earlier this summer until I joined the team.

For example: In a meeting a few weeks ago, she asked why some feedback from stakeholders hadn’t been incorporated into a document my colleague, “N” and I had been working on. She continued to say “if we’re all going to be here” then we need to be doing these things. This statement struck me as a threat to my job and also was insinuating that my professional output is so lacking that it poses a threat to my job. This comment was troubling to my colleague N. as well, who states he has had to deal with off-handed comments and other similar things from her and gets anxiety as a result. I never responded to that comment or mentioned it to my manager as I wanted to wait to see how the dynamics continue to develop.

I anticipate her going to privately meet with the director and manager before I hear about any meeting. I would like to prepare myself and my position from a professional point. It creates a hostile environment with her attempts to boss me around and her perceived power over me. I love what I do and will like to continue uninterrupted by her tactics. How should I handle the impending meeting and her demeanor going forward?

Thank you in advance for your help in this matter.

************************************************

Hello and thank you for sharing your concerns with us. I have edited your question considerably because I wanted to eliminate references to the nature of your business and to anything that might identify you specifically.

Your situation points out one of the biggest problems with Functional Teams that are separate from the Administrative or Operational departments in which each team member works–especially when there are differences in titles and seniority within the team. You and the Vice President we are referring to as T., have both been treated unfairly by your Director (and whoever T. reports to, if not to your Director) when it comes to clarity about your roles. I can see your viewpoint and I can see hers—and you both would have benefited by asking for clarification every time you had a question—which seems to have happened several times.

Given T’s background (which I didn’t include in your edited question) I can see that she might think a higher title implies authority and responsibility over others. If she genuinely thinks she has organizational authority over you, she probably feels you, a two month employee, are being insubordinate and uncooperative to someone with a higher title and more seniority (although not much more!). What you see as overbearing she may see as a reasonable reaction to push-back on your part.

Another thing to consider is that you don’t know what she has privately been told by the Director about her role or about his concerns about the team, or what her experiences were before you started to work there. Since you have been there such a short time, maybe she knows better about what style and level of accuracy the Director expects. She may also feel—as I would—that her title implies she will be held more responsible than you, if material goes out with errors or stylistic problems. It would seem to others that she is pulling rank but she may see it as assuming responsibility appropriately.

I do agree that T. has been overly sensitive (or as you say, overbearing) about her title and not very sensitive about how her actions might make others feel. It may be she is working to solidify her position as a Vice President and she sees the team as a way to do it. Her unnecessary emailed instructions, with copies to the Director, tends to reinforce that. (I’ve noticed that often people who think their title places them in the role of a boss, look for someone to boss so they can practice the role!)

On the other hand, it sounds as though your resentment has been expressed by digging in your heels and refusing to comply with her directions/requests/demands (according to how those are seen by the two of you.) With only two months in your job, that is risky, even with someone you think is not your boss.

The bottom line is that whatever led up to the recent situation is done, but you can help change things in the future in several ways:

  1. Whether or not T. makes a complaint now, this lack of agreement about lines of reporting and responsibility will only get worse with time. Ask your Director if T. has set a meeting and if she has not, ask for one yourself.

Or, if you think it would be more useful, talk to him directly rather than having a meeting. Be direct and ask specific questions. For example,

“Mr. Smith, T. and I disagree over my role in relation to hers, so I would like some clarification from you. She says she was told she has management authority over me, because she is a VP and I’m an Assistant VP.  I just want to do a good job in the best possible way, without having conflicts. Could you clear up this issue of who I report to?”

I know you would word it differently than that, but whatever you say, ask directly if you want a clear answer—and don’t leave the room until you are clear about it. Then, if you are told you do not report to T., ask the Director to please let T. know that, so the conflict about it doesn’t continue. If you are told you do report to T. on some things, ask what things she has authority over you about and what things she does not.

After that you can clarify about specific issues, especially whether or not T. must be copied on emails about the process you view as your personal project.

If, instead of a private conversation, you have a meeting with your Director and T., be courteous and reasonable (as I’m assuming you would be anyway), and put the focus on clearing up the problem rather than complaining about T.’s actions. If she finds out she was wrong, she will feel foolish enough. If you find out you were, you will at least have sounded professional. If you both find out there was some error in thinking by both of you, having a problem-solving approach rather than a complaining approach, will allow you to keep working together in the future.

