How to handle uncommunicative colleage?
July 30, 2011 10:12 AM   Subscribe

How to handle a colleague who has raised an interpersonal issue with me via email?

Hi all,

A workplace dynamics question. A colleague sent me an email saying that she felt I was inappropriately trying to manage her and was on her back too much, and could I please stop interfering in her area of work. She then asked me an unrelated work question in the rest of the email.

I responded by asking her for a quiet word face to face, which she agreed to, and once we were alone I asked her (as constructively as possible) to explain what I'd done and how it had felt to her. It turns out that she had interpreted me asking her certain questions as critical. I explained that in fact I ask because I trust her as a source of information and I need to know what is going on in order to do my job, not because I am checking up on her. She seemed to understand that, and I think I also got a better sense of who she is and how she reacts to things, and I recognised there are some things I can do differently based on her criticism. She seemed happier after the conversation. However, I'm left wondering how to handle her in future.

Based on the way she raised the issue with me, by email and with a very firm "you do this, stop it" tone (I had to prompt her to actually discuss it with me and find out more) it seems she feels she can tell me what to do without debate. However, she's not my manager or senior to me in any way, which raises a concern for me. I would also really rather she didn't raise this type of thing by email, because it's quite unpleasant to have something like that pop up in your inbox and then have to decide what to do about it.

I told my own manager what had happened, but requested that he not approach her about it unless it happens again, as I feel it would do more harm than good at this point.

I wonder whether I should try to schedule a chat with her in a week or two to see if she feels better about how we are working together. I would also like to ask her not to email me like that again, and talk to me instead, but I'm worried about making an issue out of nothing. I very much want to know if I'm making life difficult for her and try to resolve it, but I'm not sure the best way to handle this.

Can anyone advise?
posted by Franny26 to Work & Money (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Let it go and move on. You seem to think she gained something from the conversation so give her a chance to prove that before you jump to things that haven't happened yet.
posted by NoraCharles at 10:22 AM on July 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

I would bring it up to HR. Let them know what happened and give them the email if they ask for it. Don't engage her until this is resolved.
posted by TheBones at 10:22 AM on July 30, 2011

Ignore it.

I think you handled it perfectly the first time round by avoiding email and dealing with it in person. I suspect her email was driven by her own insecurities and fear of addressing it in person, and she probably got herself wound up about these perceived slights, procrastinated about dealing with it because she didn't know how to, and worked herself up into a state, at which point she sent the email at the height of emotion.

Unless the problem recurs in a major way, escalating it will simply exacerbate it (or regenerate it, when you may have actually already solved it).
posted by inbetweener at 10:30 AM on July 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think you handled it well, and that you should continue to handle it in exactly the same way. If she does this again, you can at that point ask her not to send you emails but to speak to you in person. Let it go for now, though you should archive that email just in case.
posted by orange swan at 10:30 AM on July 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, did this coworker recently buy a clipboard? If so, you should read down the page on askme a little.

we should be asking him if he recently bought a clipboard :).

you did the right thing. unless this is some sort of pattern and she's constantly ordering you to do things via e-mail is it really worth involving HR? sometimes people have an off day and react weirdly.... it happens, nobody is perfect.
posted by canned polar bear at 10:31 AM on July 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

However, she's not my manager or senior to me in any way, which raises a concern for me.

Why? If she's the office receptionist, she still gets to demand that you stop engaging in behaviour she finds distressing. She's not assigning a job function to you or anything else that requires a hierarchical relationship; she's raising a workplace interpersonal dynamic and that has nothing to do with who is the boss of whom.

I would also really rather she didn't raise this type of thing by email, because it's quite unpleasant to have something like that pop up in your inbox and then have to decide what to do about it.

If someone has an issue with you, I don't think you get to dictate how they bring it to your attention. She raised it in the way she is comfortable with - email - and you addressed it in the way you are comfortable with - in person. This seems to have worked out well for everyone.

Stick with your plan of checking in with her in person in a few weeks and otherwise let it go. I'm sorry this episode made you uncomfortable but it's done now, you learned something useful, and it's time to let it resolve.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:32 AM on July 30, 2011 [26 favorites]

Please don't check in with her to make sure she is "OK" or anything like that.

