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‘Ask a Boss: My Boss Loves Me But Hates My Co-worker’

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Dear Boss,

I started a new job six months ago and it has been really amazing. I report directly to the head of our small department, Jamie. My relationship with Jamie is pretty great. I feel incredibly supported, and she goes out of her way to sing my praises to others.
I get to take the lead on tons of interesting projects, and she includes me in her projects as much as possible. I feel like she really trusts me, and when I need guidance she is very good about providing it. This is truly the dream position that I have been looking for: an organization that I highly respect, a supportive work environment, new and interesting projects all the time, and the potential for long-term growth.

In our small department, there is also a new manager who started a few months before me, Emily, who also reports directly to Jamie. We are close in age and get along really well. Things are not going well for Emily. There are subtle differences in the way that Jamie interacts with Emily versus the way she interacts with me. If Emily makes a suggestion in a group meeting, Jamie will meet it with pessimism; if I make a suggestion, Jamie often responds with enthusiasm. In my standing meetings with Jamie, she often asks how she can help or if there is anything she can do to support me. Emily says that in her own meetings with Jamie, they’ll agree on project plans but then if another department complains to Jamie, Jamie will side with the other department and ask Emily to reconfigure her project. Emily often feels undercut by Jamie. There are other leaders in the organization who will not respond to Emily’s requests, instead sending responses to Emily’s questions directly to Jamie. Emily’s team is noticing the difference in treatment as well; she has told me that two of her direct reports have mentioned it to her.

I have asked Emily if there is anything she would like me to do. I have offered to bring it up to Jamie, or to speak with Jamie together with Emily, but she says that she will handle it. When she is frustrated by Jamie’s treatment of her, I try to offer advice, but it’s really difficult since I have a completely different experience with Jamie. I also feel terrible when Emily complains about her negative interactions with other departments when I get completely different reactions from the same people. I also worry that she will see it as some kind of betrayal, because I actually enjoy working with some of the people who she has been having issues with. I can’t shut people out — even if I want to be supportive of Emily, I need to build good working relationships to be effective in my job.

I want to be a good friend to Emily, but I don’t know how to address these issues. I want to help, but I don’t know how!

This is a tough spot to be in.

What’s particularly tricky here is that it’s possible that Jamie has taken an irrational dislike to Emily and is treating her unkindly and unfairly … but it’s also possible that she treats her differently for legitimate, performance-based reasons. For example, if Emily’s work is poor, or if she’s terrible at follow-through or has been dropping balls, or if her judgment on work projects hasn’t been great, it would make sense that she’s having a different experience with Jamie than you are.

Depending on how closely you work together, you wouldn’t necessarily know if that’s the case. Managers sometimes have a different vantage point on people’s work than their co-workers do. I’ve had the experience of thinking a co-worker was good at her work and then starting to manage her and discovering fairly serious issues that I hadn’t known about when we were peers.

To be clear, if that’s the case, Jamie should be tackling those issues head-on with Emily, not just being grumpy and unsupportive with her. But maybe she is! None of what you described indicates that she’s not doing that behind the scenes. Jamie might be responding pessimistically to Emily’s ideas in meetings because the ideas aren’t well thought out or because she needs Emily to master her current projects before taking on anything new. She might side with other departments when they want Emily to reconfigure a project because the other department’s concerns are well founded. And it’s even possible that people are going around Emily to Jamie because they’ve been frustrated by their experiences with her, and that her interactions with other departments are negative for similar reasons.

Or maybe none of that is the case.

It’s also possible that Jamie just personally dislikes Emily and is letting it affect the way she manages her, which would be horrible and unfair but is a thing that sometimes happens.

There’s also a middle option, which is that Jamie’s reasons are work-related but still aren’t quite fair. Maybe Emily has some work habits that aren’t ideal but which wouldn’t be a huge problem under another manager. Maybe Emily made some major mistakes early on, but has done well since then, and Jamie can’t let it go.

Ultimately, you may never know exactly what accounts for the disparity in Jamie’s treatment of you and Emily. And because you don’t know, your best bet is to carve out some neutral ground that lets you be supportive of Emily as a friend without taking sides on the work issues that you’re not involved in. That means that you can be genuinely sympathetic to Emily that she’s having a hard time at work, but you should avoid opining on whether Jamie is right or wrong, since you may not have enough information to really know that.

You could, however, offer to share any insight that you have about working with Jamie effectively — like if you’ve learned that she wants responses to emails within three hours, or that she wants to be consulted before you change project components like X or Y, or that she’s most receptive to project questions on Monday afternoons. You could say something like, “You know, I have a very different experience with Jamie, and I wonder if there’s something about the way I approach my work with her that makes her respond differently. If you’d like, I could walk you through some of the work habits I use that she responds well to, and you could see if there’s anything there that you’re not doing that you want to try.”

And certainly, if you hear people talking about Emily in a way that’s contrary to your own experiences with her, you can speak up about that. (“Hmmm, I’m surprised to hear that. I’ve found Emily to be very responsive/organized/creative.”)

Beyond that, though, you shouldn’t get as involved as it sounds like you have. You mentioned that you’ve offered to speak to Jamie about the situation, either one-on-one or with Emily. Don’t do that — that’s involving yourself in a way that you don’t have standing to do. (And if it does turn out that Jamie manages Emily this way because of problems with Emily’s performance, it’s going to look especially odd that you’re inserting yourself into the middle of that.)

But the reality is, Emily may simply have different relationships with people at work than you do, for reasons that you might never get great insight into. If it turned out that you are in fact working with jerks who have ganged up on her for no discernable reason, that would be cause to speak up (and presumably to reconsider your own work there). But otherwise, while you can be a kind and empathetic friend, this is really Emily’s to manage. Part of that work for Emily may include thinking about whether — fairly or unfairly — this is a place she can be successful in long-term. That’s a question you can encourage her to think about, and you can support her in figuring out her next steps if she decides she’d be better off moving on.

If you take that approach and stick to being kind and supportive without assigning blame for the dynamic, then — assuming Emily is a reasonable person, which it sounds like you believe she is — she shouldn’t see it as a betrayal that you have different relationships with the people she struggles with.

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‘My Boss Loves Me But Hates My Co-worker’