I’m Tired of Being the “Bigger Person”

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about coworker agrivation:

My co-worker is going through stages of being hot and cold with me. Calling me sweetheart one day and then being totally rude to me the next. I’m pretty even in how I deal with people however they are with me and always try to remain professional whatever the circumstance.The background to this is that she used to be a grade below me in my previous team but in my new team she is a grade higher – my total time in both teams has been just 6 months. How did she do it? I think she’s just good at buttering up the right people, something I can never bring myself to do out of principle. I’m honest so will be friendly if I like a person but polite and professional with those I don’t like etc.

In the work place, I tend not to get too friendly with anyone. Anyhow, though this co-worker is now a grade above me, my line manager is the Head of Section so is her boss’s boss. My boss asked me to do something which I did but perhaps duplicated a little of what she was working on. I went to inform her about what I had done out of courtesy as I thought it might impact what she was working on. She however blew a fuse in the open plan office and said ‘can’t even talk to you right now’ and walked away whilst I was explaining why I had done what I did.

To appease her though I undid what I did and wrote her a courteous email saying that I was sorry that what I had done was unsatisfactory and welcomed her thoughts on resolving the issue. I then updated my manager on what had happened and why the deadline was not met as I had to undo what I did. My manager asked to see the email I sent and then replied back to her saying that she had spoken with me. This I suppose gave the impression that the issue was resolved but I was still none the wiser in how to proceed. During my 1-2-1 meeting with my manager today I brought up the fact that the issue was still unresolved and I didn’t know what to do in that respect as I was apprehensive of approaching the co-worker again on the matter. In the interim though I had spoken to her on various occasions about other things like nothing had happened. I was just uncomfortable about this topic again given her reaction.

My manager then said that she understood why my co-worker had reacted as she did as apparently my co-worker has previously asked my not to make any changes and I still had. I told my manager that I did not recall my co-worker ever having that conversation with me but the point was that I now don’t know what to do as I’m not happy about her behaviour as she has since been rude to me about something else.

My manager then said that I ought to apologize and be the bigger person regardless of who had instigated things as she thought my email after the incident was rude also so we were both even but needed to have a working relationship. She also asked what I wanted to do about it as instead of solving the issue with the co-worker, I had complained to my manager about it. I have to point out though that I only told my manager as a status update on why I had not auctioned her request. The funny thing is, at least I told my manager about it and not her’s as she had done by telling my manager before I could even get a word in. I find this hard to swallow as from where I’m standing she is the one who keeps attacking me. I don’t see therefore why I should be trying to make things better when I hadn’t made things worse to start off with and even afterwards kept behaving as though nothing had happened. I didn’t want to take her into a room to have it out as I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it as i also hate confrontation. This is how I feel but am I wrong? I don’t want people to think that they can treat me anyway they like.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

It’s always difficult to feel that you are forced to apologize or be “the bigger person”, when you think the other person is in the wrong. I think you can work through this without apologizing any further if you will focus on what you want to achieve at the end of all of it.

First, keep in mind that this situation is not a matter of huge significance in the overall big picture of your career or your work there, unless you push it to the point that it becomes a big thing. It’s a conflict between you and the other employee that will be overshadowed by something else in a few weeks if you’ll let it go away. Focus on showing your most positive traits and skills rather than dwelling on this.You’ve only been there for six months, so you should still be in the mental state of proving how valuable and dependable you are, every moment. At the six month mark you don’t want your manager telling you that you sent a rude email and that you were in the wrong about a work situation! So, move on from this and give your manager much more positive things to think about you.It sounds as though, whether you intended to or not, you did something that had an impact on or duplicated the work of the coworker. Your email to her about it, which you describe as courteous, was viewed by your manager and your coworker as rude or at least snippy. Your manager, as managers often do, doesn’t want to be involved in an unpleasant back and forth situation and has simply told you to be the bigger person and develop a good working relationship.

