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Advice on how to manage without authority
August 20, 2014 3:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm the junior member of a 2-person legal team for a government agency. I routinely have to ask people wholly outside my chain of command to do things for me or, more rarely, correct work when it's not compliant with law/policy/practice. I've successfully won over the majority of the staff in my year with the agency, but one staff member is routinely argumentative with me. How do I fix this?

Additional possibly pertinent details: I'm a young-looking woman but I have years of experience in this field and I am excellent at my job (no bragging, but really). My problem staff member, also female, is a good ten years older than me and just got promoted, albeit to a non-supervisory role. English is not her first language, but I don't think this is a cultural issue. She has a reputation for being difficult to work with. The agency is seriously dysfunctional and bad work habits are tolerated or implicitly encouraged.

Things I've tried:
-My first six months, I was over-the-top nice, enthusiastic and deferential to everyone. I continue to ask people to do things as if they're doing me a favor, saying please and thank you. I make myself visible and available.
-Positive reinforcement: when you are helpful, I give you a cold bottle of water as thanks. When you do something exceptional, I write you a thank-you email detailing what you did that was so great, and I cc my boss and your boss.
-Negative reinforcement: you give me attitude, you're next on the list for getting asked to do something for me.
-Being flexible: I don't care how you do something for me as long as it's done right. Arbitrarily alternating with...
-Staying firm: no matter how much you argue, I want you to do it in the way I asked, because I said so. No further explanation.
-Being supportive: no one gets ratted out to their supervisors, no matter what. If someone needs a favor, whether personal or job-related, I'm there. I do visible work to make the staff's life easier, and I take work off others' plates.

A combination of these strategies has reduced my problem coworkers (starting at about 5, in a 30-employee agency) to this one.

Other things I've considered but rejected:
-I have a serious temper, which no one in this job has seen. I'm halfway inclined to rain down fury and scare her, but recognize it's unlikely to be productive.
-Complain to her manager. My principal problem here is that I'd rather be a source of authority in and of myself, rather than by having to resort to other people. Her manager is also unlikely to take action, unfortunately, because of the well-established workplace culture.
-Complain to my manager. Same as above. My manager isn't interested in getting involved, and heretofore I've asked him not to fight my battles for me.
-Ask her manager for advice on communicating with her. Same problems with above, but still mulling this one over.

Any other advice? This is a sufficiently established pattern that I don't believe specific examples will help, but I'm happy to supply them. I love this job, this problem notwithstanding, and I'm in it for the long haul; this work matters to me deeply, and my motivations are both to improve the agency within my limited present ability and to provide excellent service to my municipality and its employees.
posted by mchorn to Work & Money (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
-Negative reinforcement: you give me attitude, you're next on the list for getting asked to do something for me.

This is the problem IMO. You don't punish people for not working well who you by making them work with you MORE.

Be direct. Tell her you need and want to work with her and that you don't understand the friction that's been present when that occurs. Ask her what's going on for her in regards to this issue and let her know that you'd like to understand what makes her seem so reluctant to comply with requests. Then listen.

Additionally, you don't sound flexible at all. It sounds to me like you manipulate situations in order to ingratiate yourself to other people so they'll eventually do things exactly how you tell them to. You also contradict yourself multiple times in this very post. That to me would be a big red flag as a coworker because it's a juvenile approach to managing other people.

Have you considered that your overall approach isn't as successful or respectful as you think it is, and that that's why you're not connecting with this woman and possibly others?
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:46 PM on August 20 [11 favorites]


Something that stands out to me is your "serious temper". You may not have lost your temper at work, but that doesn't mean that people don't notice. I had a boss once that had a very bad temper and though he never blew his top, I could see it simmering, even though I could tell he was trying to control it. This was extremely intimidating and actually interfered with my confidence and ability in doing my job as I was afraid I'd set him off. So that may be something to examine a little more closely.

