💁🏻‍♀️ Dear Marie

How do you address issues with a coworker?

July 27, 2020

Dear Marie,

I’m struggling with how to address a coworker’s work. In the past, I would go to another trusted coworker or superior and talk it over, but I’m trying really hard not to talk about people, and instead to them about things that bother me, in the Brene Brown style of confronting the stuff that makes me uncomfortable.

So! Here’s my dilemma, we recently co-led a meeting together. We put a lot of work into the meeting and after copious planning and a detailed agenda, my coworker went a little off-book and kinda rambled on about the topic rather than doing what the agenda said, which was to pause and ask for input from the other attendees of the meeting.

Overall, the meeting went well, and I know no one else knew that wasn’t really part of the plan, but this seems to be a pattern I see forming where we prepare really well, but then she interjects her thoughts in the midst of a rigidly planned spiel, and it makes us look a little unorganized/unprepared in my opinion. I respect her and don’t want to be rude, but I also want to consistently put out good work.

Nonconfrontational Coworker during Covid

Hey Nonconfrontational,

First of all—this sounds very frustrating that you’ve put so much effort into planning an agenda, only for your coworker to go off script. I also love plans and preparation and rules, and this would annoy me too.

It sounds like one of the things you are most upset about is that “it makes us look a little unorganized/unprepared in my opinion.” Is that a sentiment that other people on your team have expressed to you? Or is this more of an internal fear that you might look bad?

I have a suspicion that this might be a bit more personal for you—it seems unlikely that in a healthy workplace, people would see your coworker rambling and think it’s your fault for not being sufficiently prepared. But I’m not in the room and you have a better sense of this than I do.

But! You also can give your coworker feedback based on how these interactions affect you, without having to use “what will other people think of us” as sufficient cause to be upset or annoyed.

What is really bothering you the most here? Is it that your team isn’t getting to contribute their feedback? That your coworker is disorganized and it reflects poorly on you? That you’re frustrated when your coworker goes off plan, like the agenda you’ve worked so hard on doesn’t matter?

From what you’ve described, I don’t think this calls for a Big Feedback Conversation yet. Going off topic in a meeting feels more like the kind of behavior you’d want to address in person as it happens, especially for a coworker and not for someone you manage.

Have you already been giving your coworker feedback in the moment, or trying to get the meeting back on topic?

This is probably easiest if you’ve made the agenda clear to everyone in the meeting. For example, let’s say that you’ve sent out a written outline when you invite people to the meeting and then briefly summarized the agenda at the start of the meeting. Then if your coworker starts to ramble, you can try to redirect by saying something like, “That’s some great background information, but we only have 15 minutes left and I’d like to make sure we can get input from everyone else.”

It’s awkward to jump in like this at times, especially if you typically avoid conflict! But, if you make sure that everyone knows what the plan is, it should feel less personal when you remind your co-host (or anyone else) that you’re trying to stick to it. Meeting moderation is an excellent skill to develop, and it’s a way to make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute and the time is well spent.

I do want to acknowledge that redirecting the conversation like this can be trickier if your coworker is senior to you. But it can still be done politely and professionally!

If you have already been attempting to keep the conversation on track, and your coworker is just bound and determined to do what she wants, then that’s a different conversation about why she’s ignoring you or steam-rolling your contributions in meetings that the two of you are leading together.

Or, maybe she’s responding well when you try to redirect but it keeps happening. Then you could always frame the conversation about the agenda itself. Is there a possibility that she’s reacting in the moment to new information? Maybe she thinks your team doesn’t have enough context to meaningfully give feedback yet.

I think it’s great that you’re trying to practice resolving conflict with your coworker directly. But if you try to give your coworker feedback and nothing changes, then you should definitely talk to your manager, especially if they also manage your coworker.

If you don’t already, I highly recommend reading Alison Green’s Ask a Manager blog. She has a wealth of workplace wisdom and posts for every possible topic. She’s greatly influenced the way I think about navigating workplace conflict and relationships, and I’m always learning something from her posts.

I’m wishing you the best of luck! I’m so glad that you already respect your coworker and her contributions—that makes it so much easier to talk about what could be better when you already share a base of mutual respect and trust.

I will say, I have often found that inspecting my own reactions at work has helped me a lot to figure out what are the actionable things I can request of my coworkers, and what are Big Feelings Unrelated To Them that flare up. I can then acknowledge those feelings without placing the blame for them on my peers and their actions.

I’m rooting for you as you figure out how you want to handle conflict or disagreement in the workplace. You don’t have to be confrontational to speak up about what’s bothering you or how to improve. You can be kind and warm and strong and professional. I believe that you truly can tackle what makes you uncomfortable from a place of confidence and empathy. Live your best Brené Brown life.

Marie 💛

Marie Chatfield Rivas

Written by Marie Chatfield Rivas, an amateur aspiring advice columnist, certified Emoji Enthusiast™, and purveyor of fine tweets.

💌 Subscribe to Dear Marie.
📝 Ask Dear Marie a question.