When a Relationship with a Colleague Goes Sour
Say someone on your team who had previously been friendly turns on you and is now making your life miserable and collaboration nearly impossible. Maybe they won’t respond to your emails or even look you in the eye?
This is the distressing situation that “Cindy,” a listener of another podcast, Women Amplified, found herself in. Host Celeste Headlee, invited Amy Gallo on to help give Cindy advice as part of the show’s series “That’s a Good Question.” Cindy talks to Celeste and Amy about how she doesn’t even know what’s causing the tension. She can’t get answers from her colleague and doesn’t know how to continue working with someone who’s being so difficult.
The approaches that come out of the conversation are ones that anyone facing tension in a work relationship can use to find a way forward.
- Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People), by Amy Gallo
- HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, by Amy Gallo
- “Navigating Conflict,” by Women at Work
- “How to Mend a Work Relationship,” by Brianna Barker Caza et al.
- “How to Deal with a Mean Colleague,” by Amy Gallo
- “How to Collaborate with People You Don’t Like,” by Mark Nevins
Sign up for the Women at Work newsletter.
Email us: email@example.com
AMY GALLO: You’re listening to Women at Work, from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Gallo. Have you ever had a relationship with a colleague go sour? Like, someone on your team who’d been friendly turns on you, and is now making your life miserable and collaboration impossible? Maybe they won’t respond to your emails or even look you in the eye?
That’s the distressing situation a listener of another podcast, Women Amplified, was in. The show’s host, Celeste Headlee, invited me on to help give the listener, Cindy, advice. Cindy wanted to figure out what the conflict was about, which was especially challenging to do since her colleague had stonewalled her. And she wanted to know how to continue working with someone who was being so difficult.
I felt particularly ready to talk through Cindy’s situation since this is the kind of interpersonal issue that’s the focus of my upcoming book, Getting Along. As you’ll hear, not all of my advice was spot on (Cindy understandably did not like the idea that she might want to flatter her coworker to win her back over!), but she took away some communication and conflict-management tools. I hope this conversation will be a resource for you whenever a work relationship turns tense. Here’s Celeste, getting us going.
CELESTE HEADLEE: So, Cindy, maybe you can tell us a quick overview of why you reached out to us. What is your question?
CINDY: Sure. As I mentioned in the description I submitted, I have this conflict with my teammate. When I joined the company, even though the company is huge, our group is very small. So, it was just a manager, myself and my colleague here, and we have two colleagues remotely. We were all friendly, everything was going good. And then my manager assigned me to this project, which my colleague was managing. She was a solo person in charge of that project, she had complete control over it and I had to learn that system as a backup and some freedom and scene resource in case someone is off the support is still there. So once that started, this was four months into my job. The whole relationship shifted. So, during the [inaudible] I realized she was getting annoyed at my questions or not directly answering my question.
And then she would stare at the wall when I ask a question and she doesn’t want to make any eye contact or engage with me or acknowledge my contribution. So, I’m learning a completely new system. If there was something I was doing right, there was no acknowledgement of that. It was always picking on the deficiencies or the gaps. And it’s just that I’m learning. So, I haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe the answer is out there, but I haven’t found it yet.
So, it would be like, “If you don’t know the answer, Google.” That response came up a lot. Then I thought, “Okay, maybe I’m asking silly questions.” I’m itemizing all the questions I have and making sure I’m checking every place I can to see if there’s an answer, but still this behavior continued. I was taken aback because this was a drastic change in the dynamic. And I wasn’t sure if it’s me, am I just being all sensitive? I think I wasted some time just thinking it might be me or she’s going through something personal. I gave her the benefit of that doubt because she has been friendly and welcoming up until that point. But I have to say from that point forward, it never improved.
CELESTE HEADLEE: How long do you think it was? What was the space of time between when you were assigned to do this project that the woman had been doing solo for some time, when you began that? How long did it take before it started to become toxic?
CINDY: Oh, I would say the first couple of meetings. So, I was assigned some tasks.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Almost immediately.
