I started a new position a few months ago, and mostly it’s going really well. I like the people, the work, and the hours. I have several years of experience in my field, and I have a good relationship with my superiors. I’ve received great feedback, and I enjoy my job immensely, except for my coworker Nora.
Nora has been with the company for a little under a year, and we share a desk space. She’s a few years younger than I am (she’s in her mid-20s and I just turned 30), and we have very different personalities. She is generally more reserved, while I am more outgoing. Our job requires us to interact with clients regularly. I have been praised for my work with clients; I go out of my way to ensure they have a good experience, and I am very friendly and personable. Nora is not. She is amazing at a large part of our job, particularly anything regarding scheduling and organization. She also knows everyone in our large company and remembers specifics about their preferences. I would love to learn more from her. However, her communication is not great. She regularly disappears for chunks of time without telling me (ranging from 15 minutes to an hour), leaving me unsure when she’ll be back and without help if things get busy with clients; she doesn’t always pass on information that would be helpful to have; and she gets annoyed if I communicate such things to her.
It is entirely possible I am overcommunicating, so I am trying to temper my instinct to share. I try to keep our conversation to a minimum, as that’s what she seems to prefer. I offer to help with anything that might need to be done, but she seems to resent my asking. I try to leave her to her work, regardless of how busy she is and how slow my work is. When I ask her questions about her weekend, she gives me one-word answers, but then she’ll spend 20 minutes chatting with our other coworkers. If I make a mistake, she snaps and gets upset rather than working to fix the problem or helping to avoid it in the future.
I’ve talked to our boss, who seems focused on the idea that we are just different people with different personalities. But based on things others have said, it also seems like she is badmouthing me to coworkers. I’m of the mind that you don’t have to like all of your coworkers (or any of them!), but you do have to be polite and professional. She isn’t my favorite coworker of all time, either, but I stay professional and pleasant.
I’m running out of ideas and steam. I’m happy to adjust how I work and interact! I’ve always been able to work with people in the past, even if we weren’t very compatible. But Nora is being rude and uncommunicative, often disappears, and is now most likely badmouthing me to coworkers. I’m new, so I don’t want to rock the boat, and I really enjoy the rest of my job. Is there anything I can do to make our work relationship better?
Well … it sure does sound like Nora doesn’t like you. And, as you point out, that’s okay! We don’t need to like everyone at work as long as we’re reasonably polite and professional with them. But Nora is currently failing at that; regularly responding to questions with one-word answers is rude, and snapping at you when you make a mistake isn’t okay.
That said, I think your boss might be mostly right when she says that this is a case of you and Nora having very different personalities. Normally I’m annoyed when a manager gives an answer like that, because it’s often a response to problems that aren’t personality conflicts at all — like when one coworker isn’t responding to work emails or is excluding the other from important meetings. In cases like that, “you have different personalities” is a conflict-avoidant cop-out. But in this case, most of what you’ve described sounds like it does come down to the two of you being very different and having conflicting preferences for how you interact.
From your letter, it sounds like you’re very extroverted while Nora is more introverted (or at least reserved, as you said). If you started the job expecting and initiating a level of interaction that felt uncomfortable to Nora and she tried to assert her own boundaries in response, a lot of this behavior makes sense.
And I do think you might have expectations of her that aren’t 100 percent reasonable. For example, leaving her desk for 15 minutes without telling you is pretty typical in most jobs! That’s a trip to the kitchen or bathroom and a chat with a colleague on the way back, and it’s normal not to give you advance notice of it. In fact, in a lot of jobs, there wouldn’t be an expectation that she’d inform you of her hour-long absences either.
That doesn’t mean you don’t have some reasonable concerns here. A lot of this sounds like you expected a certain type of work relationship with her — one with close, intertwined work and frequent communication — and she’s signaling pretty clearly that that’s not what she wants. (It’s possible the job requires that, but your letter doesn’t mention any serious problems her style has caused in the work you each do.)
To the extent that you can, I’d work on respecting Nora’s signals: She doesn’t like to chat while she works, so keep unnecessary conversation to a minimum. (To calibrate this, think of how much you’d chat with her if her desk were far away from yours. You might be talking to her more simply because you’re right next to each other — which is understandable, but it doesn’t sound like it’s working for either of you.) For whatever reason, she’s annoyed when you try to share information with her, so go ahead and stop unless something is truly crucial. (A good litmus test is, “Would my boss be alarmed that I didn’t share this with Nora?”) She doesn’t respond well when you offer to help, so assume she’s got a blanket “no thanks” in place and proceed accordingly.
If she’s badmouthing you to coworkers, that’s more concerning. Without knowing what she’s saying, it’s hard to know how to respond. If you hear that she’s said anything about you that’s untrue, it’s important to correct the record directly with her and with others. But if she’s complaining more generally about not getting along with you, that’s trickier to address. One thing that should help, though, is making a point of forming your own strong relationships with other people in your office. When they have positive experiences with you — and they know firsthand that you’re warm, friendly, kind, and competent — they’ll be less likely to be swayed by Nora’s complaining about you. You’ll also get more peace of mind from knowing you’re making your own impressions rather than Nora making them for you.
There is a risk that being so accommodating will embolden Nora to be more of a jerk, rather than smoothing things over. If that happens, though, you’ll be able to go back to your boss with bigger concerns than you took to her the first time – and you’ll be able to list a bunch of ways you’ve tried to be conciliatory.
I want to be clear that I don’t mean to imply Nora is fine and you are the weird one. These are fairly unusual steps to have to take to accommodate a coworker, and it’s not right that you’ll be making all the adjustments while she makes none. But you have to work with the situation you have, and you can only control your side of things. Since these aren’t extreme adjustments, you might as well give them a try and see if doing that brings more peace to both of you. And if a couple of months from now things still feel tense, try to orchestrate a change of desks!
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.