A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a conflict at work that
began with a conflict between the daughters of the coworkers.
Hi, I have worked side by side with what I considered a friend, not only coworker, for 25 years now. I am the office manager. Our daughters are both in middle school at the same school and do not get along well. In May, my coworker quit speaking to me unless she had to, where once we would talk quite often.
About 2 weeks after that, I noticed she had an obvious attitude toward me. After lunch hour one day she said she needed to speak to me. She proceeded to tell me that my daughter was “dating a guy” at school and was lying to me. Her daughter knew about it and had told her mom about the boy (my daughter knew our rules on ‘dating’ in middle school and it is not allowed). My coworker went on to tell me that her daughter said my child would ‘make up rumors’ if I found out.
So every day her daughter was calling her mom at office to say my child was being rude to her, I guess this day she had enough and decided to tell me about the boy and said it had been going on for a month. She said my daughter had blocked her (my coworker) on social media and showed me screen shots of being blocked. She said if it were her daughter she would want to know. I was so upset that this was the reason I was not being spoken to at work.
My child was punished for lying about the boy, I took her phone and other privileges away. I also found out many things that had happened by the other child (my coworker’s daughter) for the month previously. It’s just petty nasty little girl stuff, but I blamed my child completely for being ugly to the coworker’s child.
Oddly enough when we noticed the girls were not getting along and talked before all this occurred, I told her I thought it was best if we just let the girls figure this out and neither of us get in the middle. I had a feeling then, it was going to get tough.
So, returning to work after she told me about what my daughter had been doing, there was complete silence and it was terribly awkward but I just did my job and left it alone. .I refused to play ‘my child is better than yours’ with her. I say good morning every day and sometimes get a response but sometimes not. I am blatantly ignored at school functions and my child is glared at by the woman. We were told her daughter was instructed to stay away from my child, although they are both speaking to one another at school now. It’s a very awkward situation that I really am not sure I care to repair, I believe it will repeat the very next time my coworker is mad about something. It’s really ridiculous and I don’t have time at work to worry about it, but it does bother me.
I thought about talking to her about the situation, but not at work, it’s the wrong place for this nonsense. Should I just let it go, keep working as I always have or should it be addressed? I know our business owner is aware of changes because he asked if things were OK. I did not feel the drama should be brought up, so responded with all was OK. I’m not certain what the best thing to do is other than go on as I have been.
Your situation is certainly one that should not be allowed to escalate or to have an effect on the workings of your office. On the other hand, you are a parent first and so is your coworker, so you can’t completely separate home and work. There are some things that are bound to be uncomfortable until your daughter and the other daughter get past this stage or don’t have to be around each other. But it is possible for the two of you to work together even while being protective of your children. Here are some thoughts for you to consider:
(1.) Your business owner would most likely expect you to keep him informed about something this serious. It has a potential for further conflict from mild to very serious, and for having a negative effect on work. He should at least know how you have been dealing with it and what you intend to do in the future. I would expect the bottom line for him is that he doesn’t want problems and he wants his business to run without a hitch. You are responsible for that in the office area. If he has asked you about it, he already is noticing a problem. Don’t let him think of you as the source of the problem or even as part of it.
(2.) It’s good that you acknowledge how upset you were when you realized your coworker wasn’t talking to you because of the way her daughter and your daughter were acting toward each other. It’s always important to be completely honest with yourself before you start working on ending a situation like this. And, it could be that your feelings show more than you realize.
You refer to the situation as “she had an attitude toward me”, “this nonsense” “the drama”, “it’s ridiculous”, “I refuse to play ‘my daughter is better than your daughter’”. All of those phrases present her in a negative light and you as being more reasonable. It does appear she has not done much to alleviate the discomfort at work, but she probably feels justified in her actions and can point to times when she thinks you were the one acting cold. Also, the fact that she told you about your daughter’s actions (and for which you had to take some disciplinary measures) probably makes her hypersensitive to the slightest indication that you resent her for it.