CINDY: It’s almost immediately, exactly. So whatever deliverables I give, she wasn’t happy. So, then I’m like, “I haven’t screwed up yet.” So, I understand if you get frustrated, I have screwed up and you have to clean up my work because I get that too. If I’m entering someone new and they screw up and I have to clean up as a senior resource, but in my mind, I’m like, “I haven’t screwed up yet and I haven’t added to your workload. I’m trying to take on the tasks, the workload is balanced.” And it didn’t seem that was appreciated. It was almost immediate in order to answer your question. Yes.
CELESTE HEADLEE: What do you think is at the heart of this? I can make guesses, but you must have some suspicion about why this woman is treating you this way.
CINDY: I have thought about it a lot. Some of the things is she likes to work a lot, definitely. And secondly, I don’t know if it’s the right term, but feels like she’s alpha female kind of person. She wants to be the person with the answers. So, she will answer to seniors or who’s above her or who has some influence on deciding her future. But to me, I don’t report to her, she doesn’t report to me. “So, I don’t have to answer to you.” Any question I ask, I get a redirect. I’ve never gotten a straightforward answer. I might have on a couple of occasions, but it’s very frustrating asking a question. So, I spend a lot of time trying to frame the question to make sure that I’m not offending her in any way. And I have checked all the different resources available to make sure that I don’t see an answer anywhere because every time I ask a question, it’s anxiety for me like, “What is she going to say? Is she going to answer like a normal person or is she going to talk down to me?”
CELESTE HEADLEE: Before we bring in an expert, let me ask you one more question. Have you spoken with anyone, one of your managers or supervisors about the situation?
CINDY: I have, and I believe maybe I wasn’t assertive enough, so my manager changed. The first manager, people are all in person, and I talked to him about it. I feel like they don’t get the gravity of the situation, or they don’t see it the same way I do. But then also her body language, everything changes if someone like a manager is present. So, it was tricky for me to explain what I was feeling because it’s not in writing. She’s not being rude to me in writing. She’s not being rude to me in words, it’s just ignoring my side of things like ignoring if I’m in a room, if we are walking to the conference room together, I’ll just say, “Hey, how are you?” And then it’s that silence, she would [crosstalk].
CELESTE HEADLEE: And she ignores your emails as well? Your chat messages, all of it?
CINDY: So that all started much later, but even the emails, yeah. I’ll have a list of five questions, and she would just answer to either one or she would redirect me to some link, “Check it out here,” or something.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Well, we have exactly the right expert for you. Let me bring in Amy Gallo. She is the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict. She has another book coming out called, Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone Even Difficult People, which could not be more relevant. And she co-hosts the Women at Work podcast. She’s just a super, super smart person. Amy?
AMY GALLO: Here I am. Oh boy, this is right in my wheelhouse. I am so sorry you’re going through this Cindy, but you are not alone. There are lots and lots of people who are facing coworkers like this.
CELESTE HEADLEE: So, Amy, let’s get started. What are the initial actions that Cindy can take or questions that she needs to ask herself?
AMY GALLO: I would start with a few questions. Questions to ask yourself, to reflect on the situation. Number one is, what might you be doing to contribute to the situation? Now, I don’t want you to feel like this is your responsibility or that you have caused the situation but recognizing what your part in it is helpful. Because as you start to navigate this relationship with your coworker, what you can control is your behavior. What you can’t control is how she reacts or what she does. So, I think you want to really think about, “What have I actually done, or what have I possibly done to make this situation turn out the way it has?” And the answer may be nothing. You may have just done your job and interacted in a professional and respectful way.
AMY GALLO: But it’s helpful to think about what could have contributed on your end to the situation. I think the other thing to think about is, it sounds like this has been going on for quite some time is to reflect on, what has made things worse and what has made things better? I think anytime you’re dealing with a difficult colleague, you want to use your interactions as experiments. You’re never going to get it perfectly, right. It’s never going to be… There’s no silver bullet that you do it and this gets all better. It’s a series of small experiments, trying out different tactics and seeing what works and what doesn’t. So, I would take some time to think about, has there been anything that has made things even a little bit easier and have there been things that have made things completely worse?
CELESTE HEADLEE: Cindy, what do you think?
