Community QA

Competing with a Colleague

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, accountability discussions, and behavior change challenges, we introduced the Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Dear Crucial Skills,

My colleague and I were in competition for a promotion thirteen months ago. I was awarded the position and since then our relationship has changed dramatically. At one point in our careers we shared an office and had a very positive relationship. Now every encounter seems to be difficult. She often reacts to my suggestions with anger and has even been seen to point her finger at me and order me to do things. I do not report to her nor does she report to me. We continue to be colleagues and I do not wish to pull rank—that isn’t how I work. This person is valued and has skills which we need in our organization, but I am not accustomed to this lack of respect and constant anger. How can I approach her to stop the behavior without inflaming an already difficult relationship?

Delicacy Required

11 thoughts on “Competing with a Colleague”

  1. sometime people cannot accept that they have lost and you need to accept them as they are. You cannot control their reaction but only yours.

  2. What a difficult situation. What do you want for yourself? I would guess it’s to be treated respectfully. And for your colleague? That she find a way to return to her happier, more contented self. And of course you miss the previous collegial relationship. That’s a fact that might help you in the conversation. So I think the STATE skills give you a place to start. As for your stories, they might sound like this: “On one hand, I worry that I have done something to hurt or offend you. Yet there’s part of me that thinks perhaps you are mad at me because I got the promotion.” No doubt it won’t be a smooth conversation. I’ll bet that you’ll be using some or all of those skills to create or restore safety. Good luck!
    I’m looking forward to what others have to say.

  3. “You are not the boss of me” may be an automatic response to your suggestions, based on your promotion and her respective “diminishment”. It is likely to continue until she regains her self-esteem. Take up your suggestions in private, if at all. Meanwhile, find opportunities to praise her in specific matters to others without qualification. Qualification would be diminishment.

    I think a good lunch or dinner well outside of the office between the two of you may be in order. If you miss the earlier relationship, let her know. Explore what you might do for her. If she thinks you have changed, don’t let it be about you, but admit to any factual content that might surface. Repairing the relationship is your priority and you have to see it from her perspective as well.

    If she wants to reconcile, she will let you know in future deeds.

    My only other advice is find time to meet regularly, even if it is just 15 minutes once a week for coffee. Relationships do not maintain themselves without time, energy, and resources.

  4. Could it be time for a “crucial conversation?” From your description, the breakdown of your relationship is due to something that happened outside of your direct control, but she may perceive that you had some influence that weighted the promotion in your favor, or that the situation was unfair in some respect.

    Her anger and disrespect are focused on you, but are most likely displaced. If it were me in your place, I would try and see if she was willing to have a conversation, and then, using my best CC skills, express my concern that she is unhappy. I’d also let her know how much I valued our previous working style, and what a loss it has been to lose it. Good luck!

  5. What a wonderful opportunity for two people to grow.
    We can all remember a time when we anticipated a win in our court and “poof” the win went to someone else. The circle of self talk around that loss still amazes me.
    Consistency with compassion or the Support – Comfort – Support as Kim previously stated may be a good approach until your friend is ready to hear you. Also, when the opportunity arises you may refer to old times when she felt safe in your presence and very slowly build on your common thread.
    I sure you realize that you too are mourning a lost relationship with her and may feel unsafe yourself if she has responded in anger and inappropriateness.
    Your character and strength show through in your ability to understand your colleague, depersonalize her actions, and realize her value to the organization.

  6. A lot of stories can be told from these facts so we need more information to be poured in the pool of meaning. Your colleague seems to act out her emotions but what exactly caused them in the first place?

    It’s pretty hard to do when under attack but I would suggest being curious and humble. If the goal is to restore the previously healthy relationship and help your colleague feel better, the conversation will have more chances to go the right way.

    I think the best way to behave also depends on your colleague’s personality. Some people respond better when you are very tentative, some respect you more if you show your strength by being direct. In other words, the blend between confidence and humility needs to be adapted to what she needs, not necessarily what you feel comfortable with.

    1. I was in a similar position. I read all the responses and I tried them all. Nothing worked. She was vindictive and mean to me. It took over three years until I had to take a family leave and I found out that her husband was transfers out of the state.
      We even talked with a mediator at work. She was rude and aggressive in our meeting. I was worned out. It took all my energy and creativity.
      I found out that she was under influence of drug and alcohol.
      One must realize this is completely an abnormal behavior.
      I recommend random drug testing which give you a ground for further evaluation and treatment or even ground for eleminating her out of the company.

  7. It is never easy to change the dynamic between two old co-workers. Before approaching her reaction toward you, maybe it is a good time to “start from heart” and think about what type of interaction you would like to re-enforce or create with her, and like dolanoff mentioned, started a crucial conversation with her. You might also want to create a boundary with her, and establish your role as a leader in the team. From your question, I think you value her ability and skill. Maybe let her know you are here to support and help her to get to the next stage, I think she would appreciate your friendship and help.

  8. Treat them kindly and take advantage of chances to be helpful. Find ways to acknowledge their feelings in a DIFFERENT context. E.g. “I heard your pet died. I’m so sorry.”

  9. Your conflicted because this person meant more to you than just the everyday common working relationship. Perhaps you can take some time to reflect on any past occurrences, talks, milestones you shared together. Something you know both of you would remember positively.

    In order to give your self perspective I would start there. This will give your conversation some sort of beginning. Perhaps start with the story you reflected on. You expressed that you had respect for this individuals abilities I would make sure she hears this during your conversation.

    When you see the opportunity ask directly what happened in your own words. Compare and contrast the relationship you had then and the relationship you have now. Emphasis what you valued about that relationship.

    Try to listen without being judgmental or defensive. Easier said than done. This is where you have to make sure you’re also laser focused on that North Star(your goal). This also takes courage. You may not get the result you hope for. Try at most 3 times in the conversation then leave it with as much grace and peace in your heart as possible.

    I would anticipate she may try today something like I deserved that job. Or something hurtful… Remember you believed that you also desereved it as well.

    Sometimes it’s hard to pull ourselves out of this winner loser competition value we have in this country. The reality was there was one opening and two people that wanted it. It’s just a shame it had a negative effect on two people who once had a very good relationship.

    Hope this helps. Best of luck.

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