Friendly office mate suddenly cold
February 23, 2018 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm new at the job. My peer (who is the unofficial second in command) was super nice and friendly and helpful for a few weeks, and over the last week has become much less so. How should I handle this?

She's been training me thoroughly on sprocket production, and until this past week was doing a little to build rapport with me. Not as much as she does to foster kinship with boss, but she was making some effort. But this week it's been good morning and good evening and that's basically it unless I initiate anything else. She's spending all her free time chatting with the boss. They have a close and friendly relationship which I respect and try to demonstrate so.

I've been cut out from most of the informal chats, but if I walk by the boss will fill me in. Up until this week, it was peer who would take it upon herself to fill me in.

Last week boss gave peer an editing task, and being new with little to do and a writing background I told her that I would be happy to help if she liked. I'm afraid she heard this as being a know it all, rather than a collaborator. She refused the help. She did come back later to explain that she hoped I wasn't upset, and she just hadn't known how she wanted to do it, so that my help would not have been effective. But that's also when her vibe towards me shifted. I made the mistake of offering in front of the boss. I am not politically minded but see now that my offer would have been better without boss there. I'm afraid I came across like I thought she didn't know what she was doing with the editing task when I was really just trying to be useful.

I'm a relationship analyzer and this is bugging me. I'm deeply aware of subtle shifts in approval, or mood, and I'm trying to just leave this alone but it's eating at me.

I should add this person has a reputation for being sweet, kind and helpful throughout the department. So she's intentionally not sharing that energy with me as of this week, and instead has gotten distant and more formal.

So what do I do? My previous role was independent so there was no office politics.

I should say that she also asked for my opinion on an earlier step of the editing task, and I pointed out that my opinion is probably minimally useful since I'm so new, but she reassured me that she still wanted to hear if what she wrote made sense.

The only other change, is that I have been doing one of her regular tasks, per her invitation. I have done a good job at said task. She told the boss that my performance was good, and didn't hesitate to say so.

Last week, she even went to bat for me with the boss to get me more work and said that I was "more than ready." I told her I appreciated the help. She even joked with me the next day about it. Then this week, this weirdness that I'm confused by, and this feeling of being shut out.

And yes it could be a thousand things that have nothing to do with me, it could be that her training process with me is on hold so she's got less reason to interact, but if it IS about me or her perception of me that could create friction in our relationship, how do I proceed?

This team works very closely together and it will be slow going if anyone on the team is feeling weird towards me. It will end up hurting everyone not just me.

Two people have suggested she feels threatened, but I am not interested in overtaking her for any promotions on the horizon even if I were "in the running." She's paid her dues, and I don't think that's a fair way to handle your professional life. But how do I demonstrate that? I'm a high performer because I'm rather ADHD and hate to be bored, not because I want to steal glory. I thought that offering to help her finish a task more quickly would show that, but it seems to have backfired. If that's even the cause of this. It may not be.

So aside from building rapport myself when she doesn't seem too busy, trying to be helpful for her own workload while recognizing she knows more than me, is there anything I can do to smooth over any rough edges that may or may not be entirely in my head?
posted by crunchy potato to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Two people have suggested she feels threatened, but I am not interested in overtaking her for any promotions on the horizon even if I were "in the running."

Well she can't read your mind, and she has no reason to trust you since she barely knows you. So it's not impossible that she might feel threatened. It would be unnecessary and a bit much, I think, to disclose your promotional aspirations or lack thereof to reassure her because 1) you hardly know her 2) circumstances/people/minds change, you can't really promise her that in a year you still won't want a promotion.

It sounds like it's been a week and it hasn't blown over. Maybe just tell her that you've noticed a change and ask if there's anything she'd like to talk about, because you want to work well together. If she says no, let it go. (Sometimes people say no and still change their behavior). If she wants to talk about it, there you go.

I see her chilliness as an attempt to set a boundary, though she may not be able to explain exactly what the boundary is.
posted by bunderful at 3:36 PM on February 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's only been a week that she's been like this? I think you need to chill. You say yourself that there are loads of reasons that could be totally unrelated to you, so why are you still prodding the wound to try and make it about you? Just let her do her thing. She's your colleague, she doesn't have to be your friend. If you want to do something to make this feel better, find a way of working on your own anxiety.

trying to be helpful for her own workload
Don't. Her workload is hers. If she needs your help, she or her boss will ask for it (this is doubly true if you suspect her change of mood is because you offered to help with her work).