Otherwise, have you tried speaking to her yourself? I would do this before speaking to her manager, your manager or anything else. Try to approach it in a collaborative way - how can we both work together in as productive and harmonious way as possible? Going to someone else without first trying to work things out with her directly will only make things much worse.
posted by triggerfinger at 3:59 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


You don't give any description of her behavior at all, so it's rather hard to give advice.

So maybe start by writing out the most compassionate, generous explanation for her behavior you can come up with -- that is, write it from her point of view. Look at what problems your requests might be causing, and shift your approach to avoid those obstacles.

Even better, talk to her about what's going on, but you're going to get much further with that conversation if you've done the above exercise -- or at least tried to cultivate some degree of genuine compassion for her -- first.
posted by jaguar at 4:23 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Nothing cuts through bullshit like a sincere direct observation of the issue. "You seem very unhappy when I ask you to do this work. Please help me understand what the problem is?"

I absolutely loathe being asked to do my job in an over-the-top fakey-sincere voice, and would bristle hugely at being click-trained like a dog with a cold bottle of water (are they not allowed water? Is this a "goodie" of some sort?), so this may just be a case of your management style making this lady - who doesn't sound like the biggest people-pleaser in the first place - rage-flare. She's probably not going to feel safe enough to actually tell you that, though, so you might need to listen between the lines.

In the end, it might just be enough to put it out on the table so she's obligated to tell you that no, there's nothing wrong and she's not deliberately trying to give you attitude so she will be on better behavior in the future, and then maybe you in return communicating at a level more appropriate to her temperament. As a misanthrope and someone who's at work to work and get it over with, I just want to focus without having to do the Ladies Historical Society smalltalk first.

Or, she'll absolutely loathe you going forward for calling her on it but you made an effort and next time you can escalate as if there is a chain of command you should be following.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:24 PM on August 20 [16 favorites]


Just to clarify (and I should have said this in my question): I'm an attorney, and these are non-professionals. I'm asking the staff for specific information, that I don't have access to, that is needed for a specific legal reason necessary to my job, and this particular individual argues with me about why I need it, why I'm phrasing my question the way I am, why the irrelevant information she's already supplied doesn't answer my question (which it doesn't), and the like. Apologies; hoping to narrow the scope a bit here--this is a less collaborative relationship than it may seem, although I make an effort to make it as collaborative as possible--the staff has as much to offer me as I have to offer them! Unfortunately, this employee is the exception to that.
posted by mchorn at 4:38 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]


It's more like she's my boss's secretary, and she's argumentative, with a variety of manifestations, about doing what I'm asking her to do with my boss's instruction.
posted by mchorn at 4:41 PM on August 20


I still think you're going to need to figure out what's motivating her behavior. Is she convinced that only she knows the right way to do things? Then flattery will likely work. Is she just not very bright and she's masking confusion with obstreperousness? Then simplifying the requests and giving lots of positive feedback will likely work. Is she challenging your authority? Then stepping down the niceness and upping the polite-but-cold professionalism might help. Etc.

I think you need to get in her head a bit more to figure out a successful strategy. If you're not good at that, maybe ask another coworker for advice?
posted by jaguar at 4:47 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]


Then, really, her boss needs to ensure she understands that providing this information is part of her job description (because it sounds like she sees your requuests as 'extra' and unnecessary work). I think you might need backup, in other words. Also, it sounds like your requests might have to be phrased in literal, concrete and specific terms.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:48 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


My first six months, I was over-the-top nice, enthusiastic and deferential to everyone. I continue to ask people to do things as if they're doing me a favor, saying please and thank you. I make myself visible and available.

You say you did this for your first six months. Do you still do it? Because in my experience this does not work long term. These people need to assist you because it's their job, not because they're doing you a favor (or feel like they're doing you a favor). At my job, the laziest people are those who are coddled in this way. So, be polite and kind and enthusiastic, but definitely drop the deferential bit.

