On-Again, Off-Again Problems With Co-Worker


Dear Workplace Doctor, I have worked at the same agency for almost twenty years now. I have worked with a variety of people and most of the time I get along with them. Of course, there are the occasional issues with a few, but for the most part, I try to keep my nose to the grindstone and do my job. I have a very good relationship with my boss as well.

However, for the last eight years, I have worked with this one person, Jan. Our relationship has been up and down and honestly, it is quite tiring.

I feel like the relationship must be on her terms only. She at times, is very paranoid and accusatory of me. She says I am competetive, but I honestly don’t see that I am. Like I said, I just do my job and try to keep on working.

Recently, we had an altercation that left her not speaking to me for several weeks – almost a month. I said something in passing with another co-worker about the fact that I had only four years till I could retire. Later that same day she pulled me aside to a private room and accused me of bullying her. I know she is a very unhappy person. For example, during our talk, I think I went a bit too far and asked her “What do you really want to do?” She broke down and started crying.

My theory is that I got too close for her comfort level and she resented it. However, this is just one example of a number of times. We have a spat. We are alienated. We have a slight thaw and then gradually, most of the time we start talking again. It is very tiring to do over and over again, so I made the decision to just stay at my job and not get too close. I wish I could understand her, but I have enough going on in my life that I don’t need this negativity pressing on me. I try to be professional and speak to her. After this last event, I asked for her forgiveness for anything I had done. What say you? Am I handling this correctly? Should I try to understand her better or let it go? THANKS!




Dear Frustrated:

Can’t the drama of workplace issues be tiring? They’re like family relationships in many ways, in that you can’t get away from them. Sometimes they’re pretty nice. But the rest of the time they can irritate you, frustrate you and wear you out with the continual drama, and kiss and make-up situations. That sounds like what you have. And that’s where the fact that it’s NOT a family can help you out! One of the things many people find helpful in these situations is to make a written series of notes about the person with which they’re having the on-again, off-again issues. Make a list of the times when things seem to go well. What is it that makes them go so well? Are you focused on a common goal then? Are you listening to her more and participating less yourself, or vice versa? What makes the good times good?

Then, briefly list what makes the bad times bad. What starts happening that you can tell creates tension that builds to the argument stage? Is it when a certain kind of event occurs? Is it when the two of you both have strong opinions? Could it be when there is a time-line or when Jan or you feel there is a potential for looking good or bad, according to how things go in the encounter?

Is there something you think could change the dynamic between the two of you, if only it would happen, either personally or organizationally?

If she were preparing a similar list, what do you think she would say you do that drives her up the wall and pushes her over the top?

Getting a grip on what makes the relationship you two have so difficult at times, is the way to start. Another thing to consider is this: On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being a warm, loyal, close and very enjoyable interaction, how would you rate your relationship with her most of the time? I ask that because, like many relationships that have been flawed for a long time, it’s easy to think things are pretty good some of the time–until you realize they only seem pretty good because they’re better than when they’re awful!

Have you done much reading about domestic abuse, either physical or emotional? I often see similarities in work relationships. I don’t make judgements about that, because I’m not an expert in the field–but I do recognize the similarities. The classic cycle is this: Tension building (Victim walks on eggs to prevent a crisis. Abuser seems spoiling for an argument.) Crisis (Argument, violence or other bad feeling event) Making-Up (Often initiated by the victim, or if initiated by the abuser, welcomed warmly by the victim. Little or no talk about the crisis for fear it will cause another one.) Calm (Sometimes referred to as the honeymoon stage, when things seem better than ever.) Tension building (Back to the discomfort and stress.) This can go on hundreds of times. Sometimes there will be a crisis and an attempt at making up, which will lead to tension building all over again. Eventually there are no honeymoon times and it’s tension, then crisis, then tension, then crisis.

I went through that long explanation to see if you think what you’re describing sounds like that! If you re-read your message, you’ll see that SHE accuses you and YOU ask for forgiveness.

There was a James Ingram song in the 80’s that had a line that said, “Just once can’t we figure out what we keep doing wrong, Why we never last for very long.” That’s the way relationships can be, when they’re not strong and healthy–in a family or in a workplace.

On the other hand, you use terms like “keeping my nose to the grindstone” and just doing your job and keeping working. She may feel that you do that in a manipulative way to appear to be the wronged one in your quarrels–the martyr with the heavy sigh about trying to get along, and just waiting for retirement to end the misery you’re having to endure from her.

You likely don’t see it that way! I’m just advancing that as a thought, because that too is often part of the cycle that goes on in faulty relationships. There is misunderstanding, miscommunication and insincerity by both people, whether they realize it or not.

So, what CAN you do at this point? I see several options–or a mix of them, according to what is most comfortable for you.

1. Do your work, let her do hers, but get a mental divorce. You don’t need to understand her psyche or whether or not she’s unhappy and you don’t need deep discussions. You’ve had eight years to do that and nothing has worked. Just assume you will never be close and put on a Teflon coating when you’re around her. You can like someone good enough to work with them, but not want to let them inside your head or heart.

