How do I collaborate with my bossy coworker and her nervous supervisee?
June 14, 2012 9:46 AM   Subscribe

How do I cope with a coworker bossing me when she's not my boss? Today my coworker straight up told me that she was delegating a specific project to me and her supervisee "to free up [her] time for other things." Although I want to work on the project, I don't want her thinking she can just delegate work to me whenever she gets too busy. Bonus: I’m finding it difficult to work with her supervisee.

The bossy coworker, let's call her "Jael," and I are professionals at the same level in our small, flat organization. Both Jael and I work immediately under the Director; Jael has one other person in her department, her supervisee "Ham," while I am a one-person department. Due to weirdnesses of seniority and office size, Ham and I share an office, while Jael has her own office.

My work and Jael/Ham's work overlap, so it's natural for us to collaborate on some projects. Unfortunately my philosophy about what the end product of these projects should look like often conflicts with Jael/Ham's philosophy (Ham pretty much always agrees with Jael). This both motivates me to work on the projects (because I don't like the finished product when Jael and Ham do all the work) and makes it difficult for us to collaborate.

And then there's Ham. Ham is a very sensitive, nervous guy and when we disagree (or when Jael and I disagree) it seems to upset him. I don't think I'm being particularly aggressive, but when I disagree with his ideas or I'm not happy with the work he's done, I don't lie and say that I think it's great, I point out things that I would change (probably I could do better about picking at least one or two things that I like, and I will try to do that going forward). Plus I don't really trust him to criticize my work, because he is so conflict-averse. He just always says that he thinks my work is great, and if I want to get any actual feedback I have to ask a lot of leading questions about what I think his actual problems with my work might be. It's exhausting.

I don't really want to involve the Director - at my last performance review we talked a little about my work relationship with Jael and the Director basically said that Jael is not my boss and I don't need to do what Jael says, but that Jael would probably continue to try to tell me what to do. The Director didn't really give me any tips on *how* to not do what Jael says without causing trouble.

So: any hints on how to deal with either of these folks? We are all probably going to be working here for the next year or more. I suppose I could just refuse to collaborate with them but I worry that that would just make things even more uncomfortable, and anyway I like to have input into their projects.
posted by Sock Career-Puppet to Work & Money (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"Sorry, Jael, I can't take this on; my schedule's full."

See, the thing is that your caring about how she does her projects makes you the hostage of her whims. Get out of the "fixer" role, because she's taking advantage of it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:55 AM on June 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

In this case, despite wanting to work on this project, you need to tell Jael that you do not have time to work on HER project.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:56 AM on June 14, 2012

Do you think Jael is crystal clear about your level being equal with hers? The shared office thing seems weird and may make her feel her position is higher.

I don't suppose pulling her aside (away from Ham) and saying something like, "I know I share an office with Ham but my position is actually equal to yours. I appreciate your wanting my input on this project but I am working on something else right now."
posted by Glinn at 9:58 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreed with responders above - you need to distance yourself (and be seen to be distancing yourself) from projects that are not directly related to your work.

That works for projects you aren't involved in, but what about the projects where it would be "natural" to collaborate?

One thing you haven't made clear in your question is how your negotiations go when working on a joint project with these people. How do you go about arguing for your approach to a project? Does Jael simply take the "my way or the highway" approach, or is she willing to at least discuss?

More information about those kinds of discussions would be helpful.
posted by LN at 10:00 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I can recommend the Dilbert approach, but if even the Director has told you not to do work for this person, perhaps this level of blunt is necessary.
posted by namewithoutwords at 10:04 AM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Plus I don't really trust him to criticize my work, because he is so conflict-averse. He just always says that he thinks my work is great, and if I want to get any actual feedback I have to ask a lot of leading questions about what I think his actual problems with my work might be. It's exhausting.

It may be exhausting for you, but it sounds like it's validating for Ham. You have positioned yourself as someone who is actively seeking Ham's feedback. Seek that from your supervisor instead.

