Hello everyone! How are you? I am
completely destroying my cat’s sense of safety and object permanence packing up my entire apartment for a move this week. All the comments in the spam filter are actually spam, so it must be time for another question. Shall we continue the Labor Day holiday with a work topic?
I have worked in my office for 8 years. My colleague has been here over thirty. He’s in his sixties, I’m thirty. I thought he was one of my best friends though we’ve had our issues before. Let me explain. No, there is too much, allow me to sum up.
We do the same job in a support team. For a long time, I’ve been taking on more stuff because I’m asked to (and because I actually like to feel like I’m doing my job to the best of my ability) and he’s been excluded somewhat from tasks he likes. I don’t know why this is – it’s certainly not my doing or responsibility, but the digs he gets in makes it clear that he thinks I take everything on (I can be prone to this and work against it…) and it’s basically my fault and there’s a giant conspiracy against him. If there’s a conspiracy against him, I’m not part of it. Which I’ve said a million times.
Sometimes the way he talks I think he has absolute contempt for me. He doesn’t like me being bossy (who would?) but he doesn’t pull his weight or step up to the plate to *offer* his services. The number of times I’ve walked past his desk and he’s just on the internet… or sometimes reading the newspaper! I’ve not said anything to our boss because I don’t want to get him into trouble… and because I feel it would make things worse anyway! All this, incidentally, while I’m tearing my hair out trying to get things done by deadlines etc.
I feel like what he wants is for people to go to him and say ‘Will you do this/help us with this?’ but he won’t offer, won’t put himself forward. When people do? He’s grumpy with them. So more and more people come to me because they know they’ll get a more positive answer… and he doesn’t really keep himself up to date with changes so oftentimes can’t answer their questions anyway!
He sits grumbling that he never gets asked to do things/attend meetings/whatever but when he IS included he then complains that he just sat there useless! All the while, getting in digs at me. He says he can’t be bothered fighting my ‘need to have fingers in all the pies’, to which I have responded that I don’t want fingers in all the pies (i’m inquisitive certainly, but I truly don’t feel that way, but it seems to go that way mostly because he won’t step up and because there’s nobody else). I try to fight the urge to do everything and I thought I was doing much better with trying to spread the load. Apparently not, or not enough/in the right way for him.
Have I mentioned that no matter how I approach things with him, he always seems to interpret what I say or do in the worst possible light? In fact, I do most everything with a view to not upsetting him, not making him irritable or grumpier…. which often means not even *ASKING* him to help out with things because a: I know he will just say no and b: he’ll accuse me of being bossy… then he gets angry because he sees ‘me doing everything as ‘him being left out’.
And all the while he’s sat there saying he doesn’t want to be there/wishes he didn’t have to work in this dump anymore/doesn’t get how *insert project here* works.
So I feel constantly like I’m on eggshells with him. And if he’s pissed at me, he’ll be nice as pie to everyone else and speak to me in monosyllables, which makes me feel about two inches tall.
Last year, he complained to our manager about me being bossy and know it all and opinionated, I think… and at the time I basically apologised, said I’d do better, and didn’t go back with my laundry list about him because I will always assume that I’m in the wrong. It was only later that I thought ‘hang on a second…’
I KNOW I can be bossy, especially when I’m stressed myself. I seem to construct everything at work around a fear of screwing up, which isn’t exactly healthy, so when it’s very busy or I feel like everything’s on me, I do get anxious. Since the last run-in, I’ve tried REALLY hard to regulate my weaknesses. It seems he doesn’t care/hasn’t acknowledged this. I can’t help wondering now that it’s not that I’m patronising/condescending/bossy, but that he will always interpret it that way because he chooses to. But I don’t know because my mind is being yanked in a million different directions and now I’m terrified that everyone thinks that I’m those things as well.
We’ve talked about all this before. I’ve tried to stress to him that I’m never looking to do things to make him feel bad, that I don’t do anything with a mind to making his day worse. I’ve also said that he needs to be direct when he feels I’m doing those things… but he does the same passive-aggressive thing as always.
I deal really badly with passive-aggression (see also: my mother). I know this. I try to do better. I am trying so hard to be the best human I can be and it just seems like it’s all for nothing. I do not know what to do, how to approach any of it!
I don’t feel I can talk to him because he’ll blow up, so I sent him an email trying to explain my side as gently and yet as honestly as I could. He came back and said my email was condescending, that he is way more productive when I’m not there… I just wanted to be honest for once and got accused of condescension, being confident/rude/pushy.
I don’t know… am I a mean bitch, or is it that he won’t accept anything but the responses he wants?
I have no idea what to do, Captain. I really don’t want this to be a thing with our manager again, or to affect my reputation with other people at work – if it hasn’t already – and I’m also scared that actually, everyone else thinks I’m those things when I really try not to be and I’ve been trying so f**king hard to regulate my lesser demons.
