Working with an overbearing, disorganized colleague
April 7, 2016 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I have a senior colleague who is dedicated, bright, well-meaning, and hard-working, but extremely scatter-brained and not particularly respectful of other people's opinions. I started this job recently, and worked with this person in a team for the first few months. It made me miserable and affected my performance and health. I have to work with him again soon. How do I keep my sanity?

I'm a new professor in the US. We team-teach some classes, jointly planning the syllabus, lectures, and homework, with 2-4 other professors. One of the people on my team last semester was a senior person, popular with students and faculty.

He was never satisfied with anyone's preparation of the materials, and always made significant changes. This resulted in lectures or homeworks being changed the morning before we had to deliver them, with a lot of our work going to waste. Or, even worse, if he didn't have enough time, he would tell us what to change -- at 1 am. We had multiple midnight Skype calls, and one of us would have to stay up all night making his changes.

Keep in mind we had to lecture the next morning with almost no time to prepare. I do badly when I don't get enough sleep. It would be one thing if it was an occasional emergency. This happened all the time, and was totally avoidable. He'd promise to do his tasks by a certain time, but almost never kept to the deadline. This resulted in a tense situation where we'd be twiddling our thumbs waiting for him to finish, and then rush to pick up his slack when he was late.

It can't be that all of our input was so bad, because we all teach individual courses too, and do them quite well. It's just that he wanted everything to be done his way, from the major ideas to the colors and fonts on the powerpoint slides. (!) Yes, many of his changes were good, but the benefit was overwritten by having to give the lecture bleary-eyed.

The team setup is not supposed to be hierarchical. It's implicitly understood that junior professors will defer to the wisdom of senior folks, but we're all supposed to have a say. However, I and at least one of the other professors (mid-career) felt we lost all control over the class partway through. It's hard to be invested when 90% of your input is discarded, your time is not valued, and you're treated like a glorified TA.

The situation was even more of a weird dynamic because everyone except him was a woman.

Anyway, I'll be teaching with the same team again this fall. How do I politely suggest a change in the way we do things? He's not going to get any more organized, but I'd like to divide up tasks so we're not all adversely affected by his procrastination. He wants to be in control of every aspect, so he's not going to agree easily.

The trouble is, the other professors' attitudes seem to be that he's so brilliant, he should get a pass on this. They've worked with him before and basically got used to it. So I'll likely not have much support, within or outside the team, unless I can make a strong case and convince them. Also, he's tenured, and none of us are -- I think this is partly why everyone else is resigned to his attitude.

Note: Getting a different teaching assignment is not possible. Neither is accepting the status quo and sucking it up, because I'm already having panic attacks thinking about it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"Fair warning - I will not be available for Skype calls at 1am this semester. How can we change the way we did things last semester so that we are not making changes last minute?" Let Professor Brilliant come up with the plan, since everyone else on the team is so effing wrong about everything anyway.

Stick to your boundaries.
posted by vignettist at 1:38 PM on April 7, 2016 [28 favorites]

Seriously, vignettist is right: stick to your boundaries.

It seems to me that a lot of the problem is that the requests/demands are coming at odd hours and at the very last minute. If they were more timely, there would be room for discussion and mutual input. But when you're on Skype at 1am the morning before class, you really don't have the opportunity for some sort of "Well, let me give you my input" style of conversation. Making it clear that you cannot be available for such last minute events will help.

Some possibilities to consider:
1) What if he just makes the changes at the last minute anyway? Well, that's his problem. Cover your ass and don't take blame. If some of the homework / powerpoint slides / etc gets messed up, that's on him.

2) What if you are the weirdo for refusing to have late, last minute discussions? Again, cover your ass. In academia, there often is this incredibly toxic assumption that your job is your life and that you should be willing to do whatever whenever for the sake of your job... But that's bullshit. Talk to your chair--make clear that your job duties do not require 1am Skype meetings. Do you have a union? Because, if so, your union would be very very interested in any pressure to participate in such ridiculous bullshit.