Being supportive: no one gets ratted out to their supervisors, no matter what. If someone needs a favor, whether personal or job-related, I'm there. I do visible work to make the staff's life easier, and I take work off others' plates.

I also think this can backfire in the long term. I abjectly hate getting people's supervisors involved in stuff, but if someone is clearly incompetent and/or lazy and/or has a bad attitude, I will CC their boss on all my requests. In my experience it yields excellent results, particularly when you be friendly and kind to them whenever you see them - it helps frame you as authoritative but not jerky.

I'm asking the staff for specific information, that I don't have access to, that is needed for a specific legal reason necessary to my job, and this particular individual argues with me about why I need it, why I'm phrasing my question the way I am, why the irrelevant information she's already supplied doesn't answer my question (which it doesn't), and the like.

Whoa, this sounds super annoying, I'm sorry you have to put up with it. In light of this I'm going to double down on the above and encourage you to CC her supervisor on your requests. I doubt she will give you lip when her boss is involved. Even if you don't think her boss will get directly involved, this could motivate her to get her shit together.

My principal problem here is that I'd rather be a source of authority in and of myself, rather than by having to resort to other people.

I totally, totally get this. It might help to reframe a bit: being a good manager/source of authority includes knowing when, how, and to whom to escalate. Going above this person's head doesn't mean you lack authority, it means you know how to use your own clout.


Good luck. Stuff like this sucks, but it's also excellent practice for when you're in a more senior role! :)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:05 PM on August 20 [5 favorites]


Are you working within her work style? When I've worked with people like this in the past, I've tried to approach them like - I need A and B from you within X time frame. What's the best way to get this from you? Do you prefer me to let you know verbally or by email? How much notice do you need? How long do you need to do these things before I should start following up with you? I need certain things from you and I know that you have a lot of things to do, so what is the best way for me to work with you to get what I need while also respecting your time?

This approach has pretty much always worked for me. Often I'm dealing with people who have to do these things for me as part of their job, but approaching it almost as if they're doing a favor for me (thank you so much for all you do for me, sorry to bother you, etc) has never really hurt. As a woman, I would prefer to not always have to be deferential, but I know it's often the reality I'm dealing with that I have to be that way to navigate the work environment.

If I have genuinely worked with people to try to get things done (that they're really supposed to be doing) on their terms and it's still not working, I might have a word with my manager about it. But even then, I generally try to do it in a spirit of humility, i.e. I'm trying to do this, it hasn't been working, what can I do better in this situation, etc. Let your manager draw their own conclusions and advise you accordingly.

I wouldn't get drawn into arguments at all. If she questions why you need it, just a simple one-line explanation - I need it to finish blah blah, manager has asked me to get it, whatever. If she still argues, you could just be like - welp, that's how it is. I don't make the rules. Should I give you a half hour or so to get it all together and come back then?
posted by triggerfinger at 5:05 PM on August 20 [6 favorites]


Regarding your clarification: I suspect either you are unknowingly wording the request in a way that is difficult for her to understand the same way you do or her comprehension in general is not as good as you are assuming.

You can either just keep doing this or make a change in order to get what you want. It might be enlightening, when she's trying to argue with you about what you asked for, to - once the two of you have agreed on the desired information - ask her how she would phrase that request. You may find, in her answer, that she's using different definitions or even has been trained by this boss or another to interpret requests the way she is.

I get how frustrating it is, but management is sometimes about meeting people closer to where they are. I work with developers who have some frustratingly rigid definitions of things and it makes me crazy when we've reached the point of "I want you to go out to this database over here and I want you to get this information and I want you to SHOVE IT IN THE DATA HOLE I F'N MADE FOR IT already" and then one of them goes "is that for a new record only or an update, because if it's an update you need to have already put this other thing in your data hole?" and I realize the frustration is because we are not quite talking about the same thing and frankly, they're the ones who have the thing I need and they hate seeing me coming so I'm the one who has to be flexible.