I have a friend (who hopefully will never read this!)who I don’t like. Yes, both parts of that sentence are true! I will never stop being his friend when he needs a ride to the airport or help with his computer or calls about a work problem or wants to share a ten pack of paper towels. But he is high maintenance, self-absorbed and insensitive and I avoid being around him when possible. I worked with him for several years and for the sake of work tried to deal with him in a way that would keep us friends–but finally, about two years before we stopped working together I divorced him as a friend but just didn’t tell him about it! That has worked fine for me ever since then and I doubt that he’s noticed the difference. You may need to do that for your own mental protection.

If you do, don’t treat Jan coldly or distantly or make it obvious you’re trying not to have a warm relationship. Just don’t extend yourself more to her than to anyone else and take a break to get away,when you feel the tension building. 2. Get another opinion and perhaps some advice or mediation. You mentioned that you have a good relationship with your boss. Don’t you think she or he would want to know that things are so bad you and Jan don’t talk for weeks at a time? If she knows it, she should be doing something about it. If she doesn’t, she needs to know. It has to have an affect on work–and you can bet everyone else gets tense about it too.

Consider asking your boss for an outside opinion, and make it clear you are prepared to hear the brutal truth if she says you have contributed to the situation in some way. You may not have, but likely she will look for a way to not have it all appear one-sided. Bosses tend to do that, I ‘ve noticed!

Then, whatever she says by way of observation, ask her what she thinks you could do that would be helpful. She will have a better sense of the culture than I do. However, if her only answer is for you to apologize yet again or to admit half the fault or whatever, I’d think twice before doing it. It’s time for Jan to acknowledge how she could improve things as well.

Perhaps you could ask your boss to intervene and mediate between both of you the next time there’s a crisis. But the best time to talk about these issues is anytime there’s a chance. So, even if things are going OK now, it’s the right time to talk.

If you worry about doing that because you don’t want Jan to feel hurt just at the time when she and you are doing basically OK, keep in mind that’s why couples don’t get counseling either. (I don’t want to over-use the analogy, but really, there are many similarities and it’s worth keeping them in mind.) 3. You could also try one more time to talk directly to Jan. You may wish you could do anything but talk to her again, but it might work better with a different focus. This would be particularly useful if you’ve already talked to your boss and she knows what you are going to try to accomplish.

Then, ask Jan to meet you in a private area and say something like, “Jan, I hesitated to talk to you now because we’re finally back on speaking terms after several weeks of bad feelings. But I want to avoid the bad feelings next time and I think there’ll be a next time, considering our history. I don’t want us to beat this to death today, but I do want us to decide how we can steadily maintain an effective working relationship, without the fights and bad feelings. I can’t and won’t keep going with this cycle of fighting then making up. I’m sure it’s tough on you too. So, what can each of us do to make it better now and in the future?”

You’ll probably have something memorized that sounds better than that, but at least you can start with a focused attitude. Keep the focus on what both of you can do, not just on what you can do so she can stay in a good mood.

If things go to heck, stop the conversation and say, “I was afraid this would happen. I’m going to ask Ms. Smith (the boss) to help us with this, because as I said I won’t keep having this cycle go on.” Then, whatever she says, seek out the boss and ask for a meeting with both of you.

If, on the other hand, Jan wants to talk, let her do it without arguing with her. No matter what she says, keep a straight face and acknowledge that she said it. You don’t have to agree with it, unless you can see that it’s true and you feel the need to agree. Just acknowledge that she said it. Then say, “OK, so that’s how you see things and I have ways I see things. Now, the question is, what will make things better long-term?”

One way to look at things is to consider what you never want to have happen again, what you’d like to see less of, what you’d like to see more of. She can do the same thing. The key is to find out if each of you can do what the other one needs to be able to work together.

The result of a meeting of any kind will likely be awkwardness and less communication. That’s fine. Don’t shy away from that. She NEEDS to feel awkward and a little worried about what you’re going to do next. If she resents you, you can’t help that. Be a broken record with the thought that you will not continue the cycle of tension, crisis and making up.

Do not let her do the quick weasel-out-of-the- situation. Force both of you to say what you’ll do differently next time. The idea is that when you leave the room there’ll be some changes in the works, not just that once again you’ve made up. Don’t let her try to get it over with without coming to a conclusion and a solution.

4. You could also do nothing specific and simply adjust your behavior somewhat so you don’t get caught up in so much of the drama of her anger or reponses or whatever. Consider laughing when she gets angry and say, “Oh no, I’m not going to get in another fight and you can’t make me!” Make the ridiculous aspect of two adult professionals engaging in work spats, clear to her. Just refuse to fight. Don’t complain about her to others. Don’t let it visibly bother you. Just treat her like a fussy child and refuse to get ruffled. Not easy, I know. But it’s the only thing left to you if the other ways aren’t feasible.

I hope some of these thoughts will help you develop a personal plan of action. One thing is for sure–you’ll be there for several more years and so will she. Whatever you do, she’ll still be working near you all the time So, it’s not like if you don’t do something she’ll be gone soon anyway. You’ll keep living just like this if you don’t do something different than you’ve been doing.

An optimistic view is that Jan would like for things to be better as well. Given half a chance she may very well straighten up her behavior or be more honest with you about what is bothering her. A pessimistic view is that this will set her off again. But at least it will be on your terms and your boss will be aware of it.

If you have the time and wish to do so, we’d be very interested in hearing what results from all of 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.