Your Director probably wishes this conflict wasn’t happening and may dread having a meeting about it. He may realize he has created some of the problem himself, because of his lack of clarity. Or, he may be frustrated that the team isn’t running smoothly and may be irritated with both you and T. for not talking to him sooner. It sounds as though your work outside of the team is going very well, so your Director may only consider this to be a minor issue that can be cleared up with some conversation. You won’t know any of that until you talk to him directly or meet with him and T. in a problem-solving session.

  1. Keep your focus on what you said in your letter to us….you love your work and want to do well.  If you talk to T. about this again, express your desire to do good work and say that your only goal is to clear up conflict and make it possible for both you and her to move forward with the organization. Use the same tone with N. if you two talk about it. Be the one who puts professionalism above pettiness.

I think you are justified in feeling frustrated and you are correct to want to get clarification once and for all about your reporting line. While you’re doing that, show your value to the organization by communicating about the conflict in a way that shows a desire to resolve it for the good of both of you and for the team and the department as well. Ask yourself how you want to be seen when this is done, then aim toward that goal.

Best wishes as you work through this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. We have confidence that you will be considered a model for how to deal with organizational challenges!

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask The Workplace Doctors

FOLLOW UP BY DR. GORDEN: I promised to follow up my associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe’s advice, once you had time to absorb it. I concur with her analysis regarding your part in conflict with your VP and her strong encouragement to seek clarification of her and your roles and job definitions. I assume you have had time to act in light of it and doing that by now is leading to some improvement in your working relationships.  In short, Ms. Rowe stressed that you meet with your Director to get clarification of roles, yours and hers, and that you should focus on doing your job well. Doing that should mean not re-playing what has happened, like a scratchy broken record, allowing it to interfere with your job. Adjusting to new task and to one’s coworkers is part of becoming comfortable and effective in a new job.

My additional thoughts are sent to provoke further thought on how to handle your immediate conflict and prevent those that might occur in the future with your VP and others. Let us begin with a communication perspective on the situation in which the VP requested to speak with you in a conference room and also to her remarks to you in a meeting. I am quoting them as you describe so that you might reflect on what occurred. I suggest that you might see them together as opportunities to learn from them rather than as evidence of how overbearing is your VP:

She then got up quickly and requested to speak to me quickly in a conference room. I followed. Getting in there I sat down, while she stood. She started by saying it seems we have a problem, I don’t respond to her emails, I don’t do what she asks me to, like copying her, and she doesn’t need to have to explain herself to me more than once and there’s something in organizations called lines of reporting.

Still standing she proceeds to saying she’s a Vice President and I’m an Assistant Vice President, therefore I have report to her. I said I completely understand reporting lines and I know my reporting lines, but I report to my manager and director. I only work on a team with her and my other colleague

She proceeded to say no that’s not what she understands; that she was told I would report to her. I told her that’s not what was explained to me. She then asked, “What’s your title and what’s mine?” I said it is irrelevant, the fact that she’s a VP and I’m an AVP doesn’t mean I have to report to her. VPs and AVPs as well as associates only determine a pay grade; we can all be in the same team with reporting only to the manager.

She got upset saying she didn’t need to argue with me and we’ll need to set a meeting with the director and manager to settle this and she didn’t like my tone.

Next recall remarks that you thought carried a threat:

In a meeting a few weeks ago, she asked why some feedback from stakeholders hadn’t been incorporated into a document my colleague, “N” and I had been working on. She continued to say “if we’re all going to be here” then we need to be doing these things.

This statement struck me as a threat to my job and also was insinuating that my professional output is so lacking that it poses a threat to my job.

So what might you learn? You have learned the significance of moving to a different place from where an upset peaked.  To do that wisely made it more private and important. Also you learned your VP expressed her displeasure while standing whereas you were seated. That posed her talking down to you and you in a subordinate posture. You sensed that was not being treated as equals. If you had suggested that she be seated, she might not complied, but if she had, it could have leveled that immediate conflict and helped her be less adamant in trying to resolve a relationship that she felt was insubordination.

Stored in your toolbox you now have a vivid instance of how posture was not subtly implored and intuitively perceived. And, if in the future you should you want to tell a subordinate he/she should be subordinate, you know from experience standing above and talking down displays that authority. However you also know, it conveys how display rank rankles its effect, and in the future were you to be the superior and should you rather want to create respect rather than distaste for authority, it would be wise to suggest a seated position for you both of sitting at an angle to each other and not directly across from one another as antagonists.

Your extended description was embedded with other instance about authority to add to your toolbox of working relationships. You wrote she stated that she doesn’t “need to have to explain herself to me more than once and there’s something in organizations called lines of reporting.”  Not only did she make clear you failed to understand the definition of roles, but she implied that you were now in an organization where lines of authority were strong and that the power distance between those above and below were large, even in a VP and AVP level.