Set a tone of professionalism, not nursemaiding in your interactions with this person from now on.
posted by jbenben at 10:33 AM on July 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

She set a boundary with you. She felt that the situation was dire enough to do so, and to do it through email. She is allowed to do that. You both handled it professionally. Move on.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:19 AM on July 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

it seems she feels she can tell me what to do without debate. However, she's not my manager or senior to me in any way, which raises a concern for me.

I really don't see that you're justified in this feeling at all. Her concern was that you appeared to be doing this to her, not the other way around. That was apparently a misunderstanding, which is now cleared up, so hooray, problem resolved.

I would also really rather she didn't raise this type of thing by email, because it's quite unpleasant to have something like that pop up in your inbox and then have to decide what to do about it.

Some people prefer to do this sort of thing face-to-face, some prefer the phone, some prefer email. All have their advantages and disadvantages. (Personally I find that I'm much less intemperate in email, where I can pause and think about exactly how I want to word something, for example.) If someone has an issue with you they get to choose how they're going to bring it up; it's not up to you.

I wonder whether I should try to schedule a chat with her in a week or two

This doesn't sound like it needs any more followup than has already occurred, and it certainly doesn't sound like you need to bring it to HR (or to your own manager, for that matter, but that ship's sailed.)
posted by ook at 11:39 AM on July 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

You both handled it well. She had an issue with you and raised it in a professional manner -- perhaps in a way that you felt was a little brusque, style-wise, but that's really small potatoes compared to stewing about it or getting passive-aggressive -- and you responded respectfully and appropriately. She felt better after your conversation, and you both understand each other a little more that can improve your interactions in the future. This is a model of how workplace conflict should be dealt with! Do NOT escalate it by going to HR or dwell on it by scheduling another chat with her just to follow up.
posted by scody at 12:25 PM on July 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can imagine feeling as you do now. It sounds like her email projected intentions onto you (incorrectly as it turns out) and was fairly commanding. I personally cannot agree it was a model because I believe she could have communicated more gently (speaking of your behavior, her interpretation, and how it made her feel) and respectfully (without giving commands).

I think you might feel better if you resolved that you are not willing to go through this again in the same way and make a plan for how to react if it happens again. That might leave you feeling protected from a repeat occurrence.

I would avoid re-escalating this situation unnecessarily. If this were a close personal relationship, I'd say "go ahead and have that conversation." But work is about preserving the delicate ability to work with all sorts of people. Home life is about building deep and resilient relationships with a select few. My guess is that you two might have some significant differences, and daylighting those differences will not be helpful. Since this is work, just let the silence be.
posted by salvia at 12:54 PM on July 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing that people have different preferred means of communication. I know that if there is something difficult or important I need to say to someone, I'm much more comfortable with writing it all out. I'm not trying to be passive-aggressive or avoidant, but instead I'm trying to communicate as effectively and tactfully as I know how. I also feel it helps me be "heard" because it gives me he chance to share my thoughts uninterrupted, without other people trying to manipulate the conversation. But once I know the recipient is aware of my point of view I'm always more than happy to talk it over with him or her as well as give my undivided attention to their point of view.

It actually sounds like you both handled the situation very well. Your coworker was well within her rights. Don't go creating drama where there doesn't need to be any.
posted by Jess the Mess at 1:27 PM on July 30, 2011

I can imagine your co-worker posting a question here along the lines of "my co-worker doesn't seem to trust me or anything I do. she's always second-guessing me and questioning my tactics. How do I get her to stop?" -and people responding, "just send her an email telling her you don't appreciate it and to lay off".

In other words, what she did was not out of line. She may have been worried about your reaction face-to-face, she may be non-confrontational, who knows at this point. At any rate, she discovered she had misunderstood. What she did was not weird or out of line, and you handled it well. Time to let it go until it actually does manifest as a pattern.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:30 PM on July 30, 2011

Response by poster: As ever, I find that I need to explain myself again after commenters run with an assumption and misunderstand what I've said. Perhaps I need to revise how I write these posts, as well as how I deal with my colleague.