While I think the manager should be more involved than that, I think your best response is to follow her guidance about it. At least that way she can never tell you that you should have done as she advised. You don’t like the coworker who is now a level higher than you. That’s the bare facts. You resent her upward movement and don’t think she deserves her current position. I doubt you’ll ever be close friends, even if you once were. She apparently goes back and forth about how she acts with you, one day acting friendly and the next day not so friendly. So, what can you do now?

Think about who is evaluating you and who has the ability to keep you on the job, recommend dismissal or recommend you for higher positions someday; it’s not the coworker, it’s your manager. Your manager is the one you should focus on. If you gain the trust and support of your manager, nothing else can hurt your career or your employment. If you put your focus on the coworker and whether or not she’s been rude or if she’s hot and cold, etc., you’ll never succeed.And keep this in mind as well: At this point, if you find fault with the coworker it will look as though you’re still harboring a grudge and are being overly sensitive. If the coworker sends you a rude email and after an attempt to respond courteously she is still rude, then you can talk to your manager about it. But until then, just figure the coworker will show her true colors one day and you have work to do. If you continue to say you don’t know how to proceed with your own work, because of the situation that happened, that too will look as though you want to present yourself as the victim and the other person as the one who won’t communicate. I suggest that you just do your work as you know it should be done until the moment you think you are going to be stepping on the turf of some other employee, then call the employee and ask if there is a way you can do the work you’ve been told to do without interfering with their work. That way you’re an ally with the other person, rather than an enemy.

I know a department director in a large company (I’ll call her Jana) who deals with this kind of situation on a daily basis and it creates about 90% of her stress and work. There are very specific protocols for the things she does due to contracts, federal laws, and sometimes just long-standing working relationships with vendors. Almost daily an administrative assistant will call to cheerfully report that she knows Jana likes to be in charge of a task but the AA found a better way to do it, or a cheaper vendor or a hotel closer to the conference or a location for a meeting that is nicer, etc. etc., so the administrative person took care of it for Jana.Jana then has to explain why it will have to be undone, why it won’t work, why it should never have been changed, etc. etc. Often the administrative person gets her feelings hurt and asks Jana to call the vendor to cancel, which Jana does. The result is that Jana does many of her projects twice; once the right way and again to correct what an administrative assistant has messed up. Once, a boss whose administrative assistant had gone to him crying, called Jana and apologized for the problem but asked if it really mattered. Jana explained what negative results would have come from the small actions of the administrative assistant and also mentioned what would happen if all 53 AA’s decided to do those things on their own, without knowledge of the big picture. The boss said, “Oh my gosh, I really didn’t realize how it can screw up the whole thing.”

He promptly met with his AA, explained the problem and directed her to stick to her own work and not do the work of others again (only I think he said it very nicely.)I tell you that story as a way to point out that in every organization there are tasks that are assigned to individuals and there are tasks that everyone can work on. A good rule is to never, ever do the work that another individual is primarily responsible for. If it’s a task that everyone can do but one person deals with it most, ask them about it before you do it. In your situation, where the other employee is either moody or changeable, just be casually friendly, no matter what. If she seems in a bad mood, you might say, “Lisa, you seem upset with me about something. Are you?” Or, “It seemed like we had a good time talking yesterday but today you won’t even answer me. Whaat happened?”Sometimes a gentle but firm reminder of how someone is acting will help them see themselves as others see them.The bottom line on all of this is to keep moving forward and keep your eye on your goal of having a long and successful career, wherever you work.

Don’t let this one thing become so important in your mind that it poisons everything else. Especially avoid talking about the coworker at home, so you don’t end up feeling badly during your time off. Do your best to mentally wrap yourself in Teflon so nothing can stick to you. If you can do that, you’ll get over the upsetting time this has been and you’ll enjoy work much more. Use this as a time to renew and re-energize and build a great reputation. Best wishes to you with all of it. 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.