Difficult Person at Work
September 22, 2011 1:56 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with a difficult person at work? Main question of the day: Do I cc this particular email to my higher boss?

Background: I work in a very technical field. We work in teams of about 6 or 7 people. I have about 2 years of experience, and it takes about 5 years of experience before one can really function independently.

This is a small company (about 20 technical key staff, and the rest on support), we don't really have HR people. It used to be a really nice company because everyone was extremely capable and very, very smart. In technical work, there's really no capacity to bullshit your way through, and because it's such a small company, you can't really hide your way through the layers of beaucracy either. You either know your stuff or you don't. Some of us have advanced degrees in sciences from top universities and the others have glittering careers. I will also say that I'm fairly valued member of the team.

However, due to a particularly nasty takeover, a lot of excellent people left the company. We have hired a lot of contractors to fill in the gap, and promoted a lot of staff people to "project manager" level.

Anyway, I'm a staff member here. But because I don't have that much experience, this particular project was given to one of the contractors, with the idea that I would shadow the contractor.

The said contractor is very experienced and has done similar projects like this before. However, she is stubborn, very aggressive, and not receptive to new ideas, especially from someone as young as I am. I don't think this is particularly personal though.

This is my first time doing a project like this. So I'm happy for the experience and I will admit that I do not know as much 'practical' stuff as someone with 10 years of experience. But I do know all about and the ins-and-outs of statistics and mathematics that goes into the practical part of the project, and she does not know shit. Her experience is based on what she has seen and done in the past, and the general way of just doing this. This is fine for life in general. This is NOT fine for a highly-technical project like this, especially when I'm quality-checking this at every step.

The project manager has tried to remain diplomatic and neutral. Which is fine for life but, again, not fine for a technical project like this, where there is a more correct way of doing something and a less correct way of doing something. The other people on the team are also contractors and have tried to more-or-less remain neutral.

Anyway, she and I are now at the stage where we are fairly hostile and we cc the rest of the team on all our emails. However, today, she has sent me a particularly inane email (which shows her lack of understanding of statistics and mathematics), again, cc-ed to the rest of the team.

I will reply to it calmly and very deliberately. But I would like to go one step further and cc my response to my higher manager (the manager who hired me). And then I would like to follow up with another meeting with higher manager where I will a) express my concerns, and b) take the lead in this type of technical projects from now on (as opposed to shadowing). MY QUESTION: Is this wise? The higher manager is generally above all this day-to-day matters.

I would ask another senior person on the team for their advice, but the people whom I would have asked advice of and respected have since left the company. Hence, I come to you, MeFites!

p.s. Please trust me when I say that although I have 2 years work experience, my knowledge of statistics and mathematics are far, far superior to whatever this contractor is doing.
posted by moiraine to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When I said "Is this wise?", I meant, would this look particularly petty?
posted by moiraine at 2:03 PM on September 22, 2011

It's obviously a difficult situation, but trying to get your higher-ups' attention probably won't work. They either won't notice your cc'd email or will just see the situation as one more problem that's now been created. The outcome you must be hoping for, that they'll see you're right and spring to your defense with righteous indignation is very unlikely. The wisest course might be to try to do your best on this project while creating some alternate career plans and doing some job hunting in the evenings. Also keep in mind that things can change at any minute: the contractor could be fired or quit, the project could be cancelled, etc.: if you can just keep going as calmly as possible you can outlive this episode in your career.
posted by Paquda at 2:06 PM on September 22, 2011

so wait wait wait-

if she is wrong and you go allong with it, will it cost your company money?

If the answer is YES- do not CC the boss, take all your facts and figures to him privately and let him know the score. Focus on that, not the snipping at each other stuff. Let him know that you are concerned because she isn't receptive and ask him how he would like you to handle it.

The most profession, least drama filled way to deal with conflict is quickly, politely, with confidence and with as few witnesses as possible.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:08 PM on September 22, 2011 [17 favorites]

Strings of CCs don't work. There is no guarentee boss will even see the problem or even know enough detail to see who is wrong and who is right. Do you have one on ones with your boss? You need to tell your boss directly you have concerns about the project.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:11 PM on September 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh and stop taking her bait when in public (or all your team is CC'd). Redirect, state facts, don't try for any low-blows.

