my coworker is arguing with every decision I make — on a project that I’m leading

A reader writes:

I work in a design field, and we work in teams of 4-5 people, which rotate on a person by person basis. I am 9 months in at a new firm, which recruited me based on a very strong recommendation from a client. I am the lead for our current project, which is with said client, not only because that’s what my experience dictates but also at the client’s request. One of the members of my team, who I’ll call Z, was previously the team lead when working with this client before I joined this firm. The client has straight up said that I bring something to the team that they’ve never seen before and they prefer working with me as the lead rather than Z.

Z is a very nice, smart, talented individual, but seems to be having trouble accepting that I am the lead for the project and he is not. He seems to want to argue every work plan, path forward, schedule, goals etc. that I set for the team. He phrases his input not as suggestion, but as direction, which quite frankly rubs me the wrong way. He’s basically acting like he’s the team lead, and essentially like he’s my boss.

I’m usually a fairly blunt, straight forward, calm, and rational person, but lately I’ve been finding myself want to explode and yell “DUDE IT’S MY CALL JUST DO WHAT I AM ASKING YOU TO DO.” I am tired of explaining and re-explaining why I want things done the way I want them. At the same time, even at 9 months in, I’m still the new person in town (and I’ve only been working with this team for just under 3 months), and the culture of this firm is such that there isn’t a lot of conflict floating around.

How can I address this without being branded a troublemaker? When I have tried in the past to talk about these sorts of issues with this person, he doesn’t seem real interested in discussing it. But I’ve got to get through the rest of the year with this individual and I’m about to lose my normally well controlled temper!

Explaining the reasoning behind your decisions is generally a good thing — but with someone like Z, the answer isn’t in explaining and re-explaining, because that’s just signaling to him that you’re willing to engage when he behaves like this, which is turn reinforces his idea/hope/delusion that he has more of a leadership role here than he does.

Instead, some* of your conversations should sound like this:

Z: “We should do X instead of Y.”
You: “I’m actually set on Y at this stage. Let’s move on to talking about ___.”

Z: “I’m going to do the teapot spout design instead of Jane.”
You: “Actually, I’ve assigned that to Jane and am excited to see what she comes up with.”

Z: “I’ve changed the project specs to have all the artwork appearing on the side of a blimp.”
You: “I appreciate your input, but I’ve decided to do traditional billboards.”

Z: “I’ve set all your plans on fire and think these orange flames are the way to go.”
You: “I have a clear vision for the goals and the work plan, but I’d love your input on ___.” (Fill that in with something where it’s reasonable for him to have input.)

If you use these a few times and he keeps pushing back in response to them, then it’s time to move to a more direction discussion of what’s going on. For instance: “Z, can I talk to you about the way we’re working together on this project? I’m needing to make a number of decisions as this work unfolds, and while I appreciate input in general, I’ve noticed that you’ve been disagreeing with nearly every work plan, schedule, goal, or other detail I lay out. If something is extremely important, I want to hear about it — with the caveat that I may end up going in a different direction anyway — but disagreeing with so much is starting to get in the way of our work. What’s going on?”

You said that you’ve tried to talk to him about the issue in the past and he’s seemed uninterested. But it’s not really up to him. Schedule a meeting and have the conversation.

If it continues after that, consider giving your manager a heads-up; he might need to hear from her that you have her backing.

* Note: While you don’t want to get drawn into debating every decision, make sure that you don’t go overboard in the other direction. Sometimes in your shoes, people get fed up and stop explaining or engaging on anything. That’s a mistake too. You don’t want to signal to him that every decision is up for endless push-back and debate, but you also don’t want to become so closed off that you’re not operating with any openness or transparency at all. Getting the balance right here will matter.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed

    Has your manager made it clear that you’re lead on this? Because you may need her to emphasize that at some point. Z might be challenging you because he doesn’t accept that you have the backing of management.

    Try not to take it personally, although I know that’s hard. And choose your battles – you may have to overlook the tone of his inputs if they seem like direction instead of inputs, as long as he’s getting you what you need.

    And, everything Alison said.

    1. Robin

      That was my first thought–does he know who is in charge? Maybe he wasn’t actually told.

