My coworker is sometimes rude to me in email and personal interactions. My boss is aware that this is the case (and agrees she is rude) but does not take steps to stop the behavior. Is there anything I can do to discourage her from treating me badly?
The Nicer One
What’s up, Nicer One.
Well this person sounds like a pill. Probably you should just freeze her out and talk crap about her behind her back until she leaves in a pile of shameful social backlash.
WAIT. Something’s not right about that… let me try again.
Nicer One, there is a question that always strikes right to the heart of grumpy people’s problems. You ready for it?
What is your coworker afraid of? Like, on a regular basis, what does she fear?
In my experience, folks act rude when they are out of alignment with their own confidence. If you like yourself and feel good in the world around you, you’re not a jerk. But if you’ve got an irritation, a fear, something you’re angry about, it can show up in many ways (lots of which are not so healthy for others around you).
So to ground this conversation, I ask you to consider what Coworker is afraid of.
This line of thinking does two things. First, it opens the door for you to feel empathy towards someone who has been disrespectful towards you. It can be really hard (sometimes impossible!) to consider someone who isn’t considering you. But this is the hard work of adulting, Nicer One. You can choose to ignore or insult Coworker but I don’t think that will help and it will make you feel bad in the process. Look for empathy in her fears.
Second, it is so possible that identifying what she’s afraid of (failure, perhaps? Her reputation? Her marriage or taking missteps in her career or disappointing her parents?) will soften you enough that she senses it… and realizes that you are an ally, not a threat.
I am always a fan of having hard conversations because it moves things forward. In this case, I would ask her if she’s got a minute, pull her into a private conference room and call the awkward.
“Hey Coworker, I noticed that you’ve been kind of short with me in emails lately… am I picking up on a disagreement between us? Is there anything we should talk about so we can work well together?”
Coworker is probably going to pass out at this point in the conversation (people who are feeling safe behind their rudeness never expect to be called out!) but don’t worry about that. Just stay there in the moment, looking earnest and nonthreatening, ready to listen.
Truly listening to what another person is saying is a triple-black-diamond ninja skill. This is not about you - this is about her. And in this moment, she has the opportunity to tell you how you’ve caused her rudeness OR to perhaps share something totally unrelated that’s been causing her to feel frustrated at work. Either way, stay focused on her and tell your inner voice to take a back seat.
If she “doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” you can gently cite a few examples and repeat that you wanted to check in with her because you wanted to make sure you two are okay.
And that might be the very end of it.
Once she knows you are noticing her rude behavior AND you’re willing to confront her about it, I suspect she will transfer her rudeness to another unsuspecting victim and leave you alone. (Transfer this blog post to the next one, please!)
But in my most optimistic frame of mind, I also think she may share something that helps both of you work better together. You may agree that the workplace has been full of pressure lately and laugh about it or remind her that she’s a top-notch person to have in meetings. Or maybe she finds enough courage to tell you that, actually? You regularly cut her off when she’s speaking in meetings and she has been wanting to say something for months.
Represent your truths but listen for her truths, too.
This stuff can be hard. But I think you’ve got a hard conversation in ya. At the very least you’re going to learn something.
P.S. Re: your boss, she sounds like she is scared of conflict herself or a junior manager and is truly unsure what to do. Good on you to have asked her for support but she seems like a dead end. Luckily I think you got this all on your own!
Are you a manager? Have you ever been like the boss in this story? Join us for the next So Now You’re a Manager training. We’re going to talk about it all, practice hard conversations and help you find your way through it with a bunch of new friends.