All these people that are watching you two get into a grudge match will remember it forever, and who knows who can be the one to decide if you get a job or promotion or raise in 10 years.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:14 PM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sorry for threadsitting, but my intention with the CC is that:

1) My email, with a long polite list of the issues with the contractor's question, will hopefully illustrate that I have sufficient knowledge and experience to lead this particular part of the project.

2) Hopefully this brings to attention that I'm good enough to do similar projects like this. My higher manager is so hands-off that we don't have performance reviews, we just kinda do things. I was hired straight out of grad school, and kept in this same team, so I feel people don't take me seriously sometimes or remember me as the fresh inexperienced wide-eyed new hire.

3) This will be a taster to the next email, in which I will ask for a personal meeting addressing my concerns and ask to lead future similar projects.

4) Also, I have been feeding stuff to the contractor for this project and I don't want her to take all the credit for this (which she kinda has...).
posted by moiraine at 2:18 PM on September 22, 2011

Speaking as a Project Manager, there are many times where we need to rely on the expertise of the SMEs on the project (which you are, in this case). Agreed that PM should not be taking credit for your work, and PM should also be listening to your expertise. If these things are not happening, you need to talk with PM (and if that fails, you can escalate).

Your wanting to take a more leadership role on the next project is admirable, but slagging the current PM is not the way to make that happen. Partner with the PM, do what you need to do to make this project a success, and make sure that your boss understands the active role that you are taking on the project. That will help to ensure that when the next project opportunity comes along, your boss will consider you for it.
posted by noahv at 2:23 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

*If* you decide cc some higher up, then you should only cc the project member and none of the other members on the team. And, *if* you decide to do this, you might consider sending a brief reply to all the original recipient stating that you will reply directly to the sender and not include them as they are not involved in this particular argument.
posted by aroberge at 2:34 PM on September 22, 2011

I agree with noahv, you should not be accusatory. Say, "I am worried the approach we are taking may be wrong" not "so and so is wrong". You want to make the project a success without burning people in the process. People remember that sort of stuff and may have reservations about you in the future.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:39 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, one last thing. Don't worry about credit so much in the short term that it may appear you are trying to shove people out of the spotlight. This isn't a sprint, it is a marathon. You will be working for the next 30+ years, you have more than enough time to shine.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:43 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you need to separate out three different issues here:

1: how to deal with the contractor on this particular project.
2: how to deal with the contractor going forward.
3: how to advance in your career and get more responsibility.

Mixing up 1, 2, and 3 is NOT going to work.
posted by yarly at 2:47 PM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

E-mail is a terrible way to communicate issues like this. Nuance is lost, words can me misinterpreted, the wrong person can end up with the e-mail and so on. If it's serious, ask for a meeting with the boss.
posted by cnc at 2:54 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also work in a highly technical profession; one that has some contractors that love to get into pissing matches with the locals. Here is how I handle these type of issues. Next time you notice her doing something wrong/grossly inefficient say:

1) "What are you doing here?" {referring to whatever you think that she is doing wrong}
2) "Hmm, why are you using that method?"
3) "May I make a suggestion?" {explain your way of doing it}

The reason that the "What? Why? Suggestion" method works so well is that many technicians don't actually know why they have chosen a particular solution. Maybe they saw someone do it in the past or it just "seemed" like the right method (we are all guilty of this at some point). The simple act of explaining can bring out all sorts of flaws in their logic that their brain may have just glossed over. Then when you make your suggestion, it feels more like you are contributing to their thought process then shutting it down. Never doubt the power of the phrase "That is a really good Idea, I hadn't thought about it that way! I would have just done {insert your method here}". This opens up the conversation to discussing your suggestion without discounting hers.

