Coworker is Escalating Efforts to Undermine Me

Question:

I love my work. I enjoy my workplace for the most part. I came to this company eight years ago and had immediate difficulty with a female peer. I have tried a number of different approaches in resolving this as she made doing my work very difficult.

This woman is average or above average in her work skills but is a good complement to our team as she has preternatural people skills. She can fire someone and even as the individual packs his or her desk, still call her “Rosy”. The natural course is that she has been promoted to a position grade above me and several of my peers now report directly to her. I continue to report to my boss who is also her boss. I think this works well for our group but despite my initial optimism for an improved working relationship, the promotion has seemed to push her toward being more dismissive and obstructive with me.

She has embarrassed me publicly with peers and her/my boss several times. Those who do notice and acknowledge this phenomenon either (cough) don’t see it or tell me how badly they feel for me (but sigh with relief, however sad they find my plight, that this bizarre phenomenon has befallen myself rather than themwho can blame them, I suppose).

More concerning is how well she manages her impression with our boss. While there may be some at my level and lower on the hierarchy who reap the brunt of her disregard, I doubt one could find any above our level in the organization who has not been the witness of her doe-eyed enthusiasm, wit and charm. She holds those above her in the highest apparent regard. Now she seems to be competing with me with less done on her part to appear as neutral or friendly to me in front of others. This in no way surprises me but it disappoints me and I never know when I will bump into something counter to my productivity or professional reputation. It sours my mood and has, at times, upset me to the point where it diminishes my ability to “stay in the zone” or “hit on all cylinders.” I can almost hear metaphorical tires screeching. What is going on and how do I manage my work and my collaborative work so that WORK can be the primary goal of each day at the office with her? This is an unnecessary, upsetting and non-productive time waster.

Signed,

On The Defensive


Answer:

DearĀ On The Defensive:

You don’t like the coworker and don’t trust her and she apparently feels the same about you. From your perspective she is insincere and manipulative. From the perspective of some others, she does her work well, is enthusiastic and has good interpersonal skills. Their opinions about her are probably an irritant to you, apart from anything else.

The worst case scenario it seems to me, may be that she wants you to be subordinate to her organizationally, as the other employees are, and is trying to slowly build a case with your manager for that. That is probably at the root of the escalation of critical behavior toward you. She may think your shared manager isn’t catching your errors as she would, so she is going to intervene about them. She may be feeling her authority as a supervisor and thinks of you as peers of those under her, not as a coworker of hers.

You have apparently liked your job and held on for eight years. Now you need to find some peace of mind about working around someone you don’t like and who you feel is out to get you or at least to reduce your successfulness. You probably also want to feel that your position is strong enough that others won’t support her in her efforts, whatever her intentions might be.

Consider two approaches (both which you may have already tried, but consider them again).

First, put some time into analyzing the specifics of the situation. Second, shift from focusing on the coworker to focusing on your work and your relationship with your manager. (Easier for me to say than for you to do, I realize, but it’s a necessity if you want to thrive.)

1. The first approach is to look at the situations you have considered problematic and consider them rationally. First, write down what harm you think she was trying to do if you think she was being intentional, then write what harm resulted when it was all over. You may find that very little harm has resulted, except that you have been kept upset mentally. Or, you may find that you have been seriously harmed in some way, which might indicate a need to take this on as more than a personality conflict.

Based on what you said, it doesn’t appear you have been sanctioned, demoted or held back or harmed professionally, solely because of her. But, you may feel your influence has been weakened somewhat or that she is viewed as having more expertise than you have.

Then, for each action that has bothered you especially, think about what you can do to: *Prevent it from happening again or as often. *Protect yourself from it (reduce the harm to you or dilute the impact). *Respond to it. (To her, to others or within your own mind.) As you take apart each type of action by the coworker, consider the chain of events that allowed it to happen. Was there anything you or others could have done to have prevented the situation, prevented her knowledge of it, prevented her from having a public forum about it, prevented her from being the one to have center stage with her comments?

Often people in conflict repeatedly and unnecessarily put themselves in the path of the person who is most likely to upset them. Or, they make mistakes or do their work in a way that gives the other person ammunition to take shots at them. That doesn’t make the situation their fault, but it does indicate that they may be as immersed in the long-term dispute as the other person. You may have no control over any aspect of it and not be able to prevent anything she has done or will do, but it’s something to consider.

Another thing to consider is if anything could have shown her to be incorrect, kept her remarks from being taken seriously, given you mitigation for whatever you did or didn’t do that she commented on, or established your level of expertise so completely that her actions and remarks were deflected or not taken seriously by others. For example, it is hard to hurt the reputation of someone who is highly credible, dependable and valuable to individuals and the team and who works well with most others. It may relax you a bit to know for sure that she can’t really harm your reputation and that she will make herself look badly in the process of trying. You can have that confidence if your reputation is already unassailable or at least well established, and if you have the loyalty of many others because of your support of them.