Otherwise you just have to schedule extra time because you know you're going to have to go several rounds with this lady, and don't give her any work you don't absolutely have to. Sometimes you just don't have a choice.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:07 PM on August 20 [5 favorites]


You know, some people just can't be handled with sweetness. Create a document trail for a deliverable and let her fail. Do this several times.

Yes, I said let her fail. Then go to whomever IS her boss and show the documented pattern of non-compliance.
posted by 26.2 at 5:30 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Nthing that you never act as though asking people to do their job as though they're doing you a favor is a mistake. But you can fix that right now.

When I'm asked for something, I may ask some clarifying questions. Often someone will come to me and say: I need X, and you need to do a, b and c to get me X. I will counter with something that basically means, "if I give you X, do you really give a shit how I got it?" But I'm in IT, and we're dorky like that.

I would put your request in writing/email, and be VERY specific and very firm about what you want and when you want it.

"I need Plat 7 Census counts for adults, broken down by occupation for district 22. I will need the entire report by 3:00 PM, Thursday the 20th."

If there's a question that pertains in a clarifying way, answer it. If it's "why, no one has asked for it before," Simply say/write, "I need this for my work. Please provide it by 3:00 PM, Thursday the 20th."

Don't argue, explain if there's an honest question, and insist on the data by a specific date and time.

Don't give out water, don't punish people and for fuck's sake don't explode in rage. ESPECIALLY if this person is a represented employee. NEVER fuck with the union.

A cautionary tale. My mother who was a court administrator, lost her shit on a represented employee in front of God and everybody. She got fired and never worked in her profession again. I'm serious as death eating crackers. Never. Worked. Again. I live in fear of this happening to me.

What you describe in your demeanor comes across to me as pretty condescending. Just ask for what you need, not just from this one person, but from everyone.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:34 PM on August 20 [15 favorites]


A lot of the comments seem to take it for granted that there is way to approach this person that will work. I don't. I think it's entirely possible that she's just difficult to work with.

It's also possible that she resents a newcomer with a better education and a higher status job.

That said, I've worked with a lot of women that other men found difficult and not had trouble. It's practically a specialty of mine. If I have a secret, it's that I try to validate them by taking them and their work problems seriously. I try to work with them as colleagues with a common task to get done. Also, I try not to take offense. Don't let her get under your skin. That's a win for her. (The win isn't important except that it reinforces a bad behavior.)

If her lack of cooperation threatens your work product or your deadlines, the proper route for complaint is up your chain of command. Complaining about a lack of in-house cooperation is a manager's job.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:41 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]


This is awesome, guys, thank you so much. Agreed on that I need to get in her head a bit and figure out the best way to communicate with her; if I can't figure that out on my own (I'm the kid of psychologists, I'm hardwired to think I can figure it out on my own), you're right I absolutely need to ask.

In particular, love the suggestions to put it in writing and refuse to elaborate (beyond reasonable requests for clarification, of course). It's an objective view of the situation that no one, including me, can hide from.

Ruthless Bunny--part of what kills me about this, and why I'm so reluctant to go to her supervisor and lodge a real complaint, is actually my very strong pro-labor bent. I've just been lucky enough heretofore to work with unions who are the best of what unions can be, instead of the typical right-wing horror story.

As to those thinking I'm a ticking time bomb: I promise, it takes a more subtle mind than I'm dealing with to figure out I'm simmering. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seriously lost my temper, and it's surprised and shocked people every time.

Thanks again, all.
posted by mchorn at 5:42 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Some people are just like that. Make it easier for her to just give you what you asked for. If she tries to convince you you really want something else, agree and ask for that also. But still the original thing.

She may not ever be happy about it. That's ok. Just be very careful to check that she understands exactly what you need, and then she will either get it or not. That's an easily measured, objective thing that her boss should be interested in. Don't feel bad about ratting her out to her boss if she's exhausted her benefit-of-the-doubt and routinely can't deliver. Maybe there are reasons, who knows, that's her boss's problem. It's still a fact.