      1. HarperC

        Yeah, this would be where I work. They love to make people the “lead” but then not actually tell anyone else on the project. It doesn’t exactly work out well.

        1. Bea W

          Definately. Had this issue early in my current job, and it did nothing but confuse and frustrate me. A conversation with my manager, who I think was unknowingly contributing to confusion, helped sort it out.

      2. Katie the Fed

        I left one of my employees in charge when I went on leave last month. Another one was pulling this crap – challenging him at every turn. I had made it crystal clear he was in charge when I was gone and when I got back I came down pretty hard on the disruptive one. The worst part was I was planning to leave the disruptive one in charge next time I go – I try to rotate among them – but I lost confidence in him and changed my mind.

            1. Jazzy Red

              Good!

              Too often, people don’t have to face the consequences of their actions clearly. It’s so much better that you were absolutely clear what his behavior cost him (the chance to be in charge next time).

      3. Meg Murry

        Or was told that you were just a figurehead lead to make the customer happy, but he was actually still going to lead the project. I’ve seen that happen before too, where the customer really likes one person so much that they are designated “lead” – but what they really are is ‘head spokesman’s and customer contact point ” while someone else (usually someone who prefers behind the scenes, not customer facing work) handles the actual project management end of it.

        1. Vera

          It could be this, but with a twist: when the managers put the OP in charge, Z got upset, so to assuage him they told him the OP is just the figurehead and he can actually lead.

          Versions of this happen so frequently where I work, no one ever knows who is really in charge.

          1. OP

            That’s definitely not what happened in my case, as my line of work doesn’t really have a “figurehead” type thing, but I could see that happening for others!

    2. AVP

      If the producer/PM is good, there should be a briefing book that has everyone’s titles and hierarchy very clearly spelled out, to clarify everyone’s roles. (I think they actually do this so that you’re aware of the titles/roles of everyone from the other companies, but it also comes in handy if there’s any disagreement over who the project lead is.) But I wonder if that’s not made clear here…

    3. Brett

      This part is important. I had to abandon a project I was leading because the manager, who was not my boss, would not back my leadership on the project and instead was supporting the undermining employee.
      And then they both complained that I was not supporting their project adequately after the other employee took it over.

  2. Elizabeth West

    He’s probably jealous that the client prefers the OP and not him. I’d definitely address it as Alison suggested, and involve the manager if he doesn’t shape up.

    <blockquote.Z: “I’ve changed the project specs to have all the artwork appearing on the side of a blimp.”
    You: “I appreciate your input, but I’ve decided to do traditional billboards.”

    This was an outstanding example. :)

    1. Carrie in Scotland

      I had a bit of a gigglesnort when I came to the blimp example. Maybe it is just the word blimp that gets me?

      1. Bea W

        The “I’ve set all your plans on fire and think these orange flames are the way to go.” was even better!

  3. LBK

    One thing I would consider – is his advice generally good, and/or does he provide good reasons? I can see that maybe he feels that since he’s the one who has been working with this client for so long, he has certain insight into what they want, so he’s just being helpful by chiming in so frequently.

    Obviously this isn’t the case since the client has specifically requested you – but maybe that’s not clear to him? It may not just be a case of him not understanding that you’re in charge, but that you’ve specifically been put in charge because you do things differently than he used to. As harsh as that may come off to him, it may be worth stating outright.

  4. Ann O'Nemity

    Sometimes I like to put myself in the other person’s shoes. It sounds like Z was demoted from the team lead position with this client in favor of a very new employee. That’s a tough position to be in, especially if the transition was poorly communicated.

    (I’m not saying Z’s actions are justified!)

  5. Jules

    Timely post. I am really in the same position except, this person trash talks me to his boss and she engages in smering the project. A very uncomfortable place to be in.

    1. Artemesia

      If I were in your position I would be inclined to sit down with his boss and say something like “I understand you are concerned about the licorice teapot design and so I wanted to get your feedback and understand the concerns in case we need to consider modifications.” i.e. approach it with an open sincere desire to improve the product/process. This kind of thing sometimes smokes assholes out or shuts them down — and occasionally you also find out something useful. Not every criticism is wrong.