As for the project that you want to take on but don't want Ham to delegate to you, I would send an email to your supervisor, copying Ham, saying "Ham's plate is full and he asked me if I could take on this project. My current workload is such that I am comfortable taking it on with no worries, but I want to check with you first since you are my supervisor. If you approve, I'll work directly with Ham to ensure a smooth transition." That way you make it clear who reports to whom, where your priorities lie, and how awesome you are at juggling priorities.
posted by headnsouth at 10:05 AM on June 14, 2012

Best answer: Huh. I kind of have the opposite take on this from the other commenters: Take the project. Take it over. Make it very clear you don't need her on the project, since she's so busy. Make it very, very clear to everyone involved that this is now Your Project and you are overseeing Ham's work thereon. Think of this as the first step in taking over some of her duties and growing your own influence.

If you turn her down, she sounds like the kind of person who will bitch loudly about you "letting her down" and so on. She may even WANT you to turn this down, so she can do exactly that.

If you can't collaborate with her, and you don't want to give her the opening to screw up the project and/or complain that you screwed her over by not accepting it, I say take the third option, and ride the project as your very own one-woman show (with Ham assistance on the boring/tedious bits).

Also, on the Ham front, I think you would be well-served by giving him positive feedback. It's extremely difficult to work in an environment where you only get feedback about what you're doing wrong, especially for people just out of college (I'm guessing that may be the case for him?). He could blossom under some more directed positive feedback about what you want him to keep doing right.
posted by pie ninja at 10:15 AM on June 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

headnsouth: "I would send an email to your supervisor, copying Ham"

The Supervisor's essentially made it clear he doesn't want to get involved. Don't be the one to drag him into this. Use a little corporate judo.

The basic advice to decline the next project she dumps on you is good, but I'd further add that you do not owe her an explanation why, nor should you feel compelled to say anything other than "I'm busy with my own work" if she asks.

If she can't take the hint, what's she going to do? That's right, raise a stink with your supervisor. Let her be the one to piss him off for dragging him in.
posted by mkultra at 10:18 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd ask the director to change office allocation. It is appropriate for Jael and Ham to share an office. Having you in there cuts down on some of the work Jael has to do in supervising Ham, and it also increases her perception that you're more equal to her subordinate than to her.
posted by catlet at 10:19 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I know that just not working with Jael would be the simplest thing, and I have taken that approach before ("Oh, I don't think I have the time to devote to that project right now. Can't wait to see what you guys come up with!"), but the honest truth is I don't have enough work to do and at this time of the year it's either work on her stuff or spend another couple of hours a day of MeFi. I'd also like to do this because it's something that I can mention on my resume or point to in an annual review, and it gives me a good reason to learn some new skills.

When Jael said that she was "delegating" today I told her that since it was her department's project I didn't understand why she wasn't taking a more active role; I also told her that if she really wanted to delegate it I would be happy to do the project on my own but that I didn't think she would like the result. She's not so much "My way or the highway" as "What highway?" I think she's very used to working with Ham, who is very eager-to-please and checks in with her constantly, and so she has gotten used to not having to engage with other viewpoints.

I'm asking Ham for feedback because we need the final product to not look like it was made by two people with completely different points of view, and the only ways I can think of for the two of us to accomplish that are for me to steamroll Ham into doing it my way (which might be easier, but is really not my style) or for us to compromise. I can't compromise if I don't know what he wants me to compromise on. But getting him to talk about what he wants is incredibly frustrating.

Also: Ham is actually *not* right out of college - he's been at this institution for longer than I have (a few years), and in our profession for about the same amount of time as me. He is, however, an odd duck.

I agree, it would make vastly more sense for Jael and Ham to share an office. This is unlikely to happen both for political reasons and because I have another office in another building that I use sometimes.
posted by Sock Career-Puppet at 10:23 AM on June 14, 2012

I don't really want to involve the Director - at my last performance review we talked a little about my work relationship with Jael and the Director basically said that Jael is not my boss and I don't need to do what Jael says, but that Jael would probably continue to try to tell me what to do. The Director didn't really give me any tips on *how* to not do what Jael says without causing trouble.

Ask the Director for tips on how to not do what Jael says without causing trouble. Yes, you don't want to involve him. But this situation is exactly what he's there for.

