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Monday, November 15, 2010

my boss gives in to my co-worker's temper tantrums

A reader writes:

I'm preparing for my January yearly evaluation with my boss... and I'm already worrying about some issues I want to bring up. Our department is small with only four positions. The budget person in our office is rather controlling and has made my life difficult these past few months in particular.

My boss is kind but this work colleague (she's a peer, not a supervisor, and I'll call her X) does sway her decisions quite a bit since they have worked together the past 10 years.

One of the worst things that has happened these past few months concerns my purchasing duties in the office. I was approached by my boss for a meeting to take away these duties due to X's concerns. I was not doing the purchasing incorrectly, but X did not like my filing system (which I was never approached about). Since X was going through a death in the family at the time, my boss asked me to just let X take control of those duties instead of fighting her on this.

It's just gotten worse since then, over the most minute of issues. Just last week, X threw a fit when I left for lunch and only confirmed it with the front desk person and not with her. X threw the fit in front of my boss, and now we have assigned lunch times.

I've been at this office over three years, and while I am looking for other jobs, the economy dictates that I'll be here a bit longer. My question is... how do I bring up my issues with X appropriately during my evaluation? I know that my boss will ask me how I'm doing/feeling at the office... and even though I am uncomfortable speaking out against anyone (feels like tattle-telling for some reason), I would like an easier work environment and my job duties back.

You have assigned lunch times? Your office has bigger issues beyond X herself -- you have a manager who gives in to the person who yells the loudest.

Okay, a few things. First, have you approached X yourself about this? It sounds like she's continually getting the message that she can behave this way with impunity and no one will stand up to her. You don't even need to take a particularly adversarial approach; you can just calmly express your own reasonable opinion in the face of her crazy one. For instance: "I didn't let you know when I went to lunch because it would be highly unusual for me being away from the office for an hour to impact your ability to do your job. What are you seeing that I'm missing?" And also, "It seems to me that assigning lunch times is introducing a fairly high level of bureaucracy where none is needed. Let's talk about the problem that needs to be addressed and figure out the most effective and direct way to fix it." And, "Hey X, Beth told me that you have some concerns about my filing system. It's actually been working really well, but tell me what you're seeing that bothers you so I can figure out if we need to change something."

Ideally, if you're not already doing that, you'd start that before involving your boss. If I'm your boss and you tell me that you have a problem with how someone behaves toward you, the first thing I'm going to ask you is what you've tried in response. That doesn't mean that I won't intervene if you've done nothing and the situation is severe enough, but it does mean that I'm going to at a minimum wonder why you haven't tried asserting yourself, and I might suggest that you try it before I step in. (That said, your boss in this situation is an obvious enabler of X's bad behavior herself, so I'm not exempting her from blame here at all.)

In any case, you have a couple of options for how to raise this with your boss, depending on what kind of relationship you have with her:

1. You can be straightforward: "X is making it harder for me to do my job because she's developed a pattern of loudly voicing her opinion about areas that don't impact her own work, but do impact mine. And because she's generally the most strident person on any issue that comes up, people seem to find it easier to give in to her. I don't want to see us making decisions based on who yells the loudest, and I'm worried that we're getting in a cycle of doing that."

2. You can frame this as asking for your boss's advice: "I want to have a good relationship with her but also preserve appropriate boundaries and ensure that we're making decisions based on what will be most effective, not on who's asserting themselves the most vigorously. Do you have any advice that will help?"

(This all assumes that you have a boss who is at least somewhat open to reason and who isn't totally in X's pocket.)

Also, you don't have to wait for your evaluation in two months to bring this up. You can raise it in the same way the next time X throws a tantrum.

I'm also wondering about what other ways in which your boss's willingness to take the easy way out might be playing out. Is this really the only one?


Anonymous said...

Very good advice from AAM. Keep in mind, though, that approaching X about these issues will most likely infuriate her and bring about even worse consequences in the short run. Doing so does, however, lay the groundwork for being able to put the ball in your boss's hands and expecting her to run with it. I agree with AAM that this is a crucial step. To skip it is to make yourself look just as bad as X.

That said, it sounds like the real problem is a milquetoast manager. Most likely this manager has relied heavily on X over the years and X has been able to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior further and further. X probably intimidates your manager as well, or your manager is too afraid that the work will stop getting done if X is upset or quits. I have been in this very situation more than once and it was the case (both times) that the manager/X relationship had evolved into this over a number of years.

As such, do not expect this situation to change quickly or as the result of a single conversation. It may come to a point where this manager has to loose several promising junior employees before she is finally willing to take a stand against X. Just follow AAM's advice, though, and make it very clear to your manager that X (and, by extension, your manager's relationship to X) is the root of the problem.

Anonymous said...

I ask that the OP write back soon to let us know what happened when: s/he approached X and/or the boss. I want to know how much the boss is wrapped around X's finger.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I could have written this myself a few years ago. I worked at a college with a coworker who was absolutely toxic. She was also a financial manager, although she seemed to think her job was to bicker and point fingers at others rather than manage finances. It wasn't until we lost several staff members who referenced her behavior as part of the cause of their leaving that our boss finally woke up to the problem. Oftentimes, those in charge are isolated a bit. It's not that they don't understand the problem, it's that that they simply don't see it. People like this horrible coworker tend to be manipulative especially toward their superiors. Sit your boss down, be honest, and tell your side of the story. Back it up with several documented instances. That's what we all did and it worked for us.

Anonymous said...

I've been in this situation, and I tried to talk to the coworker. It made the situation much worse. In fact, she got other employees to side with her. Coworker was every good at making her side sound ultra professional and reasonable after the fact. When she made a scene, it always involved crying and accusations. (yes, she was a bit mental).

I talked to my boss. She said, basically, deal with it. I ended up leaving. I did not mention coworker's behavior as the reason why, it would have not have benefited me in the slightest. I needed a good recommendation from my former employer.

If OP decides to take this further, I recommend writing out a plan of how things will go. If they do this, I do that. Include the worst case scenario that I ended up with: you become the most hated person in the office because you rocked the boat.

Anonymous said...

I've handled this on my own by calling the peer out. This may not work everywhere but it worked for me so I'll let the OP decide.

One day I received a personal call at work. I was new to the department and the person across from me, a peer, decided this was a good time to loudly state my personal calls (all 1 of them) had to stop. I thanked her to mind her own business, my personal matters were not her concern and I would be talking to our boss about it. And I did without missing a beat.

She left me alone after that. There are some people in life you have to stand up to. Not necessarily against, but for yourself, kwim?

Anonymous said...

I swear, this reads exactly like a situation we have going on where I work right now. It's been going on for almost 2 years, and came to a head in May, and has been stuck there for a long time. My manager is known for choosing and grooming favorites, and he sure picked a humdinger.
AAM's advice does work, but only if the people are willing to back off once approached. I am curious as to what the OP should do if approaching boss and/or X does not work? What should be the next step?

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, at that point, you pretty much either resign yourself to living with it or go work for a different manager, unfortunately!