Had she sent an email raising the issue and opening up a channel for resolution, that would have been one thing. What actually happened was that she jumped to conclusions, decided I was coming from a certain place, and ordered me to stop it. That's where the hierarchy thing comes in - if she were my boss, it would be straightforward to accept that dictatorial manner and follow the command. However, the fact is I have to do certain things because they are my job, and asking questions and finding out what is going on is part of that - I can't modify my job because she doesn't like it.

As for format, doing that commanding thing via email is particularly difficult because there is no opportunity to set things right without approaching her, which was pretty scary to do after getting that email. I could have sent an email back, but I believe that would have opened us up to a whole minefield of misunderstanding trying to deal with a delicate situation without non-verbal communication to support what we were trying to say to each other.
posted by Franny26 at 6:05 PM on July 30, 2011

If you are reading her email through the same oddly tinted glasses with which you seem to be interpreting the replies to this post, I would suggest going back and reading everything from the most charitable point of view you can muster. Nobody is out to get you, to malign you, or to snark here. You asked for advice, people have provided it within the parameters of the data you provided.

I do not believe anyone suggested you email her back, and in fact many people pointed out that your choice to speak to her was a fine one.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:17 PM on July 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I think this just goes to prove the point that written communication can be tricky. I don't feel that anyone is snarking or out to get me, only that *I* haven't explained myself properly, leaving gaps that have led to people falling back on assumption. These replies are generally very helpful and have given me a good variety of perspectives on the issue. Now marking as closed.
posted by Franny26 at 6:53 PM on July 30, 2011

Best answer: She emailed you because it was a medium she was comfortable with and may have felt that it was more concrete and controlled. Conversations can be slippery and email can be archived on both sides for reference. If she feels that she has resolved this with you DO NOT escalate further unless absolutely necessary, otherwise, she will presume that you cannot keep your agreement on behavior and boundary settings or that frankly, you are retaliating against her.

As much as it perturbed you to read her email, it perturbed her to write it. So, maybe some slack from both sides would be good. It is done, you have resolved the issue. Move on and do not dwell on it.
posted by jadepearl at 6:54 PM on July 30, 2011

The best thing about People Management is that you get to see human interaction in all it's wild and varied splendour.

Oh, hang on, I meant the worst thing.

A boss once said "You're not a proper People Manager until you've seriously considered having someone killed". I thought it was a joke for such a long time.
posted by fullerine at 7:39 PM on July 30, 2011

Franny26: "I think this just goes to prove the point that written communication can be tricky."

Personally, I profoundly prefer communicating via written form. I find it difficult to end conversations without repeating myself, and want the time to collect my thoughts before sharing them. Since it's asynchronous, I can spend time perfecting the delivery without eating up a colleague's time, convey the message I want to get across, and get the outcome I want. It seems to have worked for your colleague ;)

And I wonder why it is you feel that this sort of thing would be less distressing if spoken vs emailed. I've been verbally reprimanded by a boss for doing something that was perfectly fine by my UNIX cultural standards (debating the merits of 'cloud computing' with colleague who had conflated it with Software as a Service via listerv...) that apparently ruffled feathers. The reprimand certainly triggered an adrenaline fight or flight residue all day, and left me reanalyzing the situation instead of getting work done. Not a great day, that one. I don't think the boss realized how much impact it would have, and I don't think it'd be any different if a PM I don't report to had done it instead. At least if it shows up in your inbox, you can pretend you haven't read it yet while you collect yourself and prepare for a calm discussion in person at a later date.
posted by pwnguin at 8:48 PM on July 30, 2011

Mod note: question is not anon, answers that don't fit the AskMe guidelines can be emailed to the OP, or possibly reconsidered.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:38 AM on July 31, 2011

Response by poster: @pwnguin that's a good point about gathering thoughts before sending / replying. Reconsidering the situation, if she had addressed me in the height of emotion it would probably have been harder for me to respond calmly and would have been more unpleasant for both of us. I found it tough because I was taken aback by the misunderstanding and wanted to go back and sort that out, and her medium and style left no room for doing so. But at the end of the day, we did that (I hope). I think the drawback of the email was that I felt very isolated in receipt of it - though on the flipside, your experience of being publicly attacked sounds worse.
posted by Franny26 at 8:00 AM on July 31, 2011

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