The third aspect of analyzing the things she does is to consider how you can respond to her actions. It won’t be effective to angrily challenge her in front of people (in the most common work situations anyway). But, you can show your discomfort and let others come to your defense. You can correct her if she is in error, or you can respond as though you don’t take her remarks as bothersome at all. If her comments are especially mean-spirited you can push back and make her explain herself or acknowledge that she was being unfair.

Think about talking to someone at work who you respect and who has observed all that has gone on. Rather than only complaining about the coworker to that person, ask if they have an opinion about how you can handle similar things in the future. (That is much more helpful than asking how you should have handled things in the past, but they may talk about that too.)

Once you have made your list of your coworker’s recent actions or the type of actions that have bothered you over time, and analyzed them as to their harm and how you can reduce the problems in the future, you may be able to break away from obsessively thinking or worrying about them. For one thing, you may be able to see the overall picture as not being so destructive as it seems when it’s all piled on top of you mentally.

To you, each of the things all add up to a long term problem. To others they are probably isolated events that you’ve worked through and will continue to work through. They don’t think of you and your career as being seriously harmed all of this, they just figure you have a long-term irritant you are dealing with, just as they deal with their irritants and issues. That kind of impersonal view can sometimes put things in perspective. 2. The next thing to do is to focus on the most important aspect of your work: You, your manager and the tasks you perform that are most important to him or her.

Your manager may have a favorite employee or may not care one way or the other. But, ultimately he or she is the only one who can make or break your work and support you or remove you. If you are contributing strongly, being accurate in what you do and effective in your work, nothing will shake your job security and your reputation.

Performance evaluations and interviews are certainly useful times for finding out exactly how you are doing in the manager’s estimation. But, every day is a performance evaluation, in that every day is a chance to show your competence and credibility. Get a copy of your organization’s performance evaluation form, if there is one, and keep it handy. Purposefully develop your work and communications to provide proof of fulfilling the performance and behavioral areas on the form.

Manager’s are not always brilliant or insightful, just as employees are not, but they are rarely completely ignorant of what is going on around them. They hear rumors, they observe interactions and they pick-up on hints. So, it could be your manager is more in tune with how you and your coworker get along than you realize.

If that is the case, your manager probably can read between the lines on some things and doesn’t take them all very seriously. However, if the coworker can present negative information about you to the manager and it turns out to be true and also a problem in his opinion, you will have something to worry about. That’s when prevention, protection and response are especially important.

You asked how you can make work the primary goal of each day. You can’t control what the goal of the coworker might be, but you can control your own goals and your own focus and those need to be aiming higher than ever. Apparently you do collaborative work with the coworker. In those tasks you will probably need to continue to wrap yourself with Teflon mentally and just forge forward with good work.

It sounds as though you and others have dscussed the coworker. That may happen from time to time, but should be very, very limited. She has friends and supporters so anything you say will get back to her and probably to your manager through her. Also, it presents you in a less professional way. If others ask you about her, shrug off the situation and put the emphasis on your efforts to keep focused on work.

At the same time, you can benefit from strengthening your own work, sharpening your skills and expanding your thinking about every aspect of the tasks you perform and those you would like to develop. Using the things I mentioned at the beginning, consider ways you can increase your influence by being even more credible, even more dependable, even more valuable and even more effective at communicating with a wide range of people.

You apparently have an area of expertise that sets you apart from the others in the team, which is why you report directly to the manager. Consider building that area appreciably. One way to do that, if you aren’t doing it already, is to write a paper, magazine or internet article or a book about it. If you are a member of an association, see if you can present information about the subject at the next conference. Offer to teach as a guest instructor if classes on the topic are taught at an area university or a vocational school. Consider if some aspect of it could be used in training within your organization. Get to know HR people and see if there is something you could share with new employees or write to include in an employee handbook.

In each of your endeavors, link with your manager in some way. Refer to him in your writing or presentations, let him know of your work, make what you do valuable for the organization, him or the team. The key is to ensure that you do work that stands alone and is best managed between you and your manager–and that would not benefit from having the coworker manage you and your tasks. That isn’t being negative to her or manipulative about your manager, that is just building your career and your reputation while you prevent a repeat of past problems. So, the bottom line of this long response is that you will feel better and be more effective when you can compartmentalize the coworker in your mind and life. She is only one irritant or one problem and you have so far managed to work effectively within the situation, even though you have been distracted. Lessen the distraction by realistically looking at what you are dealing with and how severe it really is. Then, be purposeful, active and versatile about strengthening your work, your reputation and your influence. You may also find it helpful to put more emphasis on your life outside of work. That will at least help you relax and feel at peace when you are at home or with friends and family.

Best wishes to you with this. 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.