I’m angry and insulted that my coworkers did my job for me

This was originally published on October 13, 2010.

A reader writes:

I was sent on a business trip overseas for 3 weeks, with 5 people from 5 different departments. Because of some business complications, the timeline for what we needed to do there was super tight. While I understand that and understand that everyone works together and does a bit of everyone’s work where we can help, last weekend, two of the guys (let’s call them E and C) decided to do my job and over the weekend did what I was supposed to produce. They sent it out, saying they took the weekend to do this, when it was clearly my department’s deliverable. I became very, very mad that they did such a thing because I feel they should have at least included me in the discussion since it was clearly my department’s responsibility. 

I sent an email to my manager (who for personal reasons couldn’t make this trip) letting him know of my feelings regarding what had happened. I sort of “went off” – in the email, I stated that I am shocked that this happened and asked what his advice would be. I also met with C the next day and told him that it was insulting to me because it made me feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do, or not pulling my weight.

After a few days of cooling off, I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have sent out the email to my manager. What is your take?  I still think what they did was disrespectful and insulting, both on a personal and professional level, for someone to go right out and do someone else’s work without involving or at least letting them know about it.

I understand why you feel the way you do, but yeah, you didn’t really handle this well — largely because you jumped to the worst conclusion immediately.

Rather than immediately deciding to feel insulted and disrespected, why not start off by thinking, “Hmmm, we’re clearly on different pages, so let’s figure out why.”  Ideally, if you could re-do this, you would have thanked E and C for their help, but also nicely explained that you need to be in the loop when your department’s work is being done — because you might have already been in the midst of finishing it, or because you might have information they don’t have that would impact things, or simply because that’s what you’re there to do. You would have then asked them, “Going forward, does that sound reasonable, or should we handle this stuff some other way?”  And then you would have waited to hear their response with an open mind. Maybe they actually had good reason for what they did, and you might have changed your mind if you heard them out calmly and non-defensively. Or maybe they’d realize they had overstepped their bounds and would agree to work with you differently in the future. But this approach is the best way to get at that in a professional way.

The key to this way of thinking is that you’re not just “mad because they did my work.” You need to go beyond that to explain why that’s a problem (even if the “why” seems obvious to you). That’s how you turn an emotional reaction into a professional one. Otherwise, even though of course division of labor is important and there for a reason, your reaction can sound more like a turf war, that you’re not a team player, etc. You might have completely legitimate reasons for being upset about this — but you have to calmly articulate why this creates a problem, not just fall back on “this was mine to do.”

(By the way, a disclaimer: I’m assuming that E and C really shouldn’t have done what they did — although it’s possible that everyone was supposed to be pitching in on everything. Since I don’t know, I’m assuming the former.)

Your email to your boss was a bad idea for the reasons above. I’d send a follow-up telling him that you overreacted and that you’re going to take a more constructive approach with C and E. Keep it short, calm, and unemotional.

Last, this has to be said too:  It’s worth thinking about why C and E stepped in. Maybe they did your work for innocent reasons (eager to help, on a roll, unclear about division of labor, working on something related and this was natural to include, just not thinking, etc.) … but maybe they did your work because they don’t think you’re going to do it well, or fast enough, or at all. This last possibility is the one that insulted you, of course — but you should ask yourself honestly if there’s any reason for them to think that. The fact that you were so emotional about it might indicate that there’s some truth to it, simply because if you were 100% confident about your work, I don’t think this would have felt as threatening to you. So be really, really truthful with yourself if there’s anything like that going on … and if there’s not, great, but it’s worth taking a look at.

Note from the current-day me: If I were writing this today, I don’t think I’d include that second-to-last sentence (“The fact that you were so emotional about it might indicate that there’s some truth to it”). It’s possible that that’s true, but I think the 2010 me drew too much of a conclusion there.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Revanche*

    I think that if you meant, in the 2nd to last line, that it’s worth examining whether or not the reaction was fueled (or extra fueled by) any sense of insecurity, then I think the thought was still worth expressing.

    Perhaps phrased as a question, instead of a statement, it would have felt less assumptive as you note, but I think that there is something to the idea that with more confidence, one tends to find it easier to react professionally first, emotionally second. 2004 me would have reacted the way the OP did, I was working w/a coworker who constantly instigated turf wars at the time & I didn’t have the confidence to trust that my contributions were visible above the fray, but I also had a boss who played favorites so it wasn’t all personal insecurity. Still, the only part of that equation in my control was my reaction, so focusing on that would have been best in the end.