Note that this may not actually fix anything, but based on what the Directors says or doesn't say should give you an idea of how to deal with Jael.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:25 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't need to tell Jael why you're not going to work on this or any other project. Just tell her, "I'm not going to do that." If she has a problem with it, tell her to talk to the Director. As Brandon says, that's what directing is.

On the other hand, you want to work on this project. So do it. She's not the Supreme Court -- this doesn't set a precedent that cannot be overturned, that she can "delegate" to you whenever she wants. However, send her an email with a comprehensive list of what you are going to do on the project. When she signs off on that, send it to your Director (and cc it to Jael). Take the credit. Every email and status update on that project that you send to Jael gets cc'd to the Director. If you come into conflict over the project, ask your Director to direct.

Dealing with Ham is going to take time. You're not in his comfort zone. Devote effort to doing so -- yes, it will take a lot of effort. If he's not worth the effort, then just dump him and tell Jael that you're doing so. If he is worth the effort, then you grit your teeth and get through it.
posted by Etrigan at 10:34 AM on June 14, 2012

I don't really want to involve the Director - at my last performance review we talked a little about my work relationship with Jael and the Director basically said that Jael is not my boss and I don't need to do what Jael says, but that Jael would probably continue to try to tell me what to do. The Director didn't really give me any tips on *how* to not do what Jael says without causing trouble.

Tell her the Director specifically advised you of that and that you will not be doing her work for her. If she has an issue, its time for a three-way meeting with the director.

Fuck this lady.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:48 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Based on your followup I'd agree with the "take the project, take it over, make it your project" approach.

"Sure, my department will handle that project for you. Send me all the info, and I'll coordinate with Director on final outcome." then it's your project, and you don't need to report status back to her. If she asks for status, just say it's going fine, thankyouverymuch.
posted by rich at 11:01 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Based on your followup I'd agree with the "take the project, take it over, make it your project" approach.

With this caveat: Would it be a problem if she were going to the Director about you?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:06 AM on June 14, 2012

How about tentatively agreeing to take the project, but documenting this in an email to your supervisor cc-ing Jael: Jael has asked me to take over x project. Would you please reassign departmental responsibility to [your dept name]? I'll be sending you [weekly/biweekly/monthly] project updates with progress made. Cheers, sock career puppet.
posted by smirkette at 11:17 AM on June 14, 2012

Best answer: I would suggest that you stall Jael by saying you will need to have a look at your workload before giving her a definitive answer as to whether or not you'll take on her work to reinforce that it's not a superior-subordinate relationship, and to cut her out of any communication loops that aren't essential once you take over by emailing anyone else who is involved saying something like, "I'm the lead on X project now, please direct any questions or information about it to me."

Also, you're lucky that your boss has given you an explicit OK to shoot Jael down. This means that when setting boundaries with her, it's okay to err on the side of being more aggressive.

With someone like her, you may not get to a point where the two of you see eye to eye, you may just get to the point where one of you doesn't get what she wants from the other and winds up thinking that the other person is kind of an asshole. That's okay, just make sure this person is her.

Jael probably doesn't have many tricks up her sleeve to push back with other than sidestepping the conversation, brandishing anger, or guilt-tripping you. Just don't play along; press the issue, remain calm, and/or remind her that she's actually the one who's making a big deal out of things if she tells you she doesn't see what the big deal is.
posted by alphanerd at 11:35 AM on June 14, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, guys, you've given me some good ideas. I'm basically going to take the approach that I'm doing this project because I want to do this project. Some of my annoyance is whiny "Jael's not being fair/doesn't respect me!" stuff. But at the end of the day I know I don't have to do what she says, and our boss agrees that I don't have to do what she says, and ultimately Jael treating me like her subordinate is more likely to cause problems for Jael than for anyone else. Her opinion isn't particularly important to me either professionally or personally.

I don't think our boss really cares about who does the project, so long as it gets done, and I can make sure the boss knows who actually did the work.

