Dear Dr. Hwang:
“I work with someone who I do not like. She is mean, bossy and takes credit for other’s work. How should I handle this? I don’t want to make waves.”
You bring to light an issue that has been around since fire, rocks and likely dinosaurs. Sometimes, people get along and sometimes we don’t. A woman once said to me, “Given all of our different personalities, habits, varying communication skills, backgrounds, I’m amazed we get along as well as we do!”
I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble at work. Given the time we spend at work, productive relationships are important or they drain us. Relationships are important. I can tell that your relationship with your co-worker is important to you.
Mean, bossy and taking credit for other people’s work is likely a behavior that’s been going on for quite some time? If this person engages this way with others, it’s not just you. It’s a habit and a way of being that has been reinforced at some point.
If she is like this with everyone, then you alone will not be able to break her of this habit, even if you are omnipotent. People typically find these behaviors useful if they’re allowed to engage like this over and over again. If she were mean and bossy with everyone, I’d work towards creating ways that you can protect yourself, to the degree that you can.
Analyze if you have times in the day you can work in another space. Think about ways you can connect with her about topics she enjoys discussing. While it is certainly not your job to make her feel good, seeing someone through loving eyes works much better than the latter. It’s sometimes difficult to pull off, but kindness might be your only option?
If her behavior towards you seems individualized, you may want to think back in time to evaluate if something led to this? It’s not that it is your fault or her fault. But, too often quick interactions lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings that get blown out of proportion. I know because I’ve done this mistakenly myself.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to take the last part of your question off the table. “Making waves,” is a perception. I appreciate that most people don’t want to invite conflict. But, disagreements don’t necessarily need to manifest into a conflict rather a discussion or conversation.
Approaching a colleague with a true desire to understand without being defensive can melt away another person’s defenses. Assess the risk in trying to be honest, open and kind would have.
No matter how badly you want it to work out, he/she has to join you in this endeavor. If your colleague is immediately discombobulated when approached, I would let it go until I understand better what skills and approach will be needed to engage effectively. Ineffective communication can sometimes make things worse.
However, it sounds like your heart is in a very kind place. I like that getting along with your colleague and having an amiable relationship is important to you. It is clear that you have an ability to reflect and desire to collaborate. Look at what’s real, what’s possible in this moment in time and do not take on his/her emotional wounds.
You deserve to be treated with respect. At the very least, you can respectfully excuse yourself if the unwanted behavior continues and then return later? There is no one-way. It’s a great opportunity to try a variety of techniques. Let us know what works. Thank you.