Let me just say up front, you’re going to think I’m a jerk. The problem is I deeply dislike someone I work with, someone everyone else seems to enjoy but who nonetheless drains me of my happiness whenever she enters my atmosphere.
A few months ago, I was promoted to a position I never dreamed I’d get, at least not without a few more years of proving myself. I get on so well with my boss, and he trusts me enough to learn on the job. But all this excitement was immediately tamped down when I realized that many of my responsibilities would force me to interact with this person.
She is what I’d call a “try hard.” She works way too hard to please everyone around her and try to become their friend. I would normally welcome closer relationships with my colleagues, but all of her attempts have been incredibly off-putting. Her constant barrage of IMs with smiley faces makes me want to run and hide. She sent me and my partner a baby-shower gift on her own initiative, and it made me cringe. In the office, before we started working from home, I had been moved to sit right next to her, and thanks to our low-profile cubicles, I was in her line of sight all day. This meant I couldn’t have any kind of facial reaction to an email or project without getting an unsolicited “What’s wrong?” or “Tough issue?” So I forced myself to become stony and impassive. I had formerly been jovial with everyone, but sitting next to her turned every interaction I had with others into ones where she would jump in and try to make people laugh or give her opinion on a project she wasn’t involved with. So whenever she was in the room or within earshot, I became silent.
I feel like she’s sort of my own personal energy vampire. I know this affects how others see me and makes me seem newly cold and distant, but the thought of interacting with her makes me terribly unhappy.
Also, my job is a new position that takes a bunch of the overflow stuff she used to handle off her hands. And because she’s a worrier and an overthinker, she’s constantly asking me for updates and explanations on projects that have nothing to do with her any longer. Imagine a co-worker who wants to monitor your work as if she were your manager. I have a different work style from her, and I can’t develop on my own due to her constant interference.
I know the problem is with me, but I also feel like she’s robbing me of the enjoyment I’d ordinarily get from my job. How do I stop letting these things bother me without expending huge amounts of energy every day and also hating myself? She hasn’t done anything terrible. She’s just like oil to my water.
Sometimes someone just … rubs us the wrong way and we don’t know why. Or we have a negative reaction to someone, and whatever array of annoying traits they may have, that is more intense than seems warranted.
When that happens, it’s natural to attempt to analyze the person’s behavior to try to figure out why we dislike them so much. When we find bits of evidence for why they annoy us — Aha! they do Annoying Thing X and Irritating Thing Y! — it’s easy to assume we’ve cracked the problem. Of course, this is why we don’t like them.
Sometimes that really is the explanation. But other times, we’re grasping onto things that wouldn’t bother us as much if they were done by someone else, and what’s really going on is that this person just gets under our skin for an unknowable reason — or at least not one you’re conscious of in the moment. (Sometimes you’ll realize much later that you disliked someone because they reminded you of a difficult ex or even of a trait you dislike in yourself.)
None of this is to say your co-worker isn’t doing genuinely annoying things. She is! It’s annoying as hell to have someone monitoring your expressions and commenting every time your face changes in response to an email, or interrupting your conversations about projects she’s not involved in. And it’s irritating to have a peer feel entitled to updates on your work when she’s no longer involved in it. Your frustration with those things is not misplaced.
But you’re responding to those legitimate frustrations in a way that isn’t constructive and is actually hurting you.
Think about it: Rather than asking her to stop doing this stuff (which would be an entirely reasonable request to make), you’re choosing instead to be cold and distant with everyone around you, lest your co-worker have an opening to jump in and annoy you further.
I suspect you’re doing this because she has become Jane, the Person Whose Very Presence Sets Me on Edge, rather than just Jane, the Person With Some Annoying Traits. She aggravates you so intensely that your instinct is to try to block her out entirely — and I think that aggravation is preventing you from seeing how you can probably mitigate a lot of this.
I get that instinct, believe me. Plenty of times I’ve suffered from thinking, If I give an inch, she’ll take a mile, so I’ll just give her nothing, problem solved. That can work when you’re dealing with, say, an excessively chatty neighbor you try to avoid. But it’s not a good strategy for a co-worker, especially one you have to interact with a lot. In fact, it’s pretty unworkable.
Why not just talk to her? It’s 100 percent reasonable to say, for example, “When you ask for updates and explanations on projects that have moved over to me, it takes a lot of time to get you caught up and makes me worry you still see them as yours in some way. I don’t mind giving an occasional update if there’s something you’re very curious about — I know what it’s like to feel invested in a project — but [manager] is the person I’m accountable to on this work, and I’m keeping her in the loop.” And if it continues after that: “Why do you ask?” or “Like we talked about, I want to keep this streamlined to me and [manager].” If it continues after that, then say warmly but firmly, “Jane! We talked about this! I’m cutting you off.”
You can also address the constant commentary on your facial expressions. The next time she inquires about a change to your face while you’re simply reading your own damn email, try saying, “It breaks my focus when you ask about my facial expressions and makes me feel self-conscious. I’d be grateful if you just let my face do its thing!”
Addressing her habit of jumping into conversations is a little trickier. In theory, you could say something like, “If someone is meeting with me to ask about X, please let me handle that, since I’m working on it and know the details.” But in practice, asking that anywhere close to the time you make the other two requests is going to be too much; it will seem as if you’re suddenly nitpicking all her behavior. So I’d instead focus on the other two items. And it’s possible that if those things change, you’ll be less bothered by this one.
You’re far better off trying to address some of this directly rather than letting it impact your enjoyment of your job and how you’re coming across to other people. What’s more, it’s fairer to your co-worker as well: If you were regularly setting a co-worker’s teeth on edge, wouldn’t you want to know what you were doing that was annoying them so much?
This is someone who has shown she wants to get along with you. Give her the chance to hear “Please don’t do that” and to adjust her behavior accordingly.
You’re not a bad co-worker for just not clicking with someone. It’s normal, it happens. But when it gets to the point where it’s affecting how you’re coming across at work, that’s a sign that you’ve got to be more direct and address what is actually bothering you.
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.