Colleague Is Just Too Much

Question:

I have a colleague that I just can’t handle. Her social skills are not great and she’s very self centered. She enters my classroom at will, whether or not I’m teaching or meeting with a parent, to deliver non-essential papers.

She barges in frequently when I’m meeting with my staff. On most occasions they walk away and what I was trying to convey gets lost. Typically, when she inserts herself, she grabs a chair and sits down without even asking if this is a good time. I tend to cringe at this point and give her an “are you crazy” look.

I avoid her at all costs but she seems to have decided that I’m going to be her best friend and mentor. She is new this year to our school and as people are getting to know her, they are coming to me asking what’s up with her. She’s bossy and abrupt with people.

She never ends a conversation. As you try to walk away, she starts in with “oh, and I wanted to show you this”. She’ll talk forever. After working together for 1 month, she gave me a kiss on my birthday! (???) She will call me on my cell phone (I don’t answer) then call back and apologize for calling me on my cell phone. She’s very insecure and needy.

She’s been open about previous jobs and the people she couldn’t get along with. She acknowledges her last principal didn’t like her. Hmmm… starting to sound like Aspergers.

I just physically become tense when she’s around and literally hide from her at times. Should I grin and bear it or confront her?

Signed,

Hiding Out


Answer:

Dear Hiding Out:

Based on the admittedly brief information in your message, it seems your colleague might not know her actions are unwelcome.

You do not say what her job description involves and why she would be in and out of your work area to such an extent– or why she seems to have such a large amount of time to bother you and others. But, it seems to me that you have an option other than confronting her in an aggressive way or grinning and bearing it: Try simply communicating honestly at appropriate times.

Consider the things you listed as examples.

*She comes in the room for non-essential reasons. Immediately walk over to her and say something to let her know you do not want that to happen again. Use a tone that is friendly and confiding, if you don’t want to sound harsh. “Hey, Carol, do me a favor and check to see if I’m busy, before you bring non-essential things in like this. It can be really disruptive.” Or, later say, “I looked at what you brought in when I was talking to a parent, and I think it could have waited. Next time, hold all of that if I’m busy. OK?”

*She comes in when you’re talking to someone. Instead of letting that someone drift away, say something to stop your coworker from interrupting and also to get the other person to stay. (To the person you’re talking with: “Wait a moment, please.”) (To your problem colleague, “Carol, I’m busy now.”) Don’t offer more explanation and ask her to come back, just say you’re busy. *As you walk away she tries to lengthen the conversation. Instead of allowing that to happen, listen for a moment to make sure the matter isn’t something you need to hear, then say, “Carol, I’m sorry, but my time for chatting is up. Gotta go now.” Walk away as you’re talking and keep moving.

*She calls you on the cell phone. Instead of not answering, which won’t stop further calls, answer and immediately say you’re busy and can’t talk. Do that every time, without fail. Or, turn the phone off for a few minutes. If she asks you about it later you can say you were busy and couldn’t talk but didn’t want the phone to keep ringing.

If she later apologizes for calling you, don’t accept the apology as though it was OK. Say something like “Thanks for apologizing. As you can tell, I don’t want to get cell phone calls unless it’s an emergency. It’s too disruptive.”

The reason she thinks you’re her new best friend and mentor may well be because you have set no boundaries. Be civil and courteous, but not confiding or friendly. Don’t let her be confiding either. If she starts to share information as though you are a mentor to her, say something to indicate you don’t give advice–and that you aren’t a sounding board either “Sounds messy. But, I guess there’s a million stories like that floating around. I barely can take care of my corner of the world so I don’t try to give advice!” (That sounds callous, but it sure does shut people down!)

Be busy when she wants to spend time. Consider having something ready to read or have a call to make or work to do, so you never have time for her visits. Say the words to make her leave, “Oh Hi! I’m sorry, but I can’t visit now. I have give my full attention to something I’m working on. If If I get a chance, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

At some point she will either confront YOU, and you can say you are focused on work not on close friendships at work. Or, you can be even more truthful and tell her that her approach is excessive.

In a similar situation someone I know was very direct. (Some might say she was brutal, but it worked!)”Beth, I don’t like to spend lunch or breaks with anyone very much, any time. I never have liked it and I don’t do it. So, you’ll be better off finding someone else to hang around with, because it won’t be me. That’s just the honest truth and I’d rather tell you that than make you wonder why I’m avoiding contact.”

(You’ll notice she didn’t say, “Avoiding you.” She just kept that part vague.) Or, your colleague may very well catch on after awhile and leave you alone without anything having to be said, which would be optimal.

On the other hand, if she is increasingly problematic, perhaps you might need to talk to HR or others in your work group about the larger issues of her behavior. To an outsider it sounds to me as though she likes the interaction and wants to be part of things–perfectly understandable. But, she goes about it the wrong way and carries it to extremes. Unfortunately, no one lets her know it’s irritating and frustrating, so she thinks it’s OK.

Do yourself a favor–and help her too–by calling a halt to your tolerance of her actions. You may never need to have a big confrontation. Simply ease out of her clinging actions, starting the next time you see her. Then, stick with it and never give in. Never. Because once you do, you’re right back into the problem again.

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

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.