(3.) You are the office manager by title, even if you’ve never really pushed that point before. Thus, you are responsible for intervening between the two of you to resolve the conflict. The fact that the two of you have worked together for so long indicates you can get along well enough to work together. You be the one who helps it continue by making it possible for the coworker to act differently. Right now it will be very difficult for her to do so (and for you too) but you can open the door to a better situation.
(4.) Focus on your Office Manager role and think solely about work, as you decide what to do next. Consider some of these things, from the view of someone who is ultimately responsible for the smooth running of the office:
*If you can’t be certain what kind of response you will get when you speak to the coworker and that has limited your communications with her, how can you be sure the work is always being done correctly and that none of this conflict (which the owner noticed) is not also being noticed by clients/patients/customers or other employees? Maybe it shows in her tone of voice to them or her reactions to conflict elsewhere.
*Think of the effect it has when both of you are aware of the ill feelings between you. Something that happens at 8 a.m. will still bother you until 10 a.m. when the next thing happens, then you try to talk at 1 a.m. and the reaction bothers you until you go home, then you think of it at home and think of it before you go back to work the next day. The effect on your work and hers has to be acknowledged. When that kind of negative thing is preying on your mind, you don’t have time to identify other problems and you can’t work together to solve them. It’s a bad deal all the way around.
*Keep your office goal in mind: What do you want office interactions to be like? Probably like they were before all of this started—maybe even better. Be able to describe it, just as if you were talking to a new employee. Generally speaking in an office everyone should:
—Use a friendly tone of voice and friendly facial expressions to greet each other, make appropriate small talk and respond to communication attempts in a courteous way.
—Everyone should unhesitatingly and openly converse about office issues and work together about everything that has an effect on the business. They are not obligated to talk about personal matters, but they should at least be civil and friendly in informal communications.
—When a conflict occurs, those involved should make resolving it a priority, rather than keeping it going. They should at least continue to communicate about work effectively. When necessary they should involve the next highest person in the organization to mediate and help them find a way to cooperate or collaborate, in spite of differences in opinions. ——-At no time will people act out their frustrations or irritations by sulking, pouting, refusing to talk, becoming verbally abusive or attempt to get others to take sides for the purpose of intimidation.
There are more communication guidelines than that, but those are significant ones to emphasize, if you need to talk about the guidelines. Hopefully you will not and your coworker will show her best self.
(5.) Consider this approach, which is based on a mix of communications texts and my experiences over a long time of seeing similar situations play out.
*Tell the owner, your boss, what has happened and what you intend to do to improve things. Ask him if he has any other suggestions.
*Ask the coworker to meet with you. Be brief in your comments, rather than making a speech. Something like, “Jan, I want our work communications to be as good as they’ve been for the last twenty-five years instead of continuing as they have been for the last few months. I promise that I’m going to talk to you in a comfortable way and get back to what we had before, because I want the office to run smoothly and for us to enjoy coming to work.” (You would probably use other words, but that is the kind of brevity that works best.)
Then stop and wait, looking at her expectantly and waiting for her to respond. You will be tempted to ask her if she will commit to the same thing, but that won’t work as well as just stopping and letting her make her own commitment without you pushing it. You will also be tempted (as most of us would be) to be irritated if she acts as though she’s been doing the right thing all along and she’s glad you finally are coming around. Your goal is to break down the barrier between you two, not to be proven right.
Ken Blanchard, who wrote the classic, One Minute Manager, says the biggest mistake we make when we want to say something is saying too much at once, while the other person sits and makes mental judgments or builds mental barriers. He says to say it briefly then wait for a response rather than trying to fill the silence.
If your coworker is not receptive or begins to argue, listen to her and show that you are hearing her. Then, unless you can have something else to offer to gain her agreement, tell her you hope she will change her mind, but no matter how she feels, she must communicate effectively to get the work done.
