I just started a new job (it is a small retail shop). There is one particular woman that I am not sure if she likes me or not, and I’m not sure how to handle it. She is perfectly pleasant with the other employees and with customers. Towards me she snaps, doesn’t trust me, seems frustrated with me and occasionally blatantly ignores me when I speak her. My parents say that maybe she just didn’t hear me, but I don’t believe that (we were the only two people in the store.) I have been “killing her with kindness” and I am tired of that, as it is apparently getting me nowhere. I have considered confronting her, I have considered speaking in confidence to the owner. I am not a confrontational person, and I do not want to make what I perceive as a tense situation, more tense. I am in my late twenties and just want to enjoy what I am doing. There is a large age difference between us, but I have never had problems “getting along” with people who are my parent’s age and older. This woman is an integral part of our store, and has much experience. I have tried to tell myself that it is her not me, but that only goes so far. Frankly, I wish I didn’t care so much, because I can think of a hundred better things I could be doing with my Saturday evening!
Tired of Trying
Dear Tired of Trying:
If you’re accustomed to having almost everyone like you, and your style is to be friendly and outgoing, it can be a real jolt to encounter someone who doesn’t seem impressed and in fact seems unfriendly. Sometimes it helps to consider the overall dynamics of the situation to at least gain some understanding of it–then you can decide what to do next. Consider the following:1. You say the shop is small, so there are probably not many other employees. She seems to like them and work well with them. What are the differences between them and you? Age? Physical characteristics? Clothing, hair and other grooming habits? Conversational level, topic and tone? Attitudes about work? Amount of work?It might be useful to see what she approves of and what she does not, as evidenced by her interactions with the others but not you. That might not be the basis for her actions, but it’s a good place to start.You say you have been killing her with kindness but it is getting you nowhere. She may be very aware that you are going a bit overboard and resent what she considers to be your insincerity. Most people want to be treated courteously, but not in a falsely sweet or friendly way.Your style may be light-hearted and open, and she interprets that as flighty and disruptive. Your style may be serious and focused on work, and she interprets that as disapproving and trying to take the lead. She may think your clothing, hair or make-up is not appropriate or she may think you are not concerned enough about the business or that you make mistakes that are unnecessary.2. How do the others interact with her? Is there a difference in how they treat her or what they talk to her about? Notice that and see if that might be part of the puzzle. Pick the person closest to your tenure that she seems to get along with best. How does that person’s interactions differ from yours, if they do?3. You mentioned her tenure there. She probably feels that she is the unofficial guardian of the shop. She has seen people come and go and dealt with the fall-out from problems. She may have been responsible for moving some people along, or developing others, according to her personal preferences. (Which is why her current behavior should be concerning to you.) That status, combined with other things, could be starting to be a problem that has only recently been noticeable–and you just happen to get the brunt of it. If you had arrived on the scene a few years ago, things might be different. 4. What about how the other employees interact with you? If you are getting along well with them, that will be a bit more comforting than if you aren’t getting along with most of them! Are you close enough that you could talk to any of them, without it seeming to be gossiping or backstabbing, to find out if they have any idea what the problem might be?5. What about your work? Are there any concerns at all about that or should there be? If you are doing your work and being a good member of the team by helping others, at least you know you will be a valued employee in the eyes of the owner. If you are a valued employee, maybe that is a bit of an issue for her too.Anyway, look at the whole situation with an analytical eye instead of a personal one, to see if you get any hints about things you could adjust or improve, to benefit you with this employee as well as with others. (I’m not saying there is anything like that, but it won’t hurt to check on it.)Next, you can decide what action to take based on the culture there and what is most comfortable for you.1. First, gain influence with all employees by being a good team member. Become skillful at your work and knowledgeable about every aspect of work. Become the go-to person about how to fill out forms, how to handle specific situations and what is the status of things in the shop. You can gain that credibility by literally studying those issues in the ways that work for the setting. Interview those with experience (including the coworker)and take notes. Let people know you are trying to learn as much as you can and if you can help them with your notes, they only have to ask.Research the shop and find out as