Asking for a Friend//

How to Handle a Coworker Who Acts Like Your Boss

It’s a multi-step process, but works like a charm.

(Credit: Getty)

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

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QHow do you handle a co-worker and peer who acts like she is your boss, continually making work for you or ordering you around? My frustration has made it difficult for me to be impactful in my job. How do I resolve this without making things awkward or sounding like a whiner? —A.G.

A: This is indeed a difficult situation. You’ll have to address this strategically — it’s going to take a multi-step process, and a bit of patience.

What I’m sensing is an issue that has manifested as a lack of trust between you and your colleague. The goal is to establish more trust, which will either cause her to change her behavior toward you, or enable you to have a necessary conversation with her.

Trust does not get built overnight. So start by making attempts to positively connect with your colleague. For example, make an effort to ask her how her weekend went and show genuine interest in her as a person. An occasional lunch or coffee break can also be useful in developing collegial relationships. At first, it might feel awkward to make these attempts, but this awkward is better than the awkward you mention in your question.

A relationship built on trust will surely make it easier to have that difficult conversation with her since a more informal connection between the two of you has been established. Difficult conversations are often essential to repairing conflict, either overt or covert. And repair is essential to — you guessed it — building more trust.

By getting to know your colleague more informally, you will find out about her personality and her reality. Such a concerted effort to build the relationship, without addressing her behavior directly, will make all the difference in determining why she treats you the way that she does. Is this a personality quirk (does she behave this way with others, too)? Is she just a wanna-be manager playing a role that she wants? Has management, unbeknownst to you, asked her to play this role? Does she feel that you have it out for her (which may be her reality)? Does she believe that you aren’t pulling your weight at work?

As you make time to get to know her more informally and trust builds, her behavior may start to shift. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, too. A relationship built on trust will surely make it easier to have that difficult conversation with her since a more informal connection between the two of you has been established. Difficult conversations are often essential to repairing conflict, either overt or covert. And repair is essential to — you guessed it — building more trust.

The repair process requires collaborative communication. If her behavior doesn’t change, first tell her that you value her as a colleague, including her leadership (a nice way of framing her tendency to boss you around). Then, express that you have a difficult topic to bring up to her about how the two of you interact. Approach her in an open, non-defensive way so that she feels that you genuinely want to have a great working relationship together. This means using “I” statements and avoid criticizing her — speak to her behavior rather than who she is as a person. For example, “I’ve recently wondered about the work that you’ve delegated to me. I’m confused because my understanding is that we are in a non-managerial relationship. Do you see this differently?”

Make sure that your tone of voice is curious, rather than angry. And invite her to give you feedback. Ask her if she has concerns about your performance and ability to manage your own work. She may not recognize that her behavior towards you communicates that she doesn’t trust that you are capable of managing yourself. On the flip side, get ready to hear some feedback that might expose some blind spots that you have.

The thing about trust is that it is never a definite. We need to continually work to build it in our professional relationships to keep the connections we have fruitful.

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