Terrified Yet Increasingly Unwilling To Be His Doormat
The fact that you are walking on eggshells around this person and signing yourself “Terrified” is giving me a lot of information. That information sums up thusly:
- Whatever bond you shared in the past, your coworker is now actively sabotaging you and your work.
- He wants you to be scared, miserable, and walk on eggshells.
- I don’t think there is a fix where you guys are friends again, so what we are going for is neutrality and distance.
Let’s start with a trick out of Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense…At Work. When someone says seems really out there, it helps to stop for a second and imagine “What might that statement be true of?” You don’t have to agree with or validate their point of view. You don’t have to inventory your faults or take any responsibility on yourself. All this is is arming yourself with information by figuring out how your antagonist is perceiving the situation and what the stakes might look like for them. In this case, for whatever reason, your coworker feels threatened, insecure, and miserable at the shift things are taking in how work is assigned and how much he feels his work is valued. Nobody likes to be sidelined or feel powerless. Age-ism is a real thing, and maybe he is the victim of it. It sounds like some of these decisions are coming from the top and out of both of your control, but let’s just list them as a reason he is validly not feeling super-happy at work right now. It is not cool if your bosses are trying to move you into a somewhat supervisory role over him without making that official, or setting you up as competitors. How he’s reacting to the situation is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. He feels sidelined, so he acts like he’s being sidelined, so your bosses sideline him. Which, if you are your boss, would you rather deal with:
A) The pleasant, enthusiastic person who tries hard at work and seeks actively to get along with others
B) The cranky mean guy who does the minimum and complains a lot about everyone?
You don’t have to solve any of this or be responsible for any of this. You’re just surveying the territory here. Keep in mind, your coworker may not feel in control of how work is going, but he does have control over not being a jerk to you. I don’t think it is accidental that you, a younger woman (going by your email addy & photo, correct me if I am wrong), are the target of his hostility. Describing you as “too bossy”, making you out to be “a bitch” so that you’ll second-guess your own confidence and competence and work harder to suck up to him is classic stuff. The powers that be aren’t treating him how he feels he deserves, so instead of working it out with them, he looks around for someone to blame. How conveeeeeeenient that there is someone he perceives as being lower status to pick on! How conveeeeeeenient that this all somehow ends up with you doing most of the work, because you are afraid to approach him, but that is somehow all your fault!
So, eff this effing guy. Eff trying to apologize to him or make him feel like the big man or make him feel less threatened by you. If he wanted to fix this situation, he could have talked to his boss about reconfiguring his workload and made sure he was included on projects. Instead he’s gone with blaming everything on you.
Here’s what you do:
1.DO your work. Be excellent at it. Kick work’s ass with your extreme excellence. Shine with the fierceness of 10,000 Beyoncés.
2. DO keep redirecting him toward solutions. And DO keep pressure on him to be specific and immediate in his complaints. Right now he is probably trapped in vague overarching complaint mode (“You always….you never….why can’t you just….”). You can’t stop that, but you can refuse to go there with him. If he comes at you wanting to talk about the unfairness of the situation again, ask him outright: “Okay, so what do you suggest we do to divide this up more fairly?” “I hear you, and that was not my intention. What can we do now to make this right?”
This will be an interesting test. If there is actually a problem with how work is being divided up, and if he is actually interested in working this out, you are giving him an opportunity to suggest something constructive that will fix it. You don’t have to take his suggestions, by the way – it’s possible that his suggestions are that he does all the cool stuff and you do all the grunt work – but it gives you a starting point for negotiating and tells you whether he is serious about changing anything.
If all his suggestions amount to personal attacks on you – “Stop being so bossy/bitchy/hogging all the work/sucking up” i.e., they are based around who you are as a person and not anything about the work – that will give you important information as well. He’s not interested in fixing it, he is just interested in blaming and bullying you. Take a deep breath, and then use it as an opportunity to clarify and redirect things back to solutions and also challenge him to be specific. “Ok, I don’t really understand what ‘be less of a bitch’ means. Ignoring how insulting and sexist that is for a moment, could you translate that into a specific action around our work?”
This is a great strategy for dealing with any kind of passive-aggressive behavior from a friend, coworker, or family member. Invite the person to get aggressive-aggressive and state exactly what they want. Decide if you can or want to give them that thing and let them know your decision. If they won’t come out and say what it is, even when you give them a direct invitation, feel free to disengage from guessing games or trying to preemptively manage their emotions and reactions. With your coworker, if you say “Cool, what do you suggest?” when he complains and the conversation goes to the ad hominem place, you have permission to disengage completely from caring about him and his opinion at all ever again. I mean, you have that anyway, but now you will have some proof in a way that gives you power.