Now, if she really wants to be difficult, then she can always say "NO! I don't want to hear your suggestion". If she chooses that route then she has just chosen to stonewall you. In a team environment you are obligated to at least listen to other people's ideas, that is the point of the team. This is the kind of stuff that you discreetly bring to your boss ("A member of my team refuses to listen to any of my suggestions about making our project more efficient both time and money wise. How would you like me to handle this?).

Also, I would consider keeping a detailed log of everything that you do at that company: every piece of code, pictures of everything that you fabricate, every idea that you suggested logged and dated. Keep it in your desk drawer at work so it doesn't look like theft of intellectual property. This way when it is time for you to talk with your boss about more responsibility or a raise, you have a cornucopia of evidence of your good work. Also, it has a second benefit of showing all the "behind the scenes" work that you did that others took credit for (that you are now presenting without looking petty).
posted by Shouraku at 3:27 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Document, document, document, with an emphasis on cost issues to your company if her plan is taken the direction she says. Customer outcomes should also be emphasized. Basically, you are saying that we will take a bath if we do it her way.

I'd pull the boss aside for a gentle heart-to-heart after you've fully documented with a focus on actual decisions focusing on the technical aspects that she's getting wrong and the costs and negative customer outcomes.

Ignore the personal side. Focus on the work.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:32 PM on September 22, 2011

You need to be way more direct. If you want to involve your boss, fine, but copying him or her on this email is the worst way to do it and will make you look bad.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:56 PM on September 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Are these issues that would be uncovered in testing down the line, assuming testing is done by a third party?

Then let testing uncover them.

I've been in situations where the developer/architect kept saying "It won't work" and management didn't listen. It went to production anyway. And it didn't work. And no one paid any kind of price.

Of course, this assumes you are not in the medical field.
posted by andreap at 4:09 PM on September 22, 2011

Never go to your boss with problems unless you have a proposed solution as well. Distill exactly what outcome you'd like and how you propose to get there. Even if it means saying, "I'd like us to meet with PM to go over the stat/math issues." Frame ALL of this as related to the PROJECT, not the person. Never make it personal. Going to your boss whining about a coworker is a good way to make sure you don't get promoted.

Do not talk about how you are the expert and she doesn't know squat, nor how you would like to take the lead on the next project. That is a topic for another day, perhaps during review time.
posted by wwartorff at 4:14 PM on September 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just as an aside to this particular problem...

"My higher manager is so hands-off that we don't have performance reviews, we just kinda do things."

Find a way to get performance reviews! I've had bosses who were terrible about it, but if I insisted, then I got regular feedback, and that's helped me to be better at my job.
posted by epersonae at 4:42 PM on September 22, 2011

CC:ing the boss is a bad idea. It's weirdly passive-aggressive confrontational. If it all must occur via email, write to her, then ask to meet with the boss and forward the message from your sent mail as background or follow-up to the discussion. But I'd instead recommend that you write something short and diplomatic, like "let's sit down and discuss the specifications here, because I do continue to have some fairly significant concerns based on my live load calculations," and then I'd direct that desire to put everything down on paper into a memo or outline for that meeting.
posted by salvia at 10:24 PM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

* that meeting = the one with your PM or boss, to occur before you meet with Contractor again (hopefully you can pull them into that meeting to help establish a productive working relationship wherein your knowledge can be respected)
posted by salvia at 10:26 PM on September 22, 2011

Okay, thanks all. I have come to my senses. CCing is a bad way to go. But I'll bring this up in a separate meeting with the project manager and the higher manager, laying out issues and the fact that I can do a much better job for the fraction of what we're paying the contractor.

Have tried speaking with contractor in a very constructive way, but she's very aggressive and not open to anything.

The project that we're talking about can cost up to about one hundred million dollars just to test an idea and will run up to billions in cashflow. What I'm doing is a fraction of the entire project, but our team will be the people responsible for bringing about the project in the first place (with everyone else picking up the rest of the work and carrying out operations). I guess if I were part of a much larger organization, I would have just left it as it is and not even bring it up, but we only have twenty people total and six people in this team.
posted by moiraine at 1:34 AM on September 23, 2011

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