How Can I Work Better With My Competitive Coworker

Question:

I’m very irritated with my coworker’s constant tattling/gossiping, patronizing behavior, and competitive stance, coated in a thick syrup of faux niceness. However, I can’t show irritation because it would only further deteriorate matters. What leads me to think she’s competitive? – Within 2 weeks on the job, I found some factual errors on a proof of ads; I flagged them and passed them off like they were minor, so as not to go on and on about it since it was just a proof. She invited me, that day, to lunch, where she grilled me about my educational and professional background (she had the chance to do this in the interview, too), then she went on to tell me about all her great experience and her advanced degree. Then she pried on personal matters, and I calmly answered anything I thought was appropriate (married? children? future plans?) in a work context. I kept it chatty and friendly. – When I signed up for my first batch of projects, with my boss’ permission, she rushed to my cube to tell me that I didn’t need to do all that work, that she is REALLY fast and can do TONS of work, and that no one else is like that, and that if I do all that work, I’ll be burned out, and “Are you a workaholic like me?” and that the boss won’t intervene, that he just lets people take on whatever they take on, and I might get burned out … it went on and on and on … she didn’t even pause for a breath.

– She’s constantly making a beeline to the boss’ office (or the other boss’ cube), calls him to discuss projects I’ve worked on or the freelancers had a hand in (I know this because I can hear her on the phone calling out the project numbers), then shortly after that she brings up my infractions to me, which is fine, if she would just do it DIRECTLY. Often, I discover that our guidelines conflict with what she’s telling me, so I have to point out the discrepancy veeeeery carefully. She’s forever in my business … – If my stapler is too loud, she lets me know. If my hand lotion (Burt’s Bees) smells like buttermilk, she goes on and on about it. And if my lunch is a hot lunch, she jabbers away about what it smells like. If I cough, she tells me where I can get water. Oh, and my stomach makes noises sometimes, anxiety, not hunger, and she points that out, too. Okay … so I bought a new quieter stapler, I don’t use hand lotion, I don’t eat my lunch at my desk, and I make sure I have water by my side in case I need to clear my throat. And I pop antacid pills to quieten my stomach. Notice she says nothing about my talking, it’s because I don’t. I’m sociable and very jokey in meetings and events, but I don’t chit-chat when there’s work to do.

– She makes mistakes, but I don’t bother her with them because we all screw things up once in a while, and the process is such that we’re supposed to catch one another’s errors. But her constant picking at me, putting a big fat spotlight on my missteps is getting to me. At one point, I felt so useless, I told my boss that I wasn’t capable and that maybe we should talk about either what I can do to improve or whether there’s no hope at all and I should leave. He thought I was nuts and told me my work was fine and he didn’t see a problem and wondered why I was beating up on myself. Shortly after that I learned about a critical error in my issue (it was very costly to fix), which I immediately apologized to my boss for, without fully understanding how I could have committed the error — I learned much later that I wasn’t to blame for it at all. So I spoke with my boss and told him that that kind of mistake is precisely why I feel I’m not up to par and should leave. We agreed to speak more about it at a later date. Then, within 20 minutes, I got a lengthy email from my coworker (who I had not spoken with about the matter) that was over-the-top sickly sweet, telling me how she heard about the mistake and that she felt she should congratulate me because more mistakes come with increasing responsibility. And then she told me this story about how when she had her first job at a lab, she goofed on something and her boss told her, “Welcome to science, kiddo.” Okay, maybe this letter is appropriate for someone starting out, but I’m 37 and have been doing this sort of work for more than 15 years. My age is no secret to this coworker — she pried that details out of me on day 1. I’ve worked with people younger than me, had them train me, had great relationships that turned into lasting friendships — so age isn’t an hangup for me. But that letter, which went on and on and on, was not appropriate for someone 10 years her senior. I also know that my boss uses her as the grapevine, which explains why she sent the letter. I wish I could better understand what is going on in her mind. Not that I could change that. My irritation isn’t helping any either. Thoughts on how to just purge the rotten feelings? Maybe it’s best to just quit.

Signed,

Go, Stay or What?


Answer:

DearĀ Go, Stay or What?:

If there are a totality of circumstances that make this a bad job fit for you, perhaps you should move on. But, if this one person is the only thing that makes it challenging I hope you’ll wait until you’ve tried some other methods for dealing with your co-worker.

Think about it this way: If, when you were interviewed, you were told, “There’s an employee here who will have seniority in this organization, even though she’s younger. That means she probably will think of herself as someone who can give you advice or critique your work, and she might not be very willing to take criticism. We also know for a fact that she talks a lot, and has gotten to used to being known as the hardest worker of anyone. She might not want to give up that title! Will you be able to work with someone like that, or do you think you’ll quit after a few months?” How would you have answered? I’ll bet you would have talked about a variety of ways that would be good for dealing with a situation such as this. And, you probably would have been on track with most of them, given your work experiences.