CINDY: The first question, what might have caused it? The only thing I can think is coming into her space and taking some of the tasks from her. I got the feeling she was territorial and didn’t want me, even though it was helping her with the workload, that’s not something she was looking for. So, I went to my manager at the time and asked, “Was she okay with me coming into the space?” And he said, “I had talked with her and got her permission and she’s fine with it.” But I don’t think that’s the case. I think that was the root of everything where she was the number one person, everyone reaches out to her, she was a point person for that from there. Me coming into the space and me being another person and sharing that credit or responsibility, she was not happy with. I feel that’s actually the root of it all.
AMY GALLO: I’m not surprised because we know from research that people act out when their ego is threatened. And it sounds like she has a lot of ego resting on the responsibility for this particular system. Or as you say, being the one who knows the answers. So, whether or not she gave permission to your manager for you to be involved, it sounds like she’s feeling as you said you’re stepping into her territory.
CINDY: Yeah. And I couldn’t help with that because that was my goals with the year two, learn the system, be a backup and then eventually have two primaries for the platform. So, there was nothing I could do on that one. And then regarding my actions, I have to say, I haven’t found an answer to that. Like I said, I have reached out to my old manager and another current manager. Every time I go to them with this issue or something, it’s a common platform we work in. If any changes are done, I would appreciate if I’m kept in the loop because when something comes up, I know, “Oh, this was changed.” Instead of me again, reinventing the wheel, spending time, figuring it out. But I’m never kept in the loop. So then when I bring it up, they would be like, “Okay, why don’t we set up weekly meetings or biweekly meetings? Why don’t we communicate via SharePoint? Why don’t we…?”
CINDY: So, I always felt like I had to take the initiative to find a solution and then do these things, and then it became even more anxiety inducing events for me, this weekly meeting. Whenever it comes up, I’m so stressed out before the meeting and after the meeting, I’m so upset by the things that was said. It’s not outright rude comments. It’s things like, “That was an unnecessary change that shouldn’t have been done.”
CINDY: It’s discrediting my contribution any way she can. And considering, she was the primary before me, not even the manager knows what actually happens there. So, her words have a lot of value to it.
AMY GALLO: I have two thoughts. One is, if we acknowledge that she is feeling defensive or threatened, that her ego is getting injured here or bruised by your involvement in the project. One of the things that we know can often soothe those defensive or aggressive behaviors, is something, I’m sure it’s the last thing you’re going to want to do, but which is to compliment or reassure that person. You’re basically compensating for some insecurity that she might have around losing control or losing authority around the system. Saying to her, “You do have the knowledge here. I’m simply trying to learn from you.” Constantly reassuring, “I love what you’ve done with this system. I am indebted to you and the organization is indebted to you for the work you’ve done. I know you’ll continue to be the point person here. I simply want to who learn from you.” Now it’s never fun to want to have to stroke someone’s ego, especially someone who’s being rude to you. But we do know that flattery oftentimes soothes that response. Have you done any of that, Cindy?
CINDY: No. I would say I have never done that. Only because when we got into this mode, this dynamic, she started attacking my work and I’m like, “Why are you criticizing this? Then I’m modeling my work after something you pointed me to.” So, she would say, “Okay, this is the task, and this is being done before, over here, you can refer to that and learn and do it.” So, I would be doing the exact thing. My thinking was, if I follow the instructions, learn the stuff and do it, she would be happy. But every time I tried to please her, it was some flip and comment that would tick me off. And I’m like, “Why am I and spending so much energy trying to please her?” And then as I got to learn the system more, then I had my own voice, when she was trying to say something demotivating me, I would fight back or say something.
CELESTE HEADLEE: I wonder and Amy, this is something that not only Harvard business review has written a lot about, but you have written about, which is the use of the question to diffuse some of these things. In other words, Cindy, when she’s criticizing your work and your response is to say, “What are you talking about? I’m modeling it on exactly what you told me to read.” You can use questions instead to force her, to explain what’s behind her objection. And I’m going to let Amy explain further, because like I said, she’s written a lot about this and researched this, but your questions can prevent the conversation from becoming a conflict. And they can also force her to think through her criticisms rather than simply automatically need your criticizing. What do you think, Amy?