much about its history as possible. Talk briefly to returning customers about how long they have done business there and thank them for they loyalty. At the same time you’re finding out more and more about what makes that business successful.In addition to being credible, be valuable to employees, the owner and customers. Make it worthwhile for coworkers to support you and enjoy seeking you out at break time or between customers. Make yourself the employee that the owner wants to be sure to keep and to keep happy. You can do that wihout making it at someone else’s expense, just be committed to the success of the business. Every store owner wants employees like that. The third component of influence, in addition to being credible and valuable is to communicate effectively. That most often means communicating in the style that works for the other person and is appropriate for the environment. It also means to communicate directly and regularly with everyone.2. At the same time you are working on your influence, develop an appropriate working relationship with the owner of the store. He or she is the one who pays your salary and who has the most invested in your success. When you think the time is right, ask if you can talk to her for a moment. Then, put the focus on your work and how you could improve it. You don’t want to sound false or phony, but you can honestly say, “I’ve worked here for six months now and would like to know if there’s something you’d like to see me adjust to be better at my job.” (The term “adjust” gets better responses than “change” or “improve”, because most people don’t want to criticize, even when it’s deserved. But they will suggest something to “adjust”.)Let the owner know how you’re trying to learn and how much you enjoy working there. Limit the interview if that seems best, and let her know before you go back to work that you are open to feedback any time.That kind of meeting will not only be useful for you, it will establish in the mind of the owner that you are valuable and even if the long-tenured employee has problems with you, you are contributing well.3. That brings you to what you should do in relationship to the coworker who isn’t being friendly. First, continue to communicate and don’t let her actions build a barrier. If you stop talking to her because it seems to do no good, a permanent barrier will be built very quickly. Never stop communicating–just keep it courteous and friendly, without being excessive. Smile and say good morning, thank her for her help, include her in conversation. Here is another tip: Talk about her behind her back in positive ways. If she did something noticeably good, mention it to others as well as to her. If you are discussing something about work, mention her comments about it or wonder out loud if she has dealt with it before. Make it where no one can tell there is an issue. They may be aware of it by now, but they will be happy to not see indicators of conflict.When everyone is leaving, say goodbye to her as well as to them and thank her for help she gave you that day. Just do it and know it’s the right thing to do.HOWEVER, if there she says or does something obviously hostile, like not responding even when she hears you, you can justifiably confront that as long as you are open and civil about it. For example, you say something and she doesn’t answer. Go to her and ask, “Hey Jan, did you hear me say that?” If she says no, say it again and just keep moving along. If she says yes, maybe she will tell you why she didn’t respond. Or, that might open up the conversation to let you ask her if there is something going on you should know about.I don’t suggest asking if you’ve done something wrong, because that rather implies that she’s justified in acting snippy if you have. She shouldn’t be acting that way no matter what!If things get worse, you may need to ask her to talk with you in private and simply say that you are frustrated over what is happening. Tell her how she is making you feel with her actions. You don’t need to ask her what is the matter or what have you done wrong, simply say what happened and how it made you feel. See what she says next and you can respond to that. Just that direct talk may help or at least get her attention.The bottom line is this: You don’t have to have her approval to be successful there, but it would sure make work better if she was at least pleasant to you–so that is a worthy goal. I can see why it matters to you. If it didn’t matter, that would be a problem!On the other hand, you can only control your part of it. Since she seems capable of being friendly to others, that tells me the issue is probably in the differences between you and the style with which she is most comfortable. If you can adjust or adapt when dealing with her, you might find it to be worth the effort.If you feel her actions become too much of a problem, you may be forced to talk to the owner. That isn’t a bad solution for down the line. But, keep in mind that the owner would probably never tell her to improve, she’d probably just tell her to stay away from you. So, it might not accomplish much.I think attacking the problems from several directions, as mentioned here, might be helpful for you. One thing is for sure…in the process you will certainly gain experience and confidence so YOU can be an integral part of the business.Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.
Tina Lewis Rowe