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Dealing with Co-workers

Question: I'm an administrative assistant for one department and I get thrown into some projects with a woman from another department. It's supposed to be a "teamwork" thing, where we are working on the project together. Instead, every time it ends up her telling me how it's going to be done and giving me directions. She never asks "what do you think" or "what do you want to do". She just seems to take over. I feel intimidated by her overwhelming personality. Around her I feel incompetent and silly, and I usually just end up smiling and agreeing and doing things her way, when I really want to ask her "are we going to work together, or are you just going to tell me what to do?" She's not my boss and she doesn't work in my department. I'm really angry and frustrated about the whole situation and it's getting to the point now where I feel like I could just go off on her about it. How do I deal with this?

Answer: Working with someone in a new situation that has not been clearly defined can be unsettling especially when the co-worker is perceived to be too much in charge to the point of intimidating. Part of determining a positive course of action will be to objectively establish what is creating this uncomfortable dynamic.

The description of your behavior as being the antithesis of what you really want to do - e.g. smiling and taking her lead instead of stipulating a more teamwork attitude - indicates that this is a set reaction to the sound of authority. The additional fact of your feeling incompetent and silly would further suggest that this scenario returns you to the powerless days of your childhood.

You will want to consider the possibility that your co-worker is taking charge because you - playing an old subservient role - don't appear to be taking the lead. Remember, the fact that you feel helpless to assert yourself - which, understandably, is making you angry - is not your co-worker's fault. She may even be unaware of how her take-charge attitude is affecting you. If you determine that this has, in part, been the case you will want to immediately begin to change this dynamic by asserting your peer status.

Your aim is to achieve a win-win solution where each party comes away feeling like they got what they wanted. Getting that win-win takes negotiation - which means - communication. Therefore, the best first course of action will always be to talk through the situation, honestly and directly, simply stating that you'd prefer to work peer-to-peer on any future projects.

If you are afraid to be that direct, try putting some things into place that will change the interaction between the two of you. If possible, ask whoever makes these assignments to bring the next one directly to you. That will allow you to take a more leadership position at the onset. Your co-worker's response to this will also make clear whether or not she is deliberately trying to override you.

Next time you feel intimidated, focus on staying calm and telling yourself mentally that you are not stupid or weak. If you don't wish to directly challenge the person's assumed authority, try breaking the behavior pattern by asking questions. Do the unexpected to change the interaction. Side step any power-play. Offer alternatives to the way she wants to handle things. f you begin to feel helpless or angry - stop. Take a deep breath. You do not want the anger you feel to spill over onto this person especially when you are probably at least as angry with yourself for not being more assertive and self-caring.

Understand the difference between responding - which is positive - and reacting - which is negative. In dealing with people, we will be most successful if we remain in control of our emotions and ourselves and respond from that place - rather than react to something they are doing.

If your non-assertive behavior has become passive-aggressive - which almost always leads to self-sabotage, loss of self-control, sometimes angry outbursts - you must consider the idea of confronting the situation either directly or through a mediating supervisor. Do not blame the other person for the situation Instead, approach it as a 'we' issue. Ask for direction in creating a better balance of the workload between you. Stay in your mature self as you participate in any such meeting even though the little kid in you might really be wanting to throw a tantrum. (That's something you can do at home with your pillows when everyone else is out of the house!).

Finally, remember, Angela, that pain and discomfort are our teachers. They make us pay attention to things that need to be confronted and changed. Use this work situation to achieve a big step forward in becoming a person who takes good care of herself. Ask for the help you need so that you can grow and make progress on your job - and in life. Also see:
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Disclaimer: The information in this column is intended to provide the reader with general ideas or concepts to be used as part of a broader base of knowledge they collect to determine their own best course of action and solutions most suitable for solving their workplace challenges. The information in this column is not guaranteed to be the appropriate solution for each individual.