      By focusing on improving process/product and not unprofessional co-worker trashing you, you avoid the kind of cat fight that is so unattractive in the workplace, but you put people on notice that you will not be trashed without them having to deal with you openly.

      What do others thing about this? Anyone tried it?

  6. FX-ensis

    You have to put your foot down. Or report him or her to your senior.

    Some questioning of decisions has to be made, in any environment in the workplace. But it seems s/he is doing as such strictly to undermine you, and this is not on. Have a discussion with him or her at the outset, and then if it continues, report him/her.

  7. Formica Dinette

    Thank you for the example conversations! This sort of specific, actionable advice is one of the things I love most about AAM.

    1. Jazzy Red

      Yes, that type of advice is great. I never know what to say, so specific examples help me get started.

  8. X-ie

    “Z: “I’ve set all your plans on fire and think these orange flames are the way to go.””

    This. This is perfect.

    1. junipergreen

      Seconded. The next time I have to give feedback to one of my fellow creatives I’m using this. ;)

  9. Student

    If this guy is good at his job and giving reasonable, well-thought alternatives to your vision, you might try engaging him differently.

    It sounds like you’re treating an experienced employee who is used to leadership like a worker drone, and I can see why he’d lash out (just like you are, when he treats you like a worker drone instead of someone in a leadership role…). His response is still inappropriate, but you’re misusing him.

    Pick something where you like his idea, delegate that part of the project to him, and let him lead that task.

    If he’s not very good at what he does, or you think his ideas are horrible, then try AAM’s advice. If it doesn’t work, talk to him and to management about getting him off your project and onto something else that he can lead. Too many chefs in the kitchen.

    1. Bend & Snap

      Correcting misbehavior isn’t lashing out. And expecting someone to take direction from a leader doesn’t make lashing out okay.

    2. Jazzy Red

      My former company would take people like Z and promote them so they would have less contact, with fewer people. Except — IT DOESN’T WORK! Now those people had more authority and simply expanded their “reign of terror”. Morale crumbled, and coworkers left in droves and many more threatened to leave.

      Sometimes people like Z just have to accept what is, and maybe swallow a little pride for the sake of 1) keeping their job, and 2) making the project a success. Haven’t we all been there?

      1. Elizabeth West

        Sometimes people like Z just have to accept what is, and maybe swallow a little pride for the sake of 1) keeping their job, and 2) making the project a success. Haven’t we all been there?

        This, and it may not be an overall demotion. The OP said that this client in particular requested her/him for this project.

  10. Dan

    Yeah, I work quite a bit in “matrix organizations” where it’s not always clear who the boss really is. Depending on the nature of the work, we also internal points of contact for outside entities, and these contacts are NOT in charge of the work.

    So, one of two things is true in this case:

    1. The offending employee is not aware of any sort of official PM role change/reassignment, in which case he must be told in no uncertain terms.

    2. The offending employee is well aware of the status of things, and is not being a team player. If that’s the case, I’d say do what you have to do to get rid of him.

  11. Lora

    Oh my. Welcome to my world. I work in a very sexist field (STEM) where women are few and far between, and guys will outright sabotage your work if they are upset about a lady being in charge. Along with baby-talking and condescending to you like you are a dumb little kid instead of someone with three times as much experience as them. So. Much. Mansplaining. All day, every day.

    At one point, went to my boss about one particular guy. Boss said, it’s not just you, he mouths off to me, too–and we will not be renewing his contract because of it (we keep part-timers as 1099), and we certainly are not making him a full time employee with benefits. Boss had previously attempted to explain to him that he is the employee, relatively inexperienced, he is expected to learn as much as he can and be courteous, polite to everyone. Dude responded that he thought Boss was a lousy boss and the VP was a lying scumbag. Apparently it was only because I was female that he was not being outright rude to my face.

    I had a quiet word with him that he was not in charge, I was, and that his attitude was making it hard to continue to extend his contract with us. He attempted to call his friends quietly and see if he could find somewhere else to work, but one day shortly thereafter he came in having a complete meltdown because he couldn’t find a job elsewhere and would have to move to another country as his visa wouldn’t let him stay without a job.