Two people have suggested she feels threatened
Don't discuss this pretty minor thing, that's between you and her alone (if that), with other colleagues. Stop turning this into dramez.
posted by penguin pie at 3:37 PM on February 23, 2018 [27 favorites]

Honestly, I think you’re on the right track with the inkling that you just need to let it go. “But it’s eating at me” seems to be an anxiety response and not an indicator you need to, what, confront her, or bend over backwards to please her? I think either of those would be odd in a professional setting. I would just do your job and be pleasant, perhaps being mindful of not stepping on toes, but not overly cautious.

If she’s not actively training you anymore it seems reasonable she’s not interacting as much; if you ruffled feathers she’ll get over it. It’s highly likely it has nothing to do with you at all.
posted by kapers at 3:42 PM on February 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Penguin pie, I should clarify that I have only discussed it with two people in my personal life. If I were going to discuss at work it would be with her only. I am not a fan of triangulation. Although my directness might be unwelcome. Which is why I'm currently doing nothing.
posted by crunchy potato at 3:43 PM on February 23, 2018

(My answer above sounded harsher than it needed to be. If you feel like you really have to do something, a one-line "Sorry if I overstepped the mark the other day by offering to take on your widget project, by the way, I got a bit overkeen" then move onto other topics and don't mention it again. But definitely work on your anxiety, rather than pursuing this relentlessly.)

On preview: OK, fair enough sorry to jump to the wrong conclusion.
posted by penguin pie at 3:43 PM on February 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

This all sounds pretty normal to me. If my job has a new hire, I try to be really nice and helpful when they are learning the ropes, then I gradually pull back a little and let them get their sea legs on their own. I think you should stop analyzing the dynamic between this person, who has worked there for awhile, and your boss, it doesn’t really involve you.
posted by cakelite at 3:57 PM on February 23, 2018 [9 favorites]

I would start from the assumption it isn't about you and see how it develops. A week is too soon to do anything, IMO. If you feel you're being too much, then you'd want to dial it down a bit anyhow-- regardless of whether it is about you or not.
posted by frumiousb at 4:06 PM on February 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

It may be that she just doesn't want to be close with you, because that's how she rolls with colleagues. I think this is reasonable. I've gotten to know some colleagues well, and along the way realized that I'm just not into being good friends with them for whatever reason. But you still have to sit with them all day most days. So a lot of people just keep more chill distance to avoid awkwardness. You can too and not worry about her feelings. Because you need to be colleagues, not friends.
posted by Kalmya at 4:18 PM on February 23, 2018

Kalmya, assuming you are correct, if she simultaneously has a close, friendly relationship with the boss and a cordial distance with me, and the 3 of us are are the only members of the team, how am I supposed to navigate that situation without it getting awkward? It is hard to see their level of connection and believe that isn't meant to be cultural, where eventually I would be "let in" somehow. So I also wonder how that fits with cakelite's comment. I'm attending to their relationship because it's literally the only other one in the team for me to model my own behavior on.
posted by crunchy potato at 4:36 PM on February 23, 2018

It may be that she feels she needs to buddy up to the boss regardless of her real feelings. Or over a span of many years, she realized they were a true match for a strong friendship.

You don't know this women yet. Say hello and how are you. Ask a few work questions a day. Say hello to a few random other coworkers and make idle chit chat about the weather and Olympics or emoji movie. A lot of people chose to be superficial or fake at work to avoid the awkwardness that eventually occurs when you are building real relationships without the ability to fade or distance. So allow others their space at work and spread some friendliness around to see if, over time, you may build some strong relationships, if you want to try.
posted by Kalmya at 5:18 PM on February 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you should not make a big deal out of it and see if it blows over.

I have a coworker who is not my boss but is the same seniority level as my boss. I'm in marketing and her department is part of my responsibility for marketing needs, so although we're not in the same department, we work closely together. When I first started a few months ago, in an attempt to be helpful I took something she asked me to do and ran with it too far. (Think of it as being asked to "look over" something, but in addition to checking for typos I made other changes to organization, design, etc. - it wasn't quite that but close.) I also had an incorrect understanding of what the piece would be used for, so some of my improvements weren't actually as helpful as I had intended. I felt awful once I realized what had happened, especially because I had been given the heads-up that this coworker could be difficult at times. And I think she probably *was* legitimately annoyed with me. I was so concerned I had ruined my chance at a first impression and she would hate me forever.

But while I think I added an "Sorry, I didn't mean to step on any toes" line to an email about the project at some point, I didn't make a big thing out of it and just kept doing my job as best I could. I was new and basically thrown right into things with very little training or context, so that was hard. Over time I've continued to learn and get a feel for things here, and now I'm quite sure this senior-but-not-my-boss coworker likes me just fine. She sent me an "I heart you" email just a couple weeks ago when I was able to drop everything and help her get some info she needed right away.