    1. KrisL*

      I think I’m pretty good at what I do, but underneath it all, there’s a fair bit of insecurity, so that might affect me.

      One thing I’ve learned though, if at all humanly possible, don’t send an e-mail that could sound hysterical or furious at work. Try to go a bit Vulcan or Joe Friday with “just the facts”. Also, if you’re really mad, try to wait a while before you send it.

  2. HR Lady*

    I’ve had a situation something like this before, so I appreciate Alison posting the question. I understand the defensiveness, but my boss has made it clear that he doesn’t want us to be “turfy” and he wants us to collaborate. To me (and probably to the OP, too) it has required a big shift in thinking.

    I guess the key here to me would be the fact that they didn’t tell me ahead of time they were going to do the work. I can be collaborative, but I think good communication is part of that.

  3. Just a Reader*

    Did you ever hear back from this LW? I’m curious if there was ever any follow up done on his/her part.

  4. revmatthews*

    2 points to ponder: 1–Was there a unspoken gender dynamic in play here (from either/both sides) that contributed to the problem?

    2–What was the OP doing during the weekend that C&D were working?
    “…They sent it out, saying they took the weekend to do this…” is either a “high-5” seeking mission, or an implied rebuke of the OP’s performance. Not enough info given, I know, but it raises a flag for me.

    1. Alexa*

      Right – my thought was that given that this was an international trip, is it possible that the expectation was that they would be working consistently on the project (including weekends).

      The issue then may be whether this was a reasonable expectation that was clearly communicated and compensated for.

      1. Michele*

        I know that when I have traveled internationally for work the expectations were that we would be working weekends. We generally got one day of the weekend to do our own thing but we worked our tails off at the factories to get the job done!

    2. KrisL*

      I think I’d be upset too because I’d think they didn’t think I could do the job, so they worked extra to do it. All the same, Alison’s advice is good. There’s some quote about never assuming malice when there could be some other reason.

      I would want to ask them why they had done it.

  5. Labratnomore*

    To me, at first, this looked like someone who has a lack of confidence. I have known several people who have confidence issues that cause them to be very territorial about their work. I even know one who often makes a comment about the company deciding they don’t need her every time she goes on vacation. She is also a supervisor that doesn’t delegate, and it seems to be out of a fear that if others knew how to do her job she wouldn’t be need. In this situation they individuals are in different departments, so that may well explain why the task should have been done by LW and not the others.

    I am a little biased though, I am a firm believer in the idea that all the work is the companies work and all the employees are responsible for it. I get really frustrated when I work with individuals with the “this is my job and that is yours attitude”, and I think it is often inefficient. I think there should be systems and procedures in charge of tasks not individuals. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, if I did my job well, the work will go on as if I was still there.

    1. Mike C.*

      The whole situation really felt like office politics to me. When I’ve seen situations like these, it’s usually someone trying to make someone else look bad – either at the personal or departmental level.

      The thing is, not every person in a company is responsible for and can do everything. When you have members of different departments working together, there’s an understanding that each representative knows their area best. After all, you’re not going to ask the sales rep about engineering data and so on. So if the sales and marketing folks produce a report that was the responsibility of engineering, that raises a whole bunch of questions to me:

      1. Why in the heck didn’t you talk to the person responsible for the report? They know the data best, why would you go in and redo everything?

      2. Given that it’s expensive to send people off on business trips, you don’t send redundant labor. So either the company was wasting money, or this person’s expertise and familiarity was needed and missing from the work being produced. Which is it?

      Collaboration is one thing, but locking people out is a whole different ball of wax.

      1. OP*

        Original poster here.

        Mike, summarized it best.

        Wow, its been almost 3 yrs since the post. Hopefully I’ve grown professionally wiser :) Looking back, I don’t regret emailing my manager, but I do wish I was less emotional and more professional about it. Thankfully my manager is a very sharp guy who knew exactly what was up and had a talk with C (the project manager.) It wasn’t a turf war but the 3 of us sent have jobs that the others really can’t produce. Th term that best describe this is transparency. The project logistics and client relationships I would leave the those two, but brainstorming and change in project direction should have involved the 3 of us, not just the two of them in a room on a Sat.