AMY GALLO: I absolutely agree. And I think the other piece about questions is it signals collaboration. It signals, “I’m interested in what you have to say.” And I think from your description, what it sounds like is she came out very aggressive, you understandably got defensive, and it sounds like you have been locked in a tug of war ever since. And I think what you have to do is that change the pattern of the interaction. And I think questions is a wonderful way to do that because as Celeste was saying, it encourages her to have to articulate what she believes, what she wants you to do while also signaling to her, “I want this to be a collaboration. This is not, I say something, you say something, I say something, you say something, this is a conversation in which we are on the same side of the table, trying to resolve the problem, which is me learning the system rather than us being at each other’s throats.”
CINDY: Understood. That asking that questions thing, it doesn’t come naturally to me because I get worked up by some of the comments and then I have to gather my thoughts. I shut down when that happens, because I don’t want to speak out of turn or out of anger. One specific scenario was, there was a meeting, and this is after she was on some leave for a long period of time. And I have been managing the system solo for her extended absence. And when the first meeting, I am expecting some light discussion. “How is it? How are you?” Or something like that. She immediately jumps in and says, “I see a lot of unnecessary changes in the system.” And that just throws me down a rabbit hole. I cannot even imagine; how can someone talk like that?
And one thing to add to that is before she was going on this extended absence, and I wouldn’t call the backup at that point, we are both equally primaries, but I wasn’t even notified. And I think people were not getting responses to their request and it started getting routed to me. So, it was an extremely busy period of time for me. I thought I was managing well; I think I supported the user as well. And then for her to come back and just say that as a first line. I was really upset. I’m like, “Why am I even doing this?”
AMY GALLO: And I think that’s a normal reaction that the challenge with getting defensive in the face of her aggression is it continues to lock you into that dynamic. And she has a lot of power over you, if she is setting you off with her questions. I think one of the things you can do also is think about, “Okay, all of this is causing so much stress. How can I care less about the nature of the interaction and focus more on what I actually need to get done?” One of the other things I might recommend is thinking about, what are your goals for this interaction? Is it to learn the system? Is it to have a positive relationship with her? I would list all of those goals out and then focus on, which are the most primary, what are the ones?
AMY GALLO: And even for these individual interactions, what is your goal in that moment? Because the difficulty is you might be pursuing goals, for example, to make her less toxic, then you’re never going to be able to achieve. So, I would instead focus on what is the information you need in that meeting? What is it you have to learn that week? What is the goal for the next month? And how do you achieve that? And try to put aside the fact that she’s behaving in a way that feels unprofessional or aggressive. And because you’re not going to be able to control that and really focus on the underlying need of what is it you actually need from her.
And I do think to change the dynamic, you’re going to have to loosen an experiment with how you react. I might try throwing in some compliments, of course genuine compliments, even though that feels not what you want to do, because she’s, “Why should I compliment someone who’s been aggressive and has made my work life miserable?” But instead of seeing that as something generous to her, see it as something generous to yourself, because it may actually loosen up the dynamic in a way that could benefit for you.
CINDY: It never crossed my mind, to be honest.
CELESTE HEADLEE: If you think about it, Cindy, many of these tactics that Amy is suggesting are the tactics negotiators use when they are trying to negotiate a ceasefire. Like between warring nations, they try to find something positive to say about the other person. They use questions to have the other person explain their point of view. And they will also say things like, “If I hear you correctly, you told me, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” They’ll repeat back to the other person what they heard so that they make sure that miscommunications don’t happen as well. You can take the exact same advice that negotiators use and use it to create a mini ceasefire between you and this colleague.
AMY GALLO: And I think the other thing to follow on that Celeste, is that you want to think about taking pattern breaking actions. Because you are in a pattern with her. And what has happened so far, the pattern you’re in, is not working. So, what can you do that’s different, that’s essentially led to you becoming warring factions and what could you do that’s drastically different? Even if it’s just an experiment you try in one conversation to see, does that change things at all? Does that lead to the necessary cease fire that you are looking for?
CINDY: I had hope that this can be resolved if I approach it professionally, but like you mentioned, I shut down when things like this happen and I don’t know what to do next. So that’s a good advice where I can ask questions. I need to remember that and practice that. So that at least I have some space to have a discussion. Right now, what happens is she says something, I shut down. I’m like, “I’m not dealing with this. I’m done.” So, I need to ask the question. I was hoping there was something I’m doing. I tried to have a discussion with her, and I didn’t want to do it alone because I know if I do it alone and it goes sideways, there’s no use in having that discussion.
