Uncomfortable situation with coworker. Please advise. (Apologies for what is inevitably an TL;DR.)
posted by mudpuppie to Human Relations (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The short version of the story is that I have a meeting tomorrow with a contentious coworker and her boss, and I'm not really sure what to expect from it or what attitude to take into it. I also don't know whether to try to patch up my relationship with contentious coworker or stay the hell away and find some way around her.
The longer version follows.
Brenda is the manager of the accounting office. Brenda can be very difficult, although after working here a couple months I forged a good relationship with her. Brenda thinks 90% of the world (and 98% of our office) are idiots, but after we worked together for a bit she told me that I was a joy to work with, that I was smart and understood how things are done, etc. I was happy to have her respect because a) she doesn't give it very freely, and b) it makes it a hell of a lot easier to get things done around here if you're on Brenda's good side.
And now I am on Brenda's bad side, partly because I did something stupid, and partly because she's who she is.
The Tao of Brenda
A word first, about her style. There's Good Brenda and Bad Brenda. Good Brenda answers questions pleasantly and responds to requests with "No problem, we'll take care of it." Bad Brenda appends a silent "you idiot" to her answers to any question (even the ones that aren't stupid) and responds to requests with a huffy "We can't/won't do that because of X, Y and Z." There's no way of knowing which Brenda you're going to get, so my tack has been to be as pleasant as possible when approaching her and to hope for the best.
I shouldn't forget Aggressive Brenda, either. Aggressive Brenda is the one who will walk in to your office without being invited, then stand two feet away from you, waving a piece of paper in your face and telling you how you should have done this, this, or this instead of what you did. (In an interaction with one of my other coworkers, Aggressive Brenda recently added to her repetoire the charming act of pounding the palm of her hand on the coworker's desk after barging into the coworker's office.)
Which is all background I feel I should share before mentioning The Incident(s).
The Incident Before the Incident (or the Incident Itself?)
A couple weeks ago, I was sent to Brenda to follow up on a contract she was supposed to be working with campus to process. This contract was integral to the completion of one of my boss's projects; if it wasn't in place before the project started, it would result in project participants not receiving payment and, possibly, the collapse of the project itself. I had gone to accounting two weeks earlier to get the process initiated. When I went to follow up, Brenda's counterpart John told me that Brenda was working on it. I went to Brenda and she very defensively said "I don't know anything about it. John mentioned it, but I have nothing to do with it." Okay, deep breath. After some clarification, it turned out that John had passed the contract on to Brenda, but he wasn't clear enough with her, and she didn't realize it was her responsibility. Okay, another deep breath. I told her I was sorry that there had been confusion, that it was okay, and that we just needed to make it urgent now that some time had passed so that we could get the contract finalized before the project started seven days later.
Bad Brenda emerged and gave me a list of reasons why it wouldn't happen in that timeframe (many of them being things she assumed *I* had done wrong or hadn't done at all, though she didn't actually bother to ask whether they'd been taken care of; they had). She went off then, in a huff and very put out, to see what she could find out about getting the contract finalized. About fifteen minutes later, I came back into my office and had a voicemail from her. Now, the upshot of this voicemail was that in that 15 minutes, she had learned that processing the contract would be no problem, and that it would all be taken care of -- probably even the next day -- but that she needed my boss (who was on vacation and at the beach) to send his approval first. However, the voicemail was over 4 minutes long and was very rambly and included a little dialogue with herself about how John is a very nice man but he's a poor communicator and yada yada yada.... In short, it was just kind of crazy. It was like she was having conversation with me, but I wasn't on the other end of the phone. And in the end, everything had worked out. The naysaying that had come earlier that day was totally unnecessary, for both of us.
Whatever. I took a few more deep breaths and started typing an email to my boss. In the email, I said "Accounting is in rare form today. And surprise, nothing's been done on this contract!" I then told him that I was going to send an email to Brenda from his account, approving the contract. (This is something he asks me to do on a regular basis. I have access to his email. No trust was breached.)
That was my Thursday afternoon, and it was a bit hellish, but I left the office knowing that the contract was taken care of and that everything was going to work out because Brenda and I had communicated effectively.
The Incident After the Incident (or the Incident Itself?)
Mid-morning Friday, I got an email from Brenda. It was extraordinarily snotty, and included a list of things I needed to do next time I needed something from accounting. I was completely baffled, because just the day before we had worked things out cordially and to everyone's satisfaction. I spoke to my boss, who was still on vacation, and he agreed that the tone was inappropriate. He asked me to forward all of the email communication regarding this contract to my other boss (whom I work with less often) so that she could review it. [I should mention, I guess, that both of my bosses are Deans in the department.]
Boss #2 asks me a couple days later if she and I can sit down to talk about it all. When I go in to meet her, she told me, chuckling a little, that I had mistakenly copied Brenda on the email I sent to my boss -- the one that said "Accounting is in rare form today." So now the tone of Brenda's email makes more sense -- she was pissed about the email she wasn't supposed to receive. (But to my credit, it didn't mention her by name and was much, much tamer than my actual level of frustration.)
Ten days or more had passed after the email(s). Brenda has been scarce. She keeps her office door closed. She doesn't come to this end of the building anymore. She hasn't communicated with the two people I work most closely with, either. One morning, I come out of a bathroom stall and Brenda is standing at the sink washing her hands. I say "Hi Brenda," and she shuts the water off and leaves the room.
Where We Are Now
So, Boss #2 wants me to sit down with Brenda and her boss to discuss how our offices can work together. That meeting is tomorrow. I've already outlined my problems to Brenda's boss, Marianne. I've let her know that Brenda has good days and bad days and that it's a total crapshoot. And that on bad days, when you talk to Brenda you're met with a wall of No. And that I'm more than happy to keep personality out of it, that I don't want this to be personal, but that the wall of No makes it really difficult -- unnecessarily difficult -- to get things done. (I told Boss #1 about the bathroom incident, but not Boss #2 or Marianne. It happened after I'd already spoken to both of them.)
I have no idea what to expect from this meeting, nor do I have any idea how much I should say. I feel like I need to be prepared walking in there, since it's me going in to a meeting with someone else and her boss. I'm confident that Marianne is aware of problems Brenda has had interacting with others. I'm not the only one who's had problems, especially recently. But I feel a little bit like I'm walking in to a united front. I did one stupid thing by copying Brenda on that email, but the email just wasn't that bad -- not nearly bad enough to justify ignoring someone and leaving the room when they speak to you. But now *I* feel extremely awkward even walking down to her end of the building. I'm probably too sensitive, and I know I have a guilty conscience, but I don't think that it's really my responsibility to feel bad about any of this, and I don't think I should have to feel awkward.
That said, I don't know if I can say "You're making me feel really uncomfortable here," because a) I did something that made her feel bad (which I regret), and b) I'm starting to suspect she's crazy. [She's in her mid- to late-50s, by the way. Old enough to know better.]
I don't have any one question. I have a lot of them. What should I be expecting? How much should I say for myself? Should I even mention how difficult it is to work with Brenda when she's right there in the room, or should I let that slide? If we come out of tomorrow's meeting with things having been smoothed over, how should I go forward? Honestly, I'm reluctant to deal with her anymore, and would rather avoid it entirely.
Obviously I need to play some of this by ear and wait to hear what's actually said, but I thought I should go in well-prepared with advice, too.
Apologies for length, but it's difficult to convey the complexities here without a lot of words.
Thanks for any advice.