Be very careful about your attitude. I get a strong impression of "I'm better than you non-professionals but look, I'm cool!" That's probably unfair from just a short post, but if that's the case, it shows a mile away. "Rain down fury and scare her" would be the worst mistake ever. Unlikely to work, yeah, and also make new enemies of all her friends and coworkers. And me, if I was her boss and you talked to one of my employees like that.

Is it possible it isn't about you at all, though? Maybe her records aren't all they should be and she just doesn't have what you want without a big catch-up effort.
posted by ctmf at 5:48 PM on August 20 [7 favorites]


The employee's attitude sucks. It's well outside her purview to be arguing the legal necessity of a piece of information with the agency's lawyer. Time shouldn't be wasted trying to figure her out; that's no one's job. Simply escalate to her manager. Making their employees do their work is their job as a manager. You've gotten the other staff on your side, showing that you can throw an elbow if absolutely pressed might actually help you get more compliance with your requests.

Oh, and in case someone doesn't understand what "professional" vs "non-professional" means: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profession.
posted by spaltavian at 5:54 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]


the giving of a bottle of water, a cold one, as a reward for helping you.gave me pause as I read the question. how does that work exactly? do you.go get it out of a mini fridge and drop it by their office? it just seems weird and condescending and too cute by half. it makes me think you may be being off-putting in ways you are not seeing and this woman is bristling at it.
posted by jayder at 6:36 PM on August 20 [23 favorites]


Honestly, you sound like someone I wouldn't like to work with either. Tell her why you need what you need and if it doesn't matter how you get it, then leave her be. Otherwise you are just demanding someone obey you ... so you can prove you can make people obey you? That's gross, even if in the end you'll win. If her expertise is getting this info, then she may know you things you don't. Likewise, when intelligent people do something for someone, they often want context because they do a better a job with context. They can evaluate things and give you what you really asked for, even if the info is not as you expected. Basically: stop being a jerk and treating her like an automaton or a child and you'll probably both be happier. Just because you are a young woman doesn't mean you have to over assert your authority. (Ask me how I know!)
posted by dame at 6:40 PM on August 20 [9 favorites]


Wait, what do you mean by "arbitrarily alternating" between flexible and firm? You change how you want things done . . . arbitrarily? This sounds like a recipe for disaster. Management needs to be consistent, not arbitrary. Are you trying to psych out your coworkers and supervisees with mind games or something?

I sort of feel like you're patting yourself on the back for being nice to "non-professionals" even though you're a big, important attorney. Maybe she can sense that? I don't know, I just feel like your management style would drive me bonkers. If someone crosses you, you give him or her extra work in a passive-aggressive power play? Just be direct. Call people into your office. Ask what you can do to work together more effectively. The end.
posted by pineappleheart at 7:03 PM on August 20 [9 favorites]


Your clarification above:

It's more like she's my boss's secretary, and she's argumentative, with a variety of manifestations, about doing what I'm asking her to do with my boss's instruction.

suggests that she might be more comfortable dealing with your boss. In which case, you're just going to have to suck it up and let him take this one on.

Also, forgive my saying so, but you sound very condescending towards this woman, classifying her as argumentative (without giving examples), non-professional (when she is perhaps blue collar?), suggesting that she has bad work habits (again with no examples, just citing somewhat obliquely that she fits into the workplace culture that allows this), suggesting that her problem could be related to her being a non-native speaker of English (though she is apparently fluent enough to warrant a promotion, so is this a problem for her or a problem for you?), and wanting her to do things the way you ask just because you want it that way (no matter how much you argue, I want you to do it in the way I asked, because I said so. No further explanation.--an attitude that makes me see red when I run into it myself, because it subverts people's intelligence and autonomy). And you make note of her age, as though to suggest that--what?--women older than you are problematic because they resent that you are young. Furthermore, your first (thankfully rejected) approach would be to "rain down fury and scare her" because you apparently have no objectively real authority over her? (And that's not even mentioning the cold bottle of water reward, because I just do not even understand how you think this could possibly fit into a professional, firm approach to working with others.)