Suggestions on working with Ham are still welcome (really, he could be a couple of weeks worth of Asks all on his own). I'm generally reluctant to dispense diagnoses but he seems like he suffers from pretty severe social anxiety. One form this takes is he seems to want to agree with everyone all the time (which I think Jael appreciates!), and he will reframe the question in increasingly tortuous (and less-useful) ways to make it seem like we agree. I don't want to upset him by criticizing his work but I also don't want to do things his way. Short of dropping Zoloft in his water bottle or leaving copies of Feeling Good lying around on his desk, any suggestions?
posted by Sock Career-Puppet at 12:01 PM on June 14, 2012

Well, the key to Ham is not to put him in the position of only being a yes-man. Ask him open-ended questions, brain-stormy things. "Where do you think is a good place to start?" and things like that.
posted by rhizome at 12:15 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You seem already to have decided to take over the project, but if it's still an option i'd be very tempted to say to Jael, "I think you might have been given that project to free up my time for other things. If you're not able to handle it you might want to discuss it with the Supervisor." Let her own her own problems.
posted by muhonnin at 12:22 PM on June 14, 2012

My response to this sort of thing has always been, "I'll be happy to help you once you convince my boss that it's a priority for me."
It's always been 100% successful, if I don't want to do it I never hear from them again. If I want to do it then I also mention it to my boss and it gets done.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 12:33 PM on June 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

As for working with Ham - assuming you are taking over the project, have a little sit-down with him. Be brutally honest...tell him you value his contributions, that multiple perspectives and opinions often come together to create a better end product, and that you expect him to form his own opinions which may often differ from your own.

In short, work to create a culture (at least in your office, or for this project) that embraces multiple points of view. If he sees that you do value and incorporate his ideas, instead of shooting him down, he will eventually feel empowered to speak up more often and stop yessing you all the time.
posted by trivia genius at 1:15 PM on June 14, 2012

In re dealing with Ham -- how difficult would it be to work with him via email? I know that you share an office, but perhaps for Ham-related issues, you make an excuse to go to your other office, then send him an email saying, "Hey, I just thought of something. Blah blah blah, what do you think? Send me some suggestions."
posted by Etrigan at 2:03 PM on June 14, 2012

I recommend you disengage from Jael on most things. Leave personalities out of it; your relationship is about the work, and that's all. If she has projects, and gives you a project you want to do, take the project, listen politely to anything she says about it, and do it the way you think it should be done. Save a copy of your completed work, so that if she changes it, and it looks crap, you can show Director your version. Then let it go. You can't control her program; she can't control yours.

Jael and Ham say they want your input on their work. They don't. They want praise and validation. It's like a friend saying "How do you like my haircut?" So, check in with them. You want me to look at the FooBar project? Sure. Did you want a critique, or are you sharing your completed work? If the work you do is of the sort that gets critiqued, or peer-reviewed, consider setting up some critique meetings, with solid rules.

Jael isn't listening to your words. Jael is listening to your attitude and actions. Act like a peer, know, without a doubt, that Jael is a colleague, not a supervisor. If Ham reports to Jael, then just be kind; Ham sounds like a nervous wreck. Give Ham useful training, like how to do specific techniques in your software, or where to look up specifications. This sets you up as a mentor, which helps define you as not at Ham's level in the hierarchy.

Show your boss that you can totally handle this; be professional and calm. Your boss surely has more important things to deal with. The occasional knowing look when Jael is being bossy is deeply satisfying. Think of ways your boss can coach and mentor you that are really useful; that shows your boss that you can handle more responsibility.

On shared projects, manage the project. Have specifications, define the styles to use in Word, or the fonts and brushes in Adobe, etc. It's a lot of work to do this, but it's good practice for career advancement. Meet regularly to review the work to date, make notes, and request changes as needed. You can help Ham here by giving him documented requests of what you want, and praising when it works well, and refining the request when it doesn't. Lots of Let me show you how this part should work and what you did here is exactly what I'm looking for. What helped you understand what I wanted? Your feedback helps me define it better for the next project.
posted by theora55 at 3:28 PM on June 14, 2012

You refuse. Seriously. You say "No, sorry, too busy with my own stuff for that." If she persists you say "You're not my boss, okay? You don't get to tell me what to do. You ask. Nicely."

If this pisses her off, so be it. Sometimes, with people like this, that's the only way to get them to cut their nonsense out. They're playing games and counting on you to be too timid to refuse. Don't be. Refuse to play.
posted by Decani at 3:31 PM on June 14, 2012

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