    Well. That sucks, sorry.
    (Not sorry.)
    He has gotten somewhat better–at least he is trying, and when he sees me getting annoyed, he tones it down.

    Moral of the story: Definitely make sure you have your boss’ support, and I mean full support like, if Mr. Vive La Revolucion continues in his defiance, his head will roll. If not, you might be hosed.

    1. LBK

      FWIW I don’t think the letter states either way if the OP is a man or a woman. Some people are assholes no matter what gender you are.

      1. Hapax Legomenon

        Even if sexism isn’t the cause of Z’s difficulty accepting OP as a leader(and it may well not be) the situation is similar enough that I had the same bells going off in my head. I’ve had this experience in my own department, which was four guys and me when I joined it(and is now five guys and one other woman). Even though most of us are at the same level and we get put in charge of small projects, getting some of the guys to accept my direction has been a struggle. The other woman in our department has an even harder time, as she’s only 21 and everyone else is at least five years older than her.

      2. Lora

        True, sometimes it is just that you are younger than them. Sometimes it’s that you didn’t go to quite as prestigious an undergrad school. Sometimes you weren’t in their fraternity or whatever, you did your graduate work in a competing lab, whatever. There can be all kinds of reasons, but it’s pretty much the same deal. You gotta be prepared to level up.

    2. Anonsie

      If I got a nickel for every time someone mansplained something basic to me, I’d be able to afford all the therapy it takes to keep from screaming.

      I jest! Mostly.

      1. Windchime

        It’s time to perfect the “cold stare”. I find that works pretty good in my current work environment.

        We had a contractor (male) who was being dismissive and rude to me. I complained to the boss, and the contractor apologized. Everything was OK. The next time he did that (“We should do this in XML”), I just said, bluntly, “No. We’re not doing that.” And it worked! I was just fed up and decided I wouldn’t take his bossy attitude any longer and said, “Nope”. Admittedly, this probably worked best because he was a contractor and I was not.

        1. Anonsie

          If only it were something I could just object to. It’s usually more a situation where they say they want to do something, and I ask for more detail, and they sigh and go back and start explaining basic things about our field in very simple words. I usually just break in somewhere with “No no I’m aware of that, I’m asking about ___.”

          It’s like if they said they want to put everyone’s shoes on the moon, so I ask if they’ll be providing people slippers or something to get home in. Then they sigh and explain to me that the moon is a big white rock that goes around and around the earth, and sometimes maybe I’ve seen it in the sky.

  12. I've been Z before

    It’s not clear from the OP if this could be the case, but be careful you are not inviting suggestions or counters to your decisions. Be sure that you are making it clear if you have made a decision, as opposed to suggesting “ideas”.

    I say this because you mentioned that Z is a nice, smart, talented individual and those people tend to always offer counter ideas and critique suggestions that are offered because their brains are always strategizing and thinking of alternatives.

    I was recently blown out of the water when my supervisor said in a review “You argue every little thing. You should just accept some decisions as they are unless they are fundementally flawed.” To which my response was “When have I ever argued about a decision you made?” Needless to say my supervisor was surprised by that response. After discussing we boiled it down to the language he was using to communicate his “decisions”. Phrases like, “let’s try…”, “what do you think about…”, “have you tried…”, to me came across as suggestions which I almost always countered or discussed. He now is more direct with me and says things like “I want you to do this…” or “Please show how it looks with ….”.

    Maybe Z is like me and is reading suggestion when you are thinking decision.

    1. Jillociraptor

      I think this is a really good point. We’ve run into this problem often when people aren’t clear whether you’re keeping them appraised of an issue or your seeking their input on it. I work on a team that for a variety of reasons gets copied on lots of stuff just to keep them informed, and also asked for input on lots of stuff toward or as a final decision. Sometimes they’ll reply with a suggestion or an idea to a message or presentation which is often appreciated, but sometimes not. It’s frustrating for folks when they think you’re asking their opinion, and really you’re just sharing information. It’s helpful to be upfront about what you can and can’t take feedback on right now, just so that it’s clear why you’re sharing that info.