Honestly! Could you be more patronizing toward this woman?

I don't even know where to begin to suggest ways that you could change your own approach and attitude to make interactions with this woman more productive, hence my suggestion to hand this one over to your boss.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 7:29 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


So just to clarify: the cold water bottle thing is because our office is stuffy and no cold beverages are otherwise supplied by our shared agency. It actually is a thought-out gift in this context. Apologies if it sounds classist or condescending; it actually is my best attempt at a thoughtful expression of practical thanks. Again, should have included that in the question; sorry all, and thanks for those who see past that detail. Will be doubling down on figuring out her motivation and demonstrating appreciation appropriately, and extra-thanks to those who made suggestions in that direction.
posted by mchorn at 7:37 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


I think many, including myself, didn't look past your mentioning the cold water bottle reward simply because you chose to include it as a relevant detail (even while skipping over many details that might have truly been relevant to answering this particular question).

Again, it's a strange kind of "thanks," water, and unlikely to be motivating to the woman with whom you are having a problem.

Good luck in future dealings with her.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 7:49 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]


What dame and GoLikeHellMachine said.

Positive reinforcement: when you are helpful, I give you a cold bottle of water as thanks. When you do something exceptional, I write you a thank-you email detailing what you did that was so great, and I cc my boss and your boss.

To be honest, as a paralegal, I would find this condescending and micro-managerial. It doesn't come across as genuine. It does sound however, like you are trying to win favors so that she'll obey your next command, whatever that may be.
posted by invisible ink at 9:21 PM on August 20 [9 favorites]


I skimmed the responses so far, so apologies if this is covered but:

Is the work she's doing work absolutely no one else but her can do?

Because I would've given up on her a long time ago and just asked one of the better employees. Sure, it's "unfair" in the sense that the better employees get punished with more work, but that's how every job I've ever had has gone, because people want results, and browbeating someone who doesn't give good results is just unpleasant and a waste of time.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:01 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


why I'm so reluctant to go to her supervisor and lodge a real complaint,

But you don't have to think of it as a complaint, or as adversarial. As many have said, the aim should be establishing a shared understanding of what needs to be done, and how, with a focus on improved coordination, cooperation, and communication. Your goal should just be to clarify how this can be accomplished, directly with the employee and (I do think, crucially) with and through the support of her manager. I think people have offered great advice on how to approach this woman (i.e., with a problem-solving, "how can I help you help me" attitude); talk to her boss in the same way.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:19 AM on August 21


I promise, it takes a more subtle mind than I'm dealing with to figure out I'm simmering.

You have an attitude problem in regards to this woman. You're clearly very capable of being extremely polite. (Unlike many people, I found your description of the cold bottle of water and a thank you email to be a good example of how to show appreciation.) However, with this particular woman, all your politeness is just going through the motions, because you don't respect her. Polite motions covering a deep disrespect for someone? Not ever going to go well. People aren't dumb, they can tell when they're unliked. You have no idea whether her mind is subtle or not. You have no idea whether she is brilliant and merely doing this job while she writes the next theory of relativity on her downtime. And she has no obligation to illuminate you to the fact that you're under estimating her.

Find some actual respect for this woman instead of faux-polite. Your condescending feelings about the entire office, and this woman in particular, are on full display in this question. In your heart of hearts, you believe you're better than these people. You have a better work ethic, you care more, you're more educated, you're more polite, you're better at office politics, you're more capable.

You've only been with the agency for a year. Just because you are experienced in general, does not mean you are experienced with this agency. There are likely factors that are still invisible to you at work that you're completely dismissing and chalking up to the people around you not being as good or caring as you. Once you root out this attitude, you're going to have success with this woman.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:31 AM on August 21 [10 favorites]


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