At that point you may want to tell her that you’ll talk to the owner about it and let him know you had the meeting, so you would like to report a successful outcome. If she is not cooperative or continues to be angry, talking to the owner is your next step, because you should not condone her actions or make it possible for her to continue them. She must at least conform to appropriate conduct in a workplace.
A common challenging question asked by uncooperative people in these situations is, “How has my work suffered? I’m still working hard and I don’t let my personal feelings get in the way of that.” That’s when you can say, “Your lack of communication and the way you have been acting, is a distraction to ME, and I think it could be a distraction to you. There is no workplace, including this one, where it’s considered OK to act angry with a coworker day after day. That is why I am promising to do all I can to get things back to where they were.” (Keep coming back to that.)
If she brings up the situations between your two daughters, you can truthfully say you understand her concerns because you have them too. You could say you will try to help your own daughter use this as a maturing time. One way to do that is to let her know that work and school are more important than bickering—and if things are past the minor bickering stage, they are serious enough to have serious and focused attention.
You can say you are hoping to set an example for her by letting her know that it is possible to keep moving forward even if there are problems. You can also say you think both of you should monitor the situation so you can be ready to help to make sure your daughters are OK—not just about this, but about the many things that can harm them or their future.
One parent, in a similar situation said, “Our responsibilities to our children are more important than anything. But, we can’t help them if we don’t even know how to resolve things ourselves or if we’re unhappy at work just like they are at school. That’s why I think for us to find a way through this is so important.” The other parent liked hearing that the first parent understood the priorities of parenting and, in her heart, she wanted to finish the conflict so she could come to work without worrying about it.
I think you will find that if you open the door for the coworker to get back to normal, she will be more than glad to be given the chance to save face and to be part of the office team again. She may never be as close to you as she used to be, because even mentioning her daughter or your daughter will remind both of you of this bad time. However, work effectiveness will be restored and she probably could use some mental peace at work just like you can.
(6.) A final thought about your daughters. Although I understand the concept of leaving young people to work things out on their own, I think parents should not do that to such an extent that they fail to monitor what is happening and fail to give helpful advice, correction, praise or guidance. Either or both of the two girls could become depressed over this situation or feel angry or sad. Either one could gather supporters and create problems for the other one. Either one could be acting OK but feeling much differently inside. Either one could use social media to express their unhappiness and create other problems by doing so. Both you and your coworker should stay active about how your daughters feel and how they intend to handle this or similar issues. Knowing you both intend to do that can be a positive way to rebuild at work. You both will understand that the other is feeling challenged by it but are trying to be the best parent you can be for daughters who you love.
Your coworker’s motivations for not talking to you at sporting events may not have been positive. However, I do think it’s a good idea to focus on your own children at such times and leave each other alone. A nod of the head, brief wave or other acknowledgement is fine, but further conversation can wait until work. One day that may change, but until the girls are either not involved with each other at all or have gotten over this troubled time, it could add to their negative feelings for their mother to be friendly or attempt to be friendly with the mother of the other, right in front of them. You both will know that you two are working through it fairly well, but your loyalty when you’re with your child is with your child.
You could even use that as a positive thing at work by telling her that you’ll be seeing her at the basketball game but you’ll just give a friendly nod and stick with your family while you’re there. You can say, “I figured you’d understand, but I wanted to let you know ahead of time. We can talk about the game tomorrow.”
It will take a while for this approach to settle in and for things to be comfortable again, but it can be done. Families have the same situation when one person is quarreling with another. It happens in churches, neighborhoods and the closest groups. So, your situation is one that many people would recognize as being difficult. Many would also say it is possible to repair the breach, at least enough to make things much better. The key is that as the office manager and possibly as the one who is most skilled at communicating, you may need to take the first step or two. But, wouldn’t it be nice to not have this on your mind anymore?
Best wishes to you with this concern. If you have the time and want to do so, let us know what happens.
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