So your argument didn’t carry weight with her—“ I said it is irrelevant, the fact that she’s a VP and I’m an AVP doesn’t mean I have to report to her. VPs and AVPs as well as associates only determine a pay grade; we can all be in the same team with reporting only to the manager.”  In your mind you were right in thinking team members should not have to report to someone higher within their team. But you have learned that shaping a more egalitarian relationship will take more than an argument. Rather in light of what’s occurred between you two so far, if working as equals is to ever happen, it will have to evolve gradually. You will have to earn it by demonstrating that you want the best for her and that you want to make her job easier and effective, rather than that you want her to treat as you as equal. This understanding is especially important in light of her remark “if we’re all going to be here.”

So how might this conflict as to job description and reporting authority be confronted professionally?  Ideally, you and the VP would negotiate your roles without asking your manager to do so. But, you say you expect her to meet with your manager to state her displeasure with you and to get his approve that you should report to her. This might be what has happened and you will have to work within your manager and director’s guidelines.

Whether she succeeds in that or not, it would be good for you to work think through it what are the more effective sequences and processes. To do that it could be helpful to prepare a table/charting job definitions as you understand them. On the vertical axis list the tasks/projects. On the horizontal axis list the names of each member of your team and of your manager. In each cell you can designate who is responsible for researching, writing and/or editing. Also you can specify a sequence of who is responsible for consulting, deciding what is approved and signing off for tasks done before a report is forwarded. By the time you receive this Follow Up, you should be able to create such a table and in so doing to realize what you are clear and not yet clear about. In developing a chart of who’s responsible for what, it’s wise not to be overly rigid about each job and tittle. Who does what evolves, and it is smarter to do more than is expected that to be legalistic as you well know.

For major projects, prepare a time line charting who does what by specific dates and sequences on a path critical to accomplishing a goal. That is based on what is known as Programmed Evaluation Review Technique (PERT).  Such charts are posted and modified in light of progress.

Simultaneously, it would be wise if your team would meet after roles and job descriptions have been spelled out to formulate guidelines for how best to communicate. In plain language, a team collaboratively creates its own Do and Don’t Rules of Communication. Since you are a relatively new hire, you probably are not the one who should champion this.  But after a time, you may think it’s a tool that you might propose in quiet conversation with your manager or to your team when something is needed to improve how your team communicates. Some communication rules are just good manners and common sense, but the process for a group of developing them together sets up what is desired and expected. From time to time, then reviewing them helps make them habitual.

Such team rule-making can’t be handed down by a bosses; they are only “owned” when collaboratively generated. Your three person team plus manage might not be ready to huddle now to make them, or maybe never will, but the skill of having a team create them can be one you store tool box, for future work groups. Here’s the kind of list I think makes teams function well:

  • Talk about how we talk is not a waste of time.
  • Making and following an agenda enables most concerns to be addressed.
  • Process and procedures enable efficient talk. This entails turn taking, alert listening, paraphrasing, internal summarizing, and willingness to seek consensus.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Take turns, don’t dominate.
  • Encourage others to speak.
  • There’s rarely too much please and thank you.
  • Get clear about who should do what.
  • Don’t boss coworkers.
  • Don’t gossip about coworkers or managers.
  • Don’t scan the Internet for non-work related matters while at work.
  • Don’t put photos or personal messages on social media.
  • Don’t discuss work situations or proprietary information on email or social media.
  • Think before emailing and make it brief.
  • Misunderstanding is the rule and not the exception; therefore, speak clearly and be willing to ask for clarification before judging.
  • Seek solutions rather than blame.
  • Speak first with rather than about coworkers.
  • Don’t bypass superiors.
  • Join don’t judge.
  • Use more than one channel—written plus oral.
  • Don’t take credit that belongs to others. In your situation, signing off on who has done the research, writing, and editing might prevent conflict.
  • Saving face of others is the way to save your own.

The signature sentence with which I conclude my answers to all questions to Ask the Workplace Doctors sums up a team mindfulness: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Teamwork demands a we’re in this together attitude and a collaborative process. Please reflect on these suggestions and feel free to modify, adapt and/or adopt them in light of your own thoughts. I predict that if you learn from this situation that prompted your question, you will be an increasingly valued employee now and later a valued resource to others as the years go by. Be patient and after a while feel free to tell us what you do and how it works for you.

William Gorden