When a new colleague comes on board, it can take some time for them to acclimate to their new team culture and to build trust. But what should you do if a new team member starts pushing your buttons? This is the question a listener of the advice podcast Dear HBR: asked in a recent episode. Author and conflict expert Amy Gallo sets out to answer the question in this article and also points to related articles, books, and research.
I successfully referred a friend’s friend to be my peer on my team. We’re under the same manager. She was very appreciative of the referral and was very friendly when I trained her on the job. However, shortly after I finished training her, she turned around and tried to compete with me, and became very aggressive and sneaky. Here’s an example. My manager asked her to work on something I had trained her on. When my manager checked in on the status, she said she was working on a project for the new big boss, so she didn’t have time to do the work. None of us knew about this other project, but we couldn’t stop her for obvious reasons. In the end, my manager reallocated her work back to me.
Another time when I was on vacation she took over my seat. I have a nice window seat. It’s next to my manager and the big boss. When I returned, all her stuff was scattered around my desk, including her dirty shoes. I feel this is very disrespectful. She’s very good at talking and sucking up. I feel even my manager is a bit scared of her. He plans to retire next year so I doubt he’s going to do anything. What should I do?
This is a tough situation that your new coworker put you in. When you refer someone to work at your company, not only are you putting your reputation on the line but you’re hoping that you’ll gain an ally at work.
This article was adapted from an episode of our Dear HBR: podcast on how to handle troublesome teammates.
But you are also not alone. Research from Chris Porath and Christine Pearson shows that 98% of people have experienced incivility at work. And there are real costs to being on the receiving end of this type of behavior. A team of researchers looked at how people get away with rudeness. They write, “People who experience workplace rudeness…report lower engagement, suffer more mental and physical health problems, and are more likely to burn out and quit their jobs. Which begs the question: Why do we tolerate this behavior at work? The results from the study show that people get away with being rude when they have a tight relationship with the boss or are high performers.
So what might you do now? One of my first instincts in any conflict situation is to try to think about it from the other person’s perspective. Annie McKee, the author of How to Be Happy at Work, says you need to have cognitive empathy (the ability to understand another person’s perspective) to “unearth your curiosity” when someone is bothering you at work. Ask yourself: What’s motivating your peer to behave this way? Is she really just obnoxious? Is she trying to impress other people? Is she trying to get away with not working? What could be going on here?
You may not have the answers to these questions so you should consider gathering more information and figure out whether others in the office perceive this woman in the same way that you do. People may be having a similar reaction and not telling you because they know you referred her.
If you find out that she is actually well respected, don’t try to convince everyone that she’s a jerk. Instead, try to understand why others may be working well with her when you aren’t. Is there something about the dynamic between you two that’s causing problems? Is there something you can do to shift your behavior? Maybe you need to stand up for yourself more, to be stronger and firmer.
For example, you could casually — and without emotion — move her stuff back to her desk and say, “It looks like you left your things on my desk.” Or if she expects you to take on her work, you can say, “No actually I need you to do that. It’s part of your job, not mine.” It may feel uncomfortable to be this direct at first but it’s important to establish boundaries, especially with someone who’s not respecting yours. Assuming positive intent can help here so you don’t further the conflict. Maybe she left her stuff on your desk by accident? Maybe she didn’t know that project was part of her job? In this article about peer accountability, Joseph Grenny found that the health of a team can be measured by “the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems. The shorter the lag time, the faster problems get solved and the more the resolution enhances relationships. The longer the lag, the more room there is for mistrust, dysfunction, and more tangible costs to mount.”
Therefore, you might consider having a direct conversation with her to try to clear the air. Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day, shares five steps in this article on how to raise difficult issues with a tough teammate. In step two, she encourages people to share “true facts” — “the things you know for sure, stripped of emotion, interpretation, or generalization.” When you talk to your coworker, be specific about what’s happened and how it’s made your job harder. And then ask her how she sees the situation.
That said, given what you shared in your letter, I suspect that that conversation might not go well. Then you have to decide whether to escalate it to your boss. It’s always better if you can solve the issue yourself without your manager stepping in. But there are some people who care a lot about hierarchy and will only change their behavior when encouraged to do so from someone senior. This might be what your peer needs. If you do go to your boss, be ready to list everything you tried to solve the situation yourself. And have a proposal for what you’d like them to do. Do you think it would be best if they talked directly to the person? It sounds like you feel like your boss may be hesitant to get involved but given that they are leaving, they might have a lot of leeway to actually do something and ruffle a few feathers because they’re on their way out the door.
If you find that the conversations with your peer, and with your boss, don’t change the situation, you’ll need to protect yourself and change your mindset. Otherwise, this is likely to eat you up inside and ruin your work experience. Consultant Abby Curnow-Chavez, in her article about dealing with a toxic coworker, says, “Own what you can, let go of what you can’t influence, and make a change if you have to.” Hopefully this doesn’t mean leaving your job, but try to establish boundaries so that you don’t have to work with her, even sit next to her. In this article, Greg McKeown shares a useful framework for how to set emotional boundaries without becoming walled off. And don’t stoop to her level — behave in a way that’s aligned with your values.
And have some self-compassion. Remember: it’s much easier to try to change your reaction to someone, than to change them.
This article was adapted from an episode of Dear HBR: on how to handle troublesome teammates. The letter was edited for length and clarity.
If you have a workplace dilemma you’d like help with, email the Dear HBR: team at [email protected]