        To those that said there’s a confidence issue, I also agree. I was a 20something yr old looking to prove myself to the company and also to myself that I can handle a project. 3 years later, I’m better at it, but I still have insecurity issues that I try not to show.
        Now if anyone have pointers on how to “fake it” on confidence, please share :)

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          Hey! Glad to see you commenting here.

          I was going to respond to this post yesterday but was too caught up.

          This is the sort of thing I would have done/felt when I was in my 20’s also. One of the things that I learned about power along the way is that responding to things calmly gets you way more power than responding to things emotionally. I sort of trained myself in “reverse responses”. The more threatened I felt about something, the more calmly I would respond.

          As far as insecurity/confidence goes, remember to always look to yourself. The other guy is faking it also. Don’t let your perceptions about somebody else make you feel less confident or insecure.

          Know your own job really well and believe that what you don’t know you can find out or learn because you are just that good. If you are willing to work hard and be open to learning what you don’t know, there’s nothing about your job you can’t be “the best” at. (Talk the talk + walk the walk)

        2. Not So NewReader*

          It seems that if three people are assigned to a task, the results do not get submitted until the three people are in agreement to submit the work. That would tick me off, if my name had been linked to work that I did not review before it was handed over as completed.

          The biggest way I fake confidence is to speak less. Sometimes people think I know way more about a topic than I actually do.They fail to notice I have not been talking much.

          On the cool side of things, I really enjoy watching others ask the exact same question I have before I get a chance. The first thing I say is “Phew. It’s not just me!” But I also get relief from watching other heads nod in agreement when I am the first person to ask THAT question.

          I guess I would say look around more often. Watch people’s faces, their body language. You see people’s eyebrows knit together you know something is going through their heads. You see Sally writing at double speed, yeah, there’s a reason she is scribbling so fast. You can collect little tidbits that tell you things such as “Sally didn’t know about this, either.”
          These tidbits add up over time and you get a better sense of where everyone is at. This, in turn, helps with confidence because you are more apt to realize how similar you are to other and less apt to dwell on how different you are from others.
          Lack of confidence is, in part, convincing yourself that you are sooo different from everyone else and you do not fit in for reasons A, B, C, D, etc. Look at things with fresh eyes and see what is actually happening.

        3. KrisL*

          I know what you mean about insecurity. I’ve been told many times by managers that I’m very good at what I do, and a small but sometimes loud part of me doesn’t believe it.

          As far as faking confidence, remember no one can read your mind. Try not to be overly self-deprecating (you probably already figured this out).

          Know or learn your “hot buttons”. If you realize someone is pushing one (either deliberately or accidentally), it’s a lot easier to deal with it if you can think “Oh yeah, this is something that makes me mad. I need to keep my cool.”

  6. Tasha*

    I ran into a similar situation this past semester, and I resolved it with relatively few problems by just talking to the person involved. I’d been assigned to work on a particular research project, and approached someone else (A) for some background. As it turns out, A was already working on the exact same project, so we met with our common advisor and explained that. I was pretty embarrassed, but realized that it wasn’t my fault. (A also said that some aspects of what I’d been assigned to do were flat-out illogical/impossible, then reported in a big meeting a few weeks later that she’d done them. I was a bit upset, but didn’t show it.)

    Then, I was asked by another senior student to do some specific tasks that A happened to be doing at the same time. Once we figured *that* out, we started holding regular informal meetings to talk about what we were working on. So far, it’s going well.

    If I were in OP’s shoes, I would probably send an email asking, in essence, “I thought X was my responsibility. Am I right, and if so, is there anything I can change about the format or scheduling so that you don’t have that extra work in the future?”

  7. Anonymous*

    Age is really a viewpoint-maker here. I’ve been in my career for nearly 30 years and would love for someone to pick up a task and get it done for me :)

  8. Joel NN*

    Nice post. It is resembling one situation from my area, where one vendor of fruit went for a short call and handled the cart of banana to a neighbor. When away, the neighbor sold all bananas, on returning the vendor was given the cash for the whole load, instead of going to buy more load, the vendor shouted madly to the neighbor. On such situation, the neighbor and others has to question the intent of selling fruit, is it for profit or a cover? On this post, E & C are kind and professional because, they see everybody’s task a company’s obligation with the common goal, it is irrelevant who does what, provided there is no sabotage of any kind, for you complaining to them is shame and unprofessional.

    Joel NN

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