      That said, I wonder if OP might need to have dedicated opportunities for feedback throughout the process so that the employee knows when their input is going to be impactful. It could be that the employee is just oppositional, but even then it might be helpful to be able to say, “This is the kind of thing I’ll want to hear about/would have wanted to hear about at X stage in the process, but I’m not going to act on it now.”

      1. Bea W

        This very thing was the cause of much head butting between me and a more senior co-worker. It was our manager who recognized the problem, and after sitting with both of us individually to explain and suggest my senior co-worker try being direct in speaking to me and I be aware of my co-worker’s indirect style, it changed the dynamic and it ended up we worked very well together and built up a lot of respect for each other.

  13. Maren

    Ugh – I had such a similar situation: junior colleague arguing with my decisions as project manager. And her ideas were invariably really bad, which just highlighted how junior she was and how she was not ready to be leading projects. She wouldn’t shut up about them either; it was as if she couldn’t understand she was wrong.

    Later it turned out her manager had told her not to do anything I said (even though I was project manager) and to make lots of ‘helpful’ suggestions.

    I freely admit I handled the situation badly – I found her constant arguing very upsetting and undermining. I wish I known about AAM then.

    1. Bea W

      WTH? Why did her manager tell her that? Was her manager actively trying to undermine you?

      1. Maren

        Because he was dangerously incompetent.

        Ironically, the PTA woman got fired, my boss was fired, I got laid off – and the incompetent one is still there, presumably still causing havoc. I believe he may even have been promoted.

  14. Not So NewReader

    I amazed by how many places seem to have at least one person who has to test the new person. OP, I think you have a double whammy here- you are doubly annoying as a new person and you have HIS job.

    Sigh.

    I would have to ask him what he would think if someone treated his leadership the way he is treating yours.
    It really takes no talent to say something negative or something that is the opposite of what someone else is saying. Matter of fact, it takes very little energy as the negative thoughts can just flow if we let them.

    Once in that negative mode, it can be difficult to pull one’s self out of it. It becomes a habit.
    He thinks he is sabotaging you but he is actually sabotaging the whole team and the company; very short-sighted activity on his part.

  15. OP

    Hi all – thanks for all of the great input! I am going to try and address as many of the responses as I can here:

    1) He definitely knows that I’m the lead – in part because it’s a 2 year long project, which I’m on for the full duration and he’s only on for the first 6 months. However, I think that the roles should have been more clearly defined from the start, and I told my boss that that definitely needed to occur on the next project. At the time I told my boss this, things seemed to be getting better with him so I didn’t think we needed to make a change on the current project, but then they got worse again.

    2) I think I brought some of this on myself by asking him his opinion TOO often when we first started working together. I did this for a few reasons: Because I wanted to be kind in the fact that I was taking over a role that he was used to doing, and I figured that would be hard, Because I honestly do respect and value what he has to say – I just feel like that respect is only returned about 50% of the time, and because he truly is a very nice person. I’ve had to deal with some pretty rough stuff in my life the last few months (Sudden loss of some people very close to me), and he’s been very supportive and caring about it. I do appreciate what he brings to the table, that’s why the constant arguing is so odd – it actually seems contrary to his own personality!

    3) I hadn’t thought of the sexist thing before – though it’s a possibility. I try to be extremely conscious of being the “b-word” though. I am a female in a male dominated industry, and it is noticeable at this company. Not in a way like women don’t get promotions, but more in a way where the men are judgmental about what a woman’s interests and talents would be. They are willing to be proven wrong though. I think a bigger issue is probably my age. I’m roughly 5 years younger than him, though we hold the same “rank” in the company. But it’s definitely not my first time at the rodeo, and he acts like I’m a rookie a lot of the time. The truth is I’m very good at my job, better than my years of experience. – I don’t mean to sound egotistical when I say that, but I’ve worked very hard, and my field comes really natural to me, and I have in the past noticed that older people will take issue with me without ever talking to me.

    The last poster, Notsonew Reader – put it in good words: I feel like I’m being tested as the new person. It sucks because the project I’m leading is incredibly challenging – but I know how to get it done with significant success if he’d just follow my lead!

    Thanks for all the input readers!

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