So just say hi, pretend like things are cordial even if you're worried they aren't, and just do your job. People make a big deal about first impressions that I think puts a lot of pressure on us to get started on the right foot, but in something like a (hopefully) long term working relationship, you have plenty of chances to prove yourself as the kind of team player you want to be. I worry that making a big deal out of it will make this situation appear bigger and linger longer than if you just let it fade naturally. Good luck!
posted by misskaz at 5:36 PM on February 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Last week boss gave peer an editing task, and being new with little to do and a writing background I told her that I would be happy to help if she liked. I'm afraid she heard this as being a know it all, rather than a collaborator. She refused the help. She did come back later to explain that she hoped I wasn't upset, and she just hadn't known how she wanted to do it, so that my help would not have been effective. But that's also when her vibe towards me shifted. I made the mistake of offering in front of the boss. I am not politically minded but see now that my offer would have been better without boss there. I'm afraid I came across like I thought she didn't know what she was doing with the editing task when I was really just trying to be useful.

You're right, this is the moment she decided you might be trying to undermine her, usurp some of her duties, and get between her and the boss.

Make an appointment with her where the two of you won't be disturbed, and tell her that you have no such designs, and were just clumsily trying to be useful -- and that her efforts were really helping you.
posted by jamjam at 8:08 PM on February 23, 2018

So what do I do?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Any advice to do something is bad advice no matter what the something is. because:

the one and only thing that you, a self-described overanalyzer, might possibly have done wrong -- and I don't see it at all, but if this was it, then it was -- was do something (or offer to) that you didn't need to do.

so just don't repeat that mistake. if it even was a mistake. don't do anything. If it were me in her place, I'd assume you offered in front of the boss to show off your initiative; a momentary annoyance at worst. I would never even guess you might be worried about undermining me. if she feels easy and competent in her job, it probably didn't occur to her either that you might want her to look bad, or that you even could make her look bad. and you didn't, anyway. bringing it up again would be strange.

or do one thing: take that thought about her 'intentionally not sharing that [sweet and helpful] energy' with you and bury it deep, never let it out. think what you think, but that is not a thought that is work-appropriate to express no matter how subtle you are able to be about it. Being sweet is no part of her job duties and she is not obligated to be fair and balanced in whatever way she spreads her private personality around, so long as she is professional. it is not a demand you can make of her, no matter how implicitly, that she be nice the way she used to. if this sense is based on nothing but energy feelings pretend it's not real, because either it's not real or it's not a problem that should ever be imposed on her work life.

worst case is she doesn't like you and the vibe is real. but she's already demonstrated she's able to be fair and give you credit, regardless. that is a good co-worker relationship.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:31 PM on February 23, 2018 [11 favorites]

You could probably set her mind at ease that you're not trying to steal her place if you sincerely thank her and praise her work a little bit over the next little while.

Maybe one piece of praise/thanks just to the boss ("Thank you for having Leticia train me, she's been so insightful and generous with her mentorship"), and one piece of praise in front of both her and your boss at the same time (hard to give an example since I don't know what you do).

Just make sure the praise/thanks is for something you sincerely admire and are grateful for or it'll feel hollow- and don't go over the top, or it'll seem manipulative. Sincere and simple should go a long way.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:03 AM on February 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


Her relationship with your boss is not really your business until it is, and by that I mean I’d your boss starts treating you differently (which it doesn’t sound like they are?).

I totally agree with the others saying that she was initially nice to you because you were new and she had to train you. Now that you’re getting the ropes, it’s very likely she’s just reverting to what she wants to be status quo: professional. Just reciprocate with being work friendly and professional.

Stop offering to help her, it can easily read as naive at best and condescending at worst.
posted by like_neon at 2:29 AM on February 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am not interested in overtaking her for any promotions on the horizon..... But how do I demonstrate that?

I noticed your question which I missed before. The answer is slowly, over time. Don't offer to help her in front of the boss. Be fair about giving her credit for her work. Do your own work well and own up to your mistakes.

If you *can* chill, as recommended multiple times above, then do that. It sounds like you're obsessing a little over this in a way that's probably unnecessary. I'm also an anxious person and my advice above is based on what has helped me, though more in my relations with managers than peers.

Starting a new job is fraught with anxiety and it's possible that your new job anxiety is giving this more weight than it would get otherwise. You really want to avoid being in a situation where you're scrambling for your approval. Try to focus on your new responsibilities, how to do well, what you want out of this job, and your own relationship with the boss.