Really, this is bullshit. This is his bullshit. Set up your boundaries so his bullshit doesn't become your bullshit. You deserve to have reasonable work/life boundaries.
posted by meese at 1:47 PM on April 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

"Please send me any suggestions for changes by 9 a.m. on Thursday, 21 April. Due to a number of other commitments I will not be able to make any changes after that."

Then ignore anything sent between the deadline and the lecture. Do this every week.

I am never logged into Skype unless I am expecting a call but you should definitely not be logged in late night.

You should be able to solve the procrastination this way. Solving the lack of input is much harder, and maybe impossible if you don't get buy-in from the other instructors.
posted by grouse at 1:47 PM on April 7, 2016 [18 favorites]

A few suggestions.

- involve the other professors in this if at all possible. it's quite likely that this guy is team teaching because he is awful and can't actually do it on his own but he's also brilliant and has some other value to the university so you guys are all being collectively tossed under the bus. So, talk to your other co-teachers and work on some strategies.

- some of those could include being unavailable for contact literally AT ALL after what you all determine are "work hours" and let mister disorganized have a hissy fit. So not just "I'm not available at 1 am" but seriously "I am not available after 7 pm because $REASONS" Practice saying some version of "That's not possible" and then stick to it. Turn off Skype, don't respond to his inquiries. If you're a united front, there's not much he can do here.

- If that's hard consider an in person or Skype meeting at a regular time to do "final" revisions on slides. I assume you're in some sort of field where you change the slides dramatically from semester to semester? Otherwise I'd be even more inclined to say "It was fine last semester, I've changed the dates and now it's going to be fine this semester"

- could also include breaking up the lectures so that people have responsibility for "chunks" of them and then at least you'd only have to deal with a fraction of the frenetic garbage that you do now.

- Find your power in this scenario. He literally Can Not Make You Do This even though his behavior is shitty and bullying, you are not unsafe. Figure out what is pushing your buttons for you personally (I'd hate this too, I understand, but everyone has different "Why this makes me panic" triggers) and see if you can address that with yourself
posted by jessamyn at 1:51 PM on April 7, 2016 [11 favorites]

Yeah, the reason he still does this is that someone invariably capitulates. You can protect yourself by simply not being available, but the only way his behavior will change is if it simply doesn't work, which requires a united front. I suggest sounding out your colleagues, figuring out who has the strongest personality amongst those who hate this behavior, and trying to influence them into mounting a proper rebellion.

Which, by the way, is probably how your senior colleague will perceive this. Which is why I think you probably need a strong personality to lead your group: it's not going to be easy to maintain your collective position for an entire academic term.
posted by SMPA at 2:04 PM on April 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I suggest sounding out your colleagues, figuring out who has the strongest personality amongst those who hate this behavior, and trying to influence them into mounting a proper rebellion.

Yes, this seems like the most plausible line of action to get useful results. Your mid-career colleagues are falling down on the job! It's their job to protect you, as the untenured person in the mix. I wonder if you might be able to rouse them, or one of them, to action by gently introducing that point into the conversation. Though they're used to sucking it up on their own behalf, it's I guess possible that they haven't quite realized the implications of leaving you to do the same in your more vulnerable position, and might step up for you where they wouldn't for themselves.
posted by redfoxtail at 2:21 PM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

One possible response to a long list (ABCDE) of last-minute changes is "Excellent, thank you for the feedback. I'll have about an hour of time that I can work on this before class. I'm hearing you say that item C is the most important, right? I will make time to change item C. In future, please consider that your feedback is most valuable when we actually have time to implement it."
posted by aimedwander at 2:24 PM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


I would be up front at the very beginning, when you're planning the syllabus, and say, "I will submit my items for the class at thus and so time. If there is something lacking or incorrect, I'll be more than happy to make corrections so long as I get the information within 12 hours before class." Then stick to it.

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you can't let other people's crazy make YOU crazy.

If you get some kind of contact at stupid o'clock to change your single spacing to double spacing or whateverthefuck this guy thinks needs to happen, stand your ground. "What I provided was accurate for the class. You are requesting stylistic changes and I frankly don't think it's worth my time and effort to implement them. I have already prepared to present my portion of the class and that's what I'm going to do."

He may be senior, but he's not the boss of you. You don't have to be mean, or disrespectful, simply state your position and refuse to be intimidated.