So, I asked my manager, all three of us, have a chat and discuss what can I do to improve because in my mind, maybe she has some reason. And that’s what I was hoping to get. Like, “What is your reason? What can I do differently? Am I not contributing enough? Am I adding work?” I just wanted, “Give me something.” So, we had that discussion and she got very defensive and upset. And basically, like you said, she has a lot of ego. So, she was like, “My work is appreciated all over the company, you are the only one with a problem.”
CELESTE HEADLEE: Here’s the thing that I’m hearing, Cindy, which is that every time she says something awful or does something awful, you’re reacting as though this is the first time. In other words, I would suggest perhaps you need to prepare yourself that this is the thing she may say to you, this is the way she may react to you and prepare yourself for that. You can go into a meeting and say, “She’s likely going to say something that will upset me. So how do I prepare myself mentally and emotionally in advance so that I can take a breath and respond in a measured way without escalating this conflict?” I think you need to expect that your interactions right now will not be fully healthy.
CINDY: True. I’ve never thought about it like that. And it does feel like the first time, every time.
AMY GALLO: Well, and then it’s understandable you would shut down because if it feels like the first time you’re blindsided every time. And that’s when we’re blindsided, we do not make good choices about how to react or about how to navigate what can be a tricky, tricky interaction.
CINDY: And I would say the confusing part for me throughout all of this is, I know she’s a good person, because we were friends before. So, I couldn’t figure out how a person can just turn like that. So, in my mind, and I see her interaction with others. I see her polite emails to others, or helpful emails. And then the tone suddenly switching when it’s addressing me. I kept expecting to go back to that stage. But like you said, does it look like it will go back, and I need to be ready for that at each interaction.
AMY GALLO: Well, and I think that the image that keeps coming to mind is a cat that’s cornered and has their backup and their hackles up. And I think that she, that description of the conversation you had with you and your manager and her, I just see her as completely on the attack. She was just feeling so threatened. “Everyone here loves working with me, why it must be you?” And I think one of the things you might do is think about, “How can I just get her to calm down?” Now it’s not your job to make her calm down. But if you can lessen that feeling of threatenedness, if you can help her see that she is still in charge of this system, she is still well respected. You will still respect her for her knowledge about this system, that might calm some of that, help her bring some of those hackles down a bit.
AMY GALLO: And also, the mention that you had a good relationship. One of the things that often works when a relationship has gone sour is to help is to remind people that you were once collaborative colleagues. Now that doesn’t mean like, “Hey, listen, we used to get along what’s going on?” That doesn’t sound like a conversation she would be willing to participate in. But you could bring up things about, time you went out to lunch and had a great time, or you could reference those positive moments you did have together to remind her that a collaborative relationship here is possible. And that you’re not interested in continuing in this back and forth, this aggression, defensiveness dynamic that you’ve gotten in.
CINDY: I was hoping my manager would be able to help me with that, but I have to say, no, it looks like it’s on me to change that dynamic.
AMY GALLO: Here’s the tricky part about escalating, which is that you have to be able to escalate to someone who’s capable of mediating a resolution. And most managers and even many HR representatives are not capable of that.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Amen.
AMY GALLO: And so even though they have the power, they may not have the skills. And I think actually the escalation in this situation, I’m guessing, has made her feel more defensive rather than actually applying the pressure that you would hope would make her behave differently.
CINDY: True. I didn’t want to go to HR at all because I thought that was escalating it too much, but I was at a loss, I don’t know how to turn this around. I don’t know how to coexist basically. That’s why I thought, maybe this is the closest person to the situation, and he has a stake in it because it affects productivity. So maybe that’s the right way to go. And I saw it as an open discussion where we could… Maybe she has something that I’m doing wrong. So maybe she could say it out in this meeting. That’s what I was hoping for, but she would give me one, two and three. These are the things that are wrong, and I fix it and it’s all good, but boy, she had nothing. And then like you said, it even went back further.
