Undermining Co-worker

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a nosy, bossy coworker:

I had a question about a woman when she was hired some time ago. We worked together and she seemed fine; however, she was always nosy. Now, I am a manager and she tries to boss me around. I have confronted her about it and she will back down. However, a trusted friend of mine pointed out that she is trying to undermine to get my job. She called a meeting of my staff and I told my boss. At first, he sided with me, but then took it back and let her have the meeting. She is a nightmare and is stressing me out. What do you suggest I do? Thanks!

Signed, Wondering Who Is the Boss!

Dear Wondering Who Is the Boss!:

There is nothing more frustrating and irritating than the feeling that somehow positions are being reversed and a manager is bossed by an employee! The solution involves two things: An understanding with your own manager about the matter–and the assurance of his or her support. And, a consistently fair but firm approach that makes it clear that, while you are open to input from all employees, final decisions are yours.

Let me give you some ideas about how you might approach this situation, and see if you can adapt these to your work. The size of your organization, number of employees, the work involved, the culture of the organization and the personalities involved, all will have an affect on what you do.
1. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the employee is trying to undermine you or get your job. That may be the case, but unless she has said so, that might not be her motivation. She may simply think she knows better than you how to do things! Or, she may want positive attention for her work, but still not want to take your job. She may only want to make you look bad. She may think she’s helping you. She may be encouraged by other employees who view her as a strong person. All, some or none of those factors may be true.I think it would be worth your time to analyze some of those issues, such as: Is she an informal leader? Is her work product good, fair or poor? Does she make good suggestions or decisions? Has she genuinely been helpful? Has she gotten positive attention from your manager for her actions? Have you gotten in trouble because of her actions? The answer to those questions may help you think about her reasons, in a clear manner.

2. You say she bosses you around but when you call her on it she backs down. So, I would assume she only TRIES to boss you around. Think about how she does that. Is it that she questions your directions or decision? Does she come in and try to give you tasks to do? Does she go over your head and get things changed with your manager?

Those are good to consider for this reason: It’s not a negative thing to have employees who are self-starters and self-motivators. It’s also valuable to have employees who appropriately question things that aren’t correct. Be certain that she can’t point to several situations in which her input was needed, even if you didn’t like it.On the other hand, if her demeanor is disrespectful, or if she actively encourages others to not follow your directions, or to treat you disrespectfully, then she certainly has stepped out of bounds with regards to her position and yours.

3. What is the role of your manager in all of this? Start with him or her. Honestly explain your concerns and what you intend to do about it. Ask him if he sees it differently than you do. Beware of sounding as though your ego is your main concern. Be able to show a direct impact on work or the workplace. That is what your manager is most concerned about. The moment he or she senses this is only a personality or ego struggle, you’ll lose support. Focus on explaining the impact on the overall efficient and effective supervision and management of the group. Point out negative results of her behavior. Or, discuss the time spent in justifying your actions to her when she has been excessive about questioning you.

Present the picture to your manager that this isn’t just between the employee and you–it is about effectiveness as an organization, and about the value of a clear chain of command for all employees.

4. You said the employee called a meeting, which at first your boss didn’t approve of, then did. This leads me to believe that perhaps your view of the meeting was different than your boss’s view, once he learned more about it. Have you asked him why he changed his mind? That is the best way to approach that situation.You could say, “I want to meet with you about the situation with Karen, so I can make sure I handle it the right way. But in the meantime, it would help me to know what your thought process was, for allowing her to continue having the meeting that I thought she shouldn’t be allowed to hold. If there’s a viewpoint I should see, I’d like to know that.” Then, let him explain and don’t argue. If you argue,that implies HE was wrong. Just soak it up and say you’ll keep his thoughts in mind while you put together some notes for a meeting between the two of you.If your manager sees that you want to handle the conflict appropriately, that will help a great deal when it comes time to talk to him about his support for your work. (Not his support for you personally, but for your work.)

5. Now, think about how to start dealing with the employee. Divide her behavior and performance into two areas: Work in general and interactions with you. Put your focus on her work if possible, and take your emotions and ego out of it as much as possible. Try to keep the mind-set that your task is to work with and through others to accomplish the mission of the organization, whatever that is. Some employees will always struggle against authority. Others will always have to be pushed and pulled. Others will be joys to work with. All are part of your team. If you are getting good work done, you may find you can smile at some of the subtle things the employee does to try to feel powerful. As long as you know who is really the boss–and since she obviously knows you’re her boss, which is why she resists you–you may find you can tolerate her irritating behavior.

If, on the other hand, she fails to follow your directions, undermines you actively or creates problems that affect work, she needs to stop that behavior and change her ways. Consider making a list with these categories: *What she does that is good, and that I’d like for her to keep doing. *What she should do more. *What she should do less. *What she should never do again.Once you have figured that out, you can use it as one of the things you talk to your manager about. You’ll also have a better picture of what it is that is bothering you most, so you can share that with her.It sounds as though you will have to talk to her in a focused way about this matter. You probably will find it best to wait until she does something else that is a problem. When that happens, tell her that the recent event is just one more of several things that are problems about her behavior. Then, use your list to talk about her good points as well as the things she needs to change. You may have changed your list based on input from your manager.Ask her for her thoughts about it, and let her talk. Don’t argue with her about her motivations, because she’ll never admit that she was trying to cause you problems. In fact, she might have very, very good reasons to offer. Just let her talk.Say you are glad to hear her viewpoints, and that it helps you understand what she has been thinking. Then, move into….”Now, I just want to make sure you understand what things can’t happen again and what things need to be done differently.” List for her the behaviors that you don’t want repeated. Say again the things that she should work to increase. Then, reinforce that you mentioned several things she is doing great and that should continue.Keep the meeting short and to the point. Don’t let her argue about whether or not your style is one she prefers, or others prefer. If she can point out issues in which you have been in error, or skills you need to gain, acknowledge that, but say that you do continually work to develop as a supervisor–but the fact is that you ARE a supervisor, with responsibility for her work and the work of others. Get off that topic quickly! Wrap up the discussion and say that you hope in the coming days and weeks you can see that the matter has been resolved, then close the interview and get her back to work. (That lets her know you will be watching.)That’s all easier said than done I realize! But think of it this way: You can either do that and get it over with, or deal with her nibbling away and making you miserable for months or years!If she does something else that is problematic,immediately stop her and say, “This is what I meant in our interview. I want you to stop now and not do this again.” If she does, you have reason for much more serious action, with your manager’s agreement.

Remember the key issue: The effectiveness of the workplace. Not your personal feelings. I know you will HAVE personal feelings, and I don’t blame you. But for the purposes of your discussions with your managers and the employee, your primary concern should be on how her behavior impacts your ability, her ability and the ability of others, to get the work done.Best wishes as you develop a plan of action for this matter. This is a classic situation though, of where you need to investigate ahead of time, to have a good picture of what you’re dealing with, before trying to make things better.

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.