One thing that freaks people right out and keeps them from messing with you is 100% confidence in your work product and the impression that you are straight out of fucks to give.

This guy does it because he gets away with it. Let others on the team stress out and dance to his tune. I say, 'fuck that noise.'
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:57 PM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Absolutely set clear boundaries and stick to them. Additionally try the following:

1. Set-up and in-person start-work meeting where you and the rest of your colleagues set up agreed upon norms for how the class materials will be created, how feedback and input will be handled, how requests for changes will be made, etc... Establish clear, group norms with everyone present.

2. Set-up regularly scheduled, in-person, meetings to prep for the class. All work must be turned in 24 hours before he meeting so people can review. All requests for changes to be made at that meeting. Any requests made after that meeting may or may not be honored depending on the person being tasked to make that change.

3. Send out meeting minutes so there is documentation.

4. If he makes changes without consulting or getting the approval of the person who actually is tasked with delivering the lecture, then he gets to deliver the lecture.

Now, you will also need a plan for covering your behind because presumably you would like to get tenure yourself someday and this person may sit on a committee that makes that decision. So you need allies. Is the department chair reasonable? Can you address your concerns and your proposed solutions with the chair to ensure you have someone backing you up? You really need that because when this guy goes to complain about you sticking to reasonable norms and boundaries you need to have the chair lined up to say, "well I see why this is frustrating to you, but it seems like the process that was established for team teaching was agreed upon in advance so now you need to deal with it."
posted by brookeb at 4:09 PM on April 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Setting boundaries is right.

You need to do this by taking control of the situation from day one: the first face-to-face meeting you have, or the first group e-mail you send, you put forward some indisputably reasonable ground rules. Maybe even explain why they're necessary. Maybe he'll object! Maybe other people will realize "yeah, why do we put up with all that crap?"

He'll probably still behave badly, but you'll have given yourself cover for ignoring his bad behavior.
posted by adamrice at 4:28 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

> He may be senior, but he's not the boss of you. You don't have to be mean, or disrespectful, simply state your position and refuse to be intimidated.

I agree with the Bunny on this one, and would add the qualification that if you get any guff, save the whole thread to a special folder somewhere, or print it out, or both. If this guy decides to settle his thumb on your head and start pushing, you need to be able to prove to his supervisor/manager/dean that his requests were unreasonable, inconsiderate, pushy, aggressive, inappropriate (whatever they in fact are).

Document everything: the requests, your responses, the results (i.e. the syllabus), and anything else helpful like the time of the class, any extraordinary circumstances (a holiday weekend, e.g.). I hope you never have to use it, but CYA, please.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:18 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

For avoiding bullshit style changes, set a house style. Pick his favorite slide deck and make a template using his favorite title font and preferred chart colors and then add one obviously terrible thing for him to object to (this is called a "duck" ) like a super-noxious color, and hey, you've got an agreed-on deck style that everyone will use. Ideally.

Nthing sticking to your guns about late-night calls. Don't make up reasons because that opens the door to negotiations; it simply won't be possible. And a united front, yes, that.
posted by rtha at 6:35 PM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Pre-tenure politics can be tricky to navigate.

Another option: speak to your department head/chair (in private). Key points (omit if egregiously and obviously false, but include ones that are at least semi-true):
* There's an issue that arose this semester that you need some assistance with.
* You've come to Chair for advice because you respect and value their judgement and experience.
* You value the department's collegiality, and want to ensure that you address the issue in a way that maintains the good working relationships that you have with everyone.
* You need for the team as a whole to be better prepared in advance in order to enable you to perform at your best, which is a thing that you know the department values, and that you really want to be able to do.
* You absolutely can't take late night skype calls again next semester.(Said sorrowfully/regretfully, but make sure that you state this as a fact, without any hint of it being something within your, or anyone else's control.)
* Has anyone else in the department dealt with and successfully resolved a similar situation? What would Chair recommend you do? By the way, you appreciate Chair taking the time to mentor new colleagues such as yoyrself.