Also it's really not unusual for people to treat the boss differently. It's really, really common, because it's a completely different relationship with different stakes. Plus in this case she has a history with the boss which she doesn't have with you.
posted by bunderful at 6:06 AM on February 24, 2018

Technically, you didn't do anything wrong if you lived in a sane world. You're brand new. You had NO IDEA that such a small thing was going to turn her against you. How could you? However, now you've learned that she's ...not so sane, I guess. You've inadvertently fucked up in her eyes and there may just not be any recovery from that. The reason I say this is that my work situation mentioned here had a similar dynamic. Those folks were perfectly fine and friendly for a few months and then turned cold or straight up mean to me. They literally do not like how I talk at all, so trying to make office conversation is what doomed me, I guess. But they're not happy people and trying to make nice is useless there. Trying to make people like you only makes them hate you more. You can't do it unnaturally. Yes, it's a shitty dynamic at work and very uncomfortable to just literally not speak to them for 40 hours a week (unless we absolutely have to for work reasons, which is maybe once a week), but that's the best thing I can do to keep a quiet cold war going rather than making it explode more. You get used to it. Accepting the dynamic has helped me a lot more than getting angry at them or thinking I could make anything better.

You've already apologized and done what you could (in a sane world) to make nice. If she chooses to be cold to you after that, you can't make her do differently. I fear that talking to her buddy the boss might only make things worse if she's sooooo sensitive to boss related stuff, so I kind of don't want to encourage you to do that even though normally I might. My best guess is that she might be jealous or want to keep the boss to herself, but who knows. I don't think there is any action you can take that will make it better if what you already did hasn't fixed it. And trying to do so again will probably just make it worse. The best you can do is be professional, keep conversation to a bare minimum, maybe NOT volunteer so much if that is a trigger issue for her. Talk to her only when you need to for work and otherwise go with the standard she sets.

"how am I supposed to navigate that situation without it getting awkward?"

You don't. It's awkward as hell in my job. Like we can't have team meetings because the rest of the "team" shuns me and moves as far away from me as they can at the table because I have cooties. But she's the one that decided to make it awkward and weird. You were willing to make amends, she wasn't. Nothing you can do about that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:35 AM on February 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

has a reputation for being sweet, kind and helpful throughout the department. So she's intentionally not sharing that energy with me a

Wow - this is a huge leap, one not necessarily warranted by what I'm hearing from you so far. You're also still all but brand new. When people are brand new in my office, I have them on my rotation of people to put particular energy into going out of my way to greet, to check in with, etc. Once they've been here for a little while and are settling in, I don't make as much of an effort and continue spending time with the people I normally spend time with. Being social with newcomers is something I consider an important way to welcome people into our organization, but I don't have the bandwidth to do that same level with everyone across the office all the time.

Give it time. Give yourself (and her) time. Don't push to be best friends with anyone for now, and spread your social network a bit (get to know a few other people in addition to her at work). And don't catastrophize. It will be ok.

I really hope the people you've been talking to about her are not also work colleagues. If so, stop immediately. Once she hears about that she will be cool with you for sure.
posted by arnicae at 7:50 AM on February 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

I share an office with a colleague who behaves this way occasionally. At first it really confused me, because she would be intermittently warm and jovial then proceed to ice me out for a couple days. I would automatically assume I’d done something wrong and agonize over it. I did my best to put aside, give it time, and worked on being the best collaborator possible given our very different personalities.

Four years later, I now understand that her behavior is a combination of introversion, anxiety, and yes, occasionally passive aggression. We have moved beyond any awkwardness, and I really think it was the result of both of us making an effort to get to know each other better and understand one another’s working styles. Oddly enough, it was taking the Myers-Briggs a couple years ago and then the Gallup strengths finder more recently that gave us a framework in which to explore our differences and combine our strengths in a productive way. Now, when we get on each other‘s nerves, we both understand that it’s not intentional and we’re just different people with different values and ways of moving through the world. It has been really good for our working relationship.

Bottom line, I think if you give this time it will blow over. If you’re anything like me, that will be hard to do. But my best advice would be to focus on doing your work as best as possible, be amicable and helpful to her without going out of your way to do so (which in and of itself could be viewed as a threat), and try to be mindful when you feel yourself starting to overanalyze her actions. I’m short, care less what she thinks. Easier said than done, I know, but the greater your anxiety about this gets the likelier that she will sense it and pull further away. Once some time has gone by and you have established a basic level of trust, you can start to explore team dynamics and have discussions about working styles that may help if this happens again in the future.

And yeah, like everyone else is saying, just give it some time. You being hired was a big change for her, and you joining this team is a big change for you. You’re still figuring each other out, and that is OK.
posted by lieber hair at 9:57 AM on February 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

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