1. Business

Career Q&A: Workers must define jobs if bosses don't

Published Feb. 13, 2014

Q: I don't know how to resolve a conflict with my co-worker. "Kay" and I both handle marketing activities for a large medical practice. Marketing was part of my job for many years until Kay was hired about a year ago. The physicians told us to collaborate because she had professional marketing experience, while I was familiar with the practice.

Initially, Kay and I worked well together, but after awhile she seemed irritated by my marketing questions. I decided to stop bothering her and continue doing what I had always done. We remained friendly, but focused on our own individual projects.

The problem began when the physicians scheduled a marketing meeting. When I mentioned that I planned to show a PowerPoint that I had created for one of the doctors, Kay got upset and told me this wasn't appropriate. She said we should coordinate our presentations and accused me of trying to make her look stupid.

We managed to act normal during the meeting, but now we're barely speaking. The doctors have clearly stated that we're supposed to work together, so how can we fix this mess?

A: This is a classic case of role confusion, which is a frequent cause of workplace conflict. On the surface, these disagreements look like personality problems, but they actually result from vague and ambiguous work assignments. While employees are often blamed for the resulting tension, the real culprit is ineffective management.

After flying solo for years, you were suddenly told to collaborate with a co-worker, but no one bothered to differentiate your responsibilities. When these overlapping jobs created predictable friction, you avoided each other until circumstances forced you into a joint presentation. At that point, your different approaches suddenly collided.

Since doctors are typically not great managers, you and Kay should call a truce and agree to solve this problem on your own. Start by identifying all the marketing tasks, then determine the best way to share them. Given your complementary areas of expertise, you will be much more effective together than either of you would alone.

'This might make you mad, but . . .'

Q: Several years ago, I asked our human resources manager to mediate an ongoing disagreement with a co-worker. We were able to hash out our differences, and the issue was resolved. I assumed this conversation would be kept confidential, but now I'm not so sure.

I have begun to notice that my colleagues frequently preface comments to me by saying "you're not going to like this" or "this might make you mad." Sometimes they just tell me to breathe. Although I have asked them not to begin our interactions with such negative remarks, they continue to do so.

After thinking about this, I finally concluded that either the HR manager or my co-worker must have shared information about our previous conflict. That would explain why I apparently have a reputation for being difficult. What should I do about this?

A: I don't think you will like my answer, but I do hope you will consider it. Based on your description, I believe you are jumping to some unwarranted conclusions about the cause of this problem. If you are open to a different interpretation, however, you might take some steps that would benefit your career.

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You're assuming that your colleagues are wary because they heard about the earlier disagreement, but you seem to be ignoring the fact that this incident occurred "several years ago." After so much time, that single event would not influence current perceptions without more recent evidence.

A more likely explanation is that people are responding to the way you receive unwelcome information. Having observed that negative news tends to irritate or upset you, they attempt to lessen this reaction by providing an advance warning. But since you don't see yourself this way, that reason would not occur to you.

To either validate or disprove this theory, solicit some candid opinions from trusted friends, family members or colleagues. Ask them the following question, using these exact words: "At work, I've noticed that people keep trying to calm me down but I don't know why. Can you help me understand why they do this?"

Encourage honest answers, then quietly listen without arguing or debating. After reflecting upon this feedback, make any changes that seem helpful. If you want to put an end to these annoying comments, you will have to demonstrate that they are no longer necessary.