If Chair has no advice for things you can do, and does not offer anything that the department can do:
* You're just really concerned, because late night skype calls won't be possible going forward, but you're worried about how to help Older Colleague adjust, to ensure that students in the course are not harmed by this lack of advance preparation. Is there anything the department can do to help mediate the situation? Failing that, what flexibility is there in the teaching assignments?

Still nothing? Try one more time (use your judgement and omit if this is likely to backfire in your department):
* It's just, with Older Colleague being tenured, and all of us junior colleagues being female as well as non-tenured.... (The goal here is to have Chair realize that this is potentially an HR problem that would cause more hassle for Chair than just dealing with Older Colleague would. If you can do that without directly spelling it out in any way that might imply that you would be pushing such a complaint, that would be best.)

If three tries with the Chair come up empty, go to your Dean or Provost or whatever your university calls the next level of academic administrator above the Chair. Try the same approach: you don't want to make waves pre-tenure and appreciate your department's collegiality, but note that late night skype calls won't be an option in the future, and are thus concerned about the quality of instruction the team will be able to provide the students. The Dean's position requires worrying more about the student experience, so they will be more concerned about that component than your Chair, if your Chair was of no help in the previous step. The reminder that you're worried about navigating departmental politics pre-tenure will be important though.

Your university should also have an EEO or Equity Officer, who would be quite concerned about this situation, and who would be good to touch base with early on in this process. Also, as noted by another commenter, if you have a union, then your union grievance officers would be able to give you advice, and you should touch base with your union as soon as possible, even if you don't end up needing their assistance.

Have these conversations now, at the end of this semester; don't wait. Also, maintaining these sorts of boundaries as a pre-tenure, female faculty member can be quite a delicate process, but is an important pattern to establish as early as possible. At least, many departments seem to use historical scheduling for teaching assignments, so this has the potential to solidify into an even harder to change dynamic in future years.

Lastly, find yourself a tenured female colleague who would be willing to meet you for coffee and career mentoring once a momth. Someone in a cognate department would be best, but someone in a less related discipline but familiar with the general setting of your university would still be helpful.
posted by eviemath at 8:44 PM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would worry more about how if you set boundaries here your other co teachers will end up shouldering the burden of his unreasonable expectations/time scales. If it were just you and him you could push back and see what happened but from your description what seems most likely to happen is that tou say you won't be changing materials at 1am but he is still acting as he always does which just shifts the burden to the remaining junior team members.

There is no easy way to say that you're defendinf your boundaries unilaterally and thereby forcing them to either accept a larger share of the bs or stand up for their own.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 4:05 AM on April 8, 2016

I would worry more about how if you set boundaries here your other co teachers will end up shouldering the burden of his unreasonable expectations/time scales.

Not. Your. Problem.
posted by grouse at 5:20 AM on April 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

My impression here is that the other faculty teaching this class are junior to Big Guy, but tenured. In that case, more work for them is definitely especially not your problem (except that you want to have them in your corner, ideally, going forward). However, if my understanding of the relative ranks of everyone involved is correct, it also means that those people are in a vastly better position than you are to do the pushing back here. Of course, it's possible that they will refuse to recognize their responsibilities in this situation. But if they're open to recognizing them, that's very much the best path to a desirable outcome for you.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:30 AM on April 8, 2016

My PhD adviser was like this. What made a big difference for me was having other people who I could talk to who were more reasonable. In particular, one of my collaborators (at a different university) was a strongly mediating force for this shit. Absolutely set reasonable boundaries and then stick to them.

However, one of my (current) colleagues has said of busy work that administrators expect us to do: "If I refuse to do this work, I'm an asshole. If we all refuse to do this work, then we're making a statement." Get your other colleagues on board if you can; it will have a lot more weight.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:31 AM on April 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hmm, I missed that the other colleagues on the team, if mid-career, probably have tenure already. Yes, ideally they will be stepping up to deal with this if so. Possibly arrange a coffee or lunch meeting with them, and ask them to step up and address the issue - not just for themselves/their careers, but also in a mentoring capacity for you.
posted by eviemath at 1:26 PM on April 8, 2016

Also, he's tenured, and none of us are -- I think this is partly why everyone else is resigned to his attitude.

Some of the recent posts missed this point.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:11 PM on April 11, 2016

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