Problem Co-worker

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about difficult coworker:

Help, I have a coworker that will not talk to me and when she does it is with a full-blown attitude. This is how it started: We were friends and actually hung out from the day I started this job 5 years ago. In January, I got a promotion to Manager of the department and that when all the problems started. I am 30 and she is 37. From the pressure and amount of work, we couldn’t talk as much and she thought I was becoming a snob. I explained to her that it is because my team has a lot of work and I think she understood.

A little later, she was instructed by a senior manager to help our team. (But she doesn’t work. She talks on the phone literally all day, and because her manager doesn’t push her to help and lives in his own world, we all have to listen to it.)

Anyway she helped a little, and then on one occasion, when I sent her to the 1st floor to collect something, she stood in front of the senior managers office and screamed that this is the last time she will do anything because she has important things to talk about on the phone. The next day her manager got a talking to and in turn talked to her. I don’t know what her manager said to her but she thought I tattled and back-stabbed her. That’s when all the attitude and problems started.

My team sees and complains that we need help, and all she does is talk on the phone. I always tell them she is her manager’s problem. It is making our workspace a nightmare and I cannot say anything. The other day after work I sent her a text explaining that even if she doesn’t like me, work is work and she has to cut the attitude because it’s making for a miserable workspace. I got back nothing–not that I expected it. I don’t care to be friends with her, but I cannot take her attitude, and I cannot go to the senior manager about it because it’s petty. What should I do? Talking to her is not an option cause she acts like a child and rolls her eyes and turns her back. HELP PLEASE.

Signed, Want It Fixed

Dear Want It Fixed:

You’ve done a good job of describing what has brought you to crying for help. You are an increasingly frustrated new manager because you have been assigned an employee, (I’ll name Judith) who once was a friend before you were promoted and who now fails to work and gives you the cold shoulder. In short, you are unable to boss her. You rule out resolving this by talking to Judith because she “rolls her eyes and turns her back”. And you don’t want to take this problem to a senior manager because you feel it will be considered “petty”. So you send your cry for help to Ask The Workplace Doctors.

Is there an easy solution? Definitely not or you wouldn’t have asked for help. Based on the scenario you sent, it seems that your approach to managing is that the boss tells and sells. That is to say that you expect those on your team to do what you request or order. I assume that you do this in a friendly “selling” manner, but as is traditionally the case when made a manager, you make assignments and you expect them to be carried out. You expected that of Judith when you sent her “to the 1st floor to collect something and she stood in front of the senior managers office and screamed that this is the last time she will do anything because she has important things to talk about on the phone”.

Members of your team complain that Judith isn’t carrying her load; she talks on the phone and all you can say is that’s her manager’s problem. Your team is telling you what you already know: that you aren’t able to boss Judith. More recently, you texted her “explaining that even if she doesn’t like me, work is work and she has to cut the attitude because it’s making for a miserable workspace.” I don’t fault you for this.

In most companies, making assignments and seeing that they are done is the “job” of being a manager. In your case, this has become increasingly difficult for two reasons: 1. Judith, who is seven years older than you, accused you of being a snob because once you became a manager you didn’t talk with her as you did before and 2. She was assigned to work with your team; but she is still under a different boss.

The simple solution is to make it clear to Judith who is boss. How? By meeting with the senior manager and clarifying who is boss and in turn seeing that Judith knows that is in her job description and that rolling her eyes and turning her back is insubordination. A three-way meeting with Judith, the senior manager and you should spell this out with consequences for failure to cooperate. In fact, your texted message to Judith should be seen as a verbal warning and the next time she behaves antagonistically, a write up is warranted.

Simple solutions are not always the best. Probably, a more nuanced approach would entail both a clarification of chain of command and a rethinking of how you manage you team. This is to suggest that your manager/boss role be slightly modified to that of a coach. You would still be the boss in keeping with the culture of your workplace, but that you might engage your team in determining assignments and team discipline. Rather than giving orders and making assignments, regular skull sessions would, in keeping with the goals of your particular work unit, collaboratively hammer out rules of who does what and what should be the rules of civil communication.

Your role would still be to bring to your team the assignments expected from above, but rather than ordering, you would engage your team collaboratively deciding in how is the best way to get the job done, done efficiently and effectively. This approach comes under varied labels, but can best be understood as “lean team management”. A coaching team approach can be exciting when both in small and larger ways you as coach and team do the hard work to cut wasted supplies, time, energy and also to innovate. So these thoughts leave you with choices; a chain of chain of command clarification or lean team management or a combination of these two. Will any of these three solve your problem with Judith? Maybe. Judith has had her way and will continue to until and unless she is forced to look in the mirror and face how she is seen by you, your team and by those who decide if she is earning for what she is hired. Think through your role as manager. Your problem with Judith has gone on too long and has ebbed from good to not good and then from not good to bad. Work is hard enough without incivility and lack of cooperation. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Of course saving face for Judith is to feel a part of your operations, rather than an antagonist.

Follow Up: Thank you for your reply. I have 2 more questions my team (which consists of 2 girls and me) work great together. We sat down when they were assigned to me and set out rule so that even though I am their “boss”, now we can still have an easy-going relationship and still respect the line of manager and employee. And it has been working great. Also we three are goal-oriented. We want to prove our worth because we get bonuses every 3 months and want to show them our best. My problem is that they feel like “tools”–that they work their tails off and she does nothing. Question 1: What should I tell them? I tell them it will show up in bonus season, but they are not sure that it will (and neither am I, even though I pretend like it will make a big difference). Question 2: would it look bad if I asked if it’s possible for my team to switch offices? Lastly will being a manager always be this difficult co-worker wise. Cause I am one of the 4 youngest people in the office. Again thank you very much for the help. I love this job and the position has its benefits, and I don’t want to give that up. –Manager of Two Plus One Who Doesn’t Pull Her Load

Reply: What do you do? You don’t pretend when bonuses come they will be rewarded for working their tails off and Judith won’t. Face it; your the two responsible members of your team are telling you what you already know that Judith is getting by and you can’t manager her, as I said in my reply above. Face it you must clarify who does what and what happens when Judith doesn’t do her share despite you asserting your self. Sure you can request a different configuration; asking for your team to switch offices. You can always ask. That is an option, but in the course of doing that, you must explain why; that Judith is uncooperative, doesn’t carry her load and disrespectfully resists your efforts to “manage” her. Therefore, you should not be shy about meeting with your manager to hammer out what you should do and what has been assigned to Judith that enables her to say she is busy with phone calls. What is your authority to make assignments and to write up Judith? And what are the alternatives for handling a disrespectful employee who doesn’t see you as her boss; probably because of the fact that she was under another manager and ordered to “help” your team. Should I assume you have included Judith in your discussions about setting goals and “pleasing” those who make bonus decisions? Or does she see herself as an outsider? Her appointment to “help” obviously was not clearly stated. And until it is you will have trouble.

Follow Up 2 Thank you very much for your advice. I don’t have the authority to write up “Judith” only her direct manager does. I will speak to my senior management about this and see what the outcome will be. My senior manager is very understanding and knew that problems would arise from making me manager, due to my age ad the age of the other employees. He warned me about it so I think you are right and hopefully this will turn out to my advantage and fix the problem. I don’t have the authority to write up “Judith” only her direct manager does.

William Gorden