CELESTE HEADLEE: I want to make sure Cindy, before we let you go, that we have given you, Amy, especially has given you practical tips that you can now carry out. Let me try and summarize the advice you’ve been given and then Amy can correct me if I miss them. The first is to expect that your interactions with this colleague will be not productive or even condescending and hostile instead of getting blindsided by them. The second one is to compliment her when you can authentically, real compliments, but find a way to diffuse her defensiveness by making her feel proud, allowing her to feel good about herself. The third thing is to use your questions, to keep the conversation going and not only force her to interrogate the criticism that she’s offering, but also to continue the conversation without escalation. any?
CINDY: I have to say the one and three, I’m on board. Number two, the complimenting. I don’t know how it comes naturally, but I have to try.
AMY GALLO: And I think with the compliments, I agree this is the hardest thing. When someone has made your work life miserable, the idea that you would have to find something to flatter them about, it’s so unpleasant. That said, I think if you think about it less as something you’re giving her and more as something you’re giving yourself, which is, this could be the pattern breaking action that helps loosen this dynamic and maybe improves your work life. Maybe it reduces all that stress and anxiety you’re feeling about every time you have to meet with her.
And the other thing, when people have a difficult colleague, one of the things I often say is. “Go, find the person that enjoys working with this person.” It sounds like she has a good reputation in your organization. And there’s probably someone you mentioned that she has positive interactions with others. So, is there someone who you can talk to, who can tell you what they so enjoy about working with her that could help you see her in a little bit of a different light and that would make those compliments come a little bit more easily?
AMY GALLO: And the last thing I’d tell you before we have to wrap up is you might try to use the same thing that we tell women to do you, when they’re working in an environment with a lot of sexism, which is find an ally, find someone who’s in that meeting, who also will notice when this person says something rude or dismissive to you or ignores you and can be your ally in that moment so that you are not the only person noticing these things and speaking up for yourself.
CINDY: That’s a good point. That’s something I have struggled with because I have noticed some rude comments against my coworkers as well. And sometimes I’m surprised how she can make those comments, and nobody says anything. And even though the manager is there, so I feel like she has gotten away with it for so long or however, the way she behaves that nobody has kept her in check. So, she is right in that. I’m probably the first person that doesn’t like being treated, maybe the others just brush it off and move along because they get things done by her. So, they tolerate it. So, when these things happen in meetings, it’s natural to her and nobody says anything. So that’s a good point. I never thought of it like that, have someone to support you.
CELESTE HEADLEE: And there is safety in numbers. There’s power in numbers. If she realizes that many of you are taking notice of that behavior and pushing back, you’re putting her on notice that this behavior is not going to be tolerated and that other people are going to call it out. And I think that certainly will apply some important peer pressure for her to behave a bit differently.
CELESTE HEADLEE: So, we have to end the conversation here, although I would imagine we could keep going. And I also imagine there’s lots of listeners who can take a lot away from this advice on how to deal with difficult colleagues. Cindy, I wanted to say, thank you so much for coming and talking with us and bringing this question. It’s such an important one.
CINDY: Thank you, Amy and thank you Celeste. I’m so thankful that you heard me and it’s up to me now to implement these solutions you suggested. I would pick one then try starting with that and then see-
AMY GALLO: That’s probably a good idea.
CELESTE HEADLEE: One step at a time. And best of luck, Cindy. It’s not an easy situation, but it sounds like you’ve got some things you can try out. I look forward to hearing how it goes.
CINDY: Thank you. Thank you so much.
AMY GALLO: This episode is part of Women Amplified’s series “That’s A Good Question” where host Celeste Headlee brings in a guest expert to coach a listener through a problem. Other questions the show has taken on include, how do you make the leap from being a tactical contributor to a strategic leader? Plus, How, in a male-dominated industry, to get senior leadership’s attention without them dismissing you as aggressive?
Got a question that you’d like Celeste and an expert to coach you through? Submit it by going to conferencesforwomen.org/good-question.
Women Amplified is a production of the Conferences for Women, whose mission is to promote, communicate, and amplify the influence of women in the workplace and beyond. The organization puts on four conferences a year, publishes a newsletter, and hosts a free quarterly virtual speaker series on justice, equity, and inclusion.
Thanks for listening. I’m Amy Gallo.