3. DO NOT apologize to this man ever again for any reason and do not get into lengthy discussions about how your workload is divided up. You’ve done that, it hasn’t worked. Moving on. (Ok, if you accidentally stepped on his foot or spilled coffee on him or deleted a file he needed, say “Sorry.” Once.) Feel free to shut down personal, blamey attacks with “That sounds like a discussion you should have with Boss” and walking away for a bit. DO NOT have any heart-to-heart talks with this man or seek this man’s guidance or approval again. Employee morale, work quality, etc. are your boss’s problem to fix, not yours. Become a broken record. “So how would you like to handle it?” “That sounds like a talk to have with our boss. I hope you can work it out.” Physically get up and go for a drink of water or to the bathroom or on an office errand, if necessary, to get away from the conversation where he tries to make you responsible for his work problems.
4. DO include him on tasks and in meetings. Even if it’s unpleasant and takes extra effort and he’s surfing the internet. When something is clearly his job – something he should know about or handle – DO redirect people there. Do it by email, if at all possible, so you can minimize conversation with him and also have a documentation trail. Inundate him with the exact work things he’s been complaining he is missing out on. Copy him on Every. Single. Thing. that could possibly have relevance to him, and on some things that are not. Do it even if he is difficult and not nice to you.
It looks like deference and giving in, but let us count the ways that #4 will help you:
- It robs his complaint of power. “What are you talking about? You were invited to the meeting.” And on the chance that he does have a legitimate complaint, it actually solves the problem, or demonstrates that you are trying to the best of your ability.
- If you do it by email, you have a trail of documentation that you did ask him for help, that you did refer people to him, that you did try to include him in the work and consult him. So if he tries to sabotage you again with your boss, you have written evidence that what he says is not so.
- If you refer a person to him, and he can’t or doesn’t answer their questions, and they come back to you for assistance, that is one more person who understands that he is unhelpful and you are helpful.
5. DO cultivate distance and brevity in how you interact with him. You’re not going silent treatment here – that will escalate hostility and will not go unnoticed. What you are going for is pleasant, polite, bland, and detached. “I give zero fucks about what you think of me, but I am being polite and professional and treating you like a human being. I suggest you do the same.” Say good morning and good night. Say please and thank you. Go ahead, ask him how his weekend was in a routine, cursory way. Comment on the weather. Find a safe topic – maybe a show you both watch – that you can discuss unemotionally. You’re not being fake or expressing deep interest his life! You are making socially acceptable small talk with a coworker to grease the wheels of the day.
Share zero information about your personal life. Do not complain to him or indulge his complaining (Again, “Ok, how would you like to handle it?” + “That sounds like an issue for our boss.” + maybe “Why don’t you see if we can all sit down and talk about it?” are your friend here). Do not gossip with him about others at the company, and if he tries that with you, change the subject. Pretend you are a character in one of those dialogue exchanges you have to play-act when you learn a foreign language, where nobody can talk about anything real or has a sense of humor. Your weekend was “Fine, and yours?” Your upcoming weekend plans are “Quiet, I hope. And yours?”
You say things like:
- “Have a nice lunch.”
- “Can I get you anything while I am out?”
- “Do you need anything from the supply closet while I’m in there?”
- “Enjoy the weekend.”
- “Yes, I had a nice holiday. And you?”
- “Feel better,” if he’s sick.
- “Dovolte mi, abych se představil” or “Mám dva bratry, jmenoval Roland a Jason.” No, wait, that’s a flashback to introductory Czech class.
The rest of the time you talk about work or sit in sweet, beautiful silence. If there are people who support you and like collaborating with you, put your energy into building cordial relationships with them and stop spinning your wheels trying to win this guy’s approval. It isn’t coming.
So to sum up:
- Do your work and be awesome.
- You’re not going to change him or get him to like you, so the goal here is to get him to be less of an energy & time suck.
- Try to get him to make his complaints more specific and actionable.
- Try to address the substance of his complaints, if any, by drowning him in the exact thing he is asking for.
- Try to become less emotionally involved in what he thinks about you and how he treats you.
- Make sure you treat him with visible, palpable politeness, especially in written communications. Not because he deserves it, but because it undercuts his sexist accusations about your personality in a documented way that you can show your boss or HR. Think of it as a positive form of gaslighting – the more you dislike him, the more polite and coldly correct you are in all your interactions.
- Rehearse these conversations with a trusted friend if you need to psych yourself up (& get them into your own words) There is no shame at all in this.
- Give yourself a lot of time and be very gentle and good to yourself as you try to change this up.
We think sometimes that people will respect us if we are accommodating and nice, but sometimes it takes a good hard “Nope” to get certain folks to back off. You may find that over time he treats you more respectfully once you’ve put some boundaries and distance in the relationship. Good. Don’t trust it or get drawn back into a closer relationship. It won’t be rewarding for you. Just take it as confirmation that your strategy worked and you have successfully gotten him to stop actively treating you like crap. And you have done it in a flawlessly kind, direct, and professional way.