My ideas for some other approaches may not work in your setting, with this person, or considering the styles of everyone involved. But, let me share some thoughts and see if at least you can adapt some of them.

1. You feel as though you are a strong person–to the point that you clearly resent what you consider as being patronized by your co-worker. You view that she has a pipeline to the boss and that he leaked the information about your visit with him over errors in a project.

Think about that one situation this way–perhaps not the way it really was, but perhaps as close as your version, since neither of us knows exactly what happened: You went to the boss and, to use his terms, “beat up on yourself” over errors. You sugested maybe you should quit if you couldn’t improve. he reassured you, and you and he agreed to talk about it another time. That doesn’t sound like the strong employee you want to be! At semi-best it sounds like disingenuous fishing for a compliment, at worst it sounds like you lack confidence and will cave in if something REALLY bad happens. I certainly don’t think either of those reflect the person you are.

So, after your visit with him, your boss, who knows your co-worker much better than he knows you, tells her to give you some support and encouragement. He would feel comfortable doing that because SHE acts like she knows it all, while you acted like you didn’t know much. SHE brings your errors to his attention, but you don’t say anything about her errors, or the fact that you think she’s bringing your errors to his attention. Who seems like the strongest employee? I would even imagine the oh-so-supportive letter to you might have had a blind copy to the boss, to show how helpful she was being.

She may actually feel she WAS being helpful–and honestly, the contents of her email to you sound very appropriate to an outsider. Even your respective ages wouldn’t make a difference, because tenure in a workplace is usually what gives one person the guidance role for a new person.

2. What about her errors? Again, you know your situation best. But, is overlooking her errors, or not bringing them to her attention, helping you? You say you don’t respond about it to avoid conflict. But you have plenty of conflict anyway. At this point you are the only one who puts any energy into her errors.

Have you considered simply and pleasantly continuing to bring them to her attention? You haven’t mentioned anything that she has done that is over-the-top in response to you doing that. Consistently do it about the things you would bring to any other co-worker’s attention.

If her response is very negative, you will at least have something more substantial to deal with–and to talk to your boss about. 3. As for the practice she has of talking about you behind your back. Why not get up from your chair, where you are hearing it, and say that you are hearing it? There is no point in pretending you don’t, then seething about it. Approach it one of two ways: Either go and stand by her area until she hangs up the phone, then talk to her about it and say that you would prefer she talk to you directly. Be firm about that, so there is no doubt how you feel. Or, go to the office of the person she’s talking to and wait until you can go in. Then, say that you overheard and are frustrated because you would prefer the matter be brought to you directly. Or, ask the he call Maria (your co-worker) in so the three of you can solve this problem once and for all.

The key point is not to stop it that one time–but to get to the root of it. “Maria, in the future if you’re going to discuss anything related to my work that I should know about, I’ll expect that you either talk to me directly, or ask me to meet with you and Mr. Adams (the boss) to talk to him. Can I depend upon that happening?”

4. When it comes to her direct comments to you about your mistakes–what do you want her to do? Do you want her to follow your lead and not say anything about errors? Tell her that. Next time say, “Tell you what–I’ve not been saying anything about your errors, but I notice you point out mine. Let’s agree that we’ll simply take care of the small errors, since we both make them, and only bring the big ones to each other’s attention. That way neither of us feel like we’re being watched by the other one. OK?”

Or, follow her lead and bring up the mistakes you have found. Or, keep doing it the way you have been–and you see how that is affecting you. Long before Dr. Phil said, “So, how’s that working for you?” I was saying, “Is that working well?” That applies in this case. If you keep doing the same things you’ve been doing, there is absolutely no reason for her to change her behavior–if her behavior really is out of line.

I add that last part, because I hope you will be open the idea that not everything she does is with a negative motive. It sounds to me as though you are frustrated in general, do not care for her style, resent her treatment of you as someone needing her help or critique, and can’t seem to find a way to make this office situation work as well as it might have in your last workplace, or as well as the others you’ve had that have been better. Those factors may color the way you view your co-worker and her actions.

Or, it may be that every perception you have is accurate. If that’s the case you still have the option of doing nothing about it–thus encouraging her to continue–or taking on the problem and ending it, at least for yourself, once and for all.

Of course, you have to also remember that she will probably still be there, no matter what you say or do–and the boss will still probably maintain a close relationship with her. So, you don’t want to burn bridges or create more upheaval than is necessary, by confronting in an aggressive or hostile way.

But, pushing back a bit may be just what is needed, now that you are no longer a new employee. You can do that with a tolerant, friendly and non-hostile smile, but you do need to do it, if you continue to feel as frustrated as you do now.

You apparently want to stay work-focused. Do that, and take the focus off the little things that are irritating you. Deal with them and keep moving, or shrug them off as not having a real impact on anything you do, and keep moving.

I hope these thoughts are helpful as you develop a personal plan of action. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you will work to show the you that represents you and your professional skills at working with others, even in a challenging situation such as this.

Best wishes!

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.