how to get along with a disgruntled coworker who dislikes our boss

A reader writes:

I work for a mid-sized commercial design and production company. I believe our manager, “Jane,” is competent/manages well, but I’ve had some issues that have definitely affected my performance and attitude, which I have now owned and I’ve resolved to work on being an excellent employee. Since recovering from a health condition and addressing my personal issues, I have volunteered for more projects, brought forward more ideas, and communicated more positively with Jane, and it’s really improved my work life. I generally deal with frustrations directly with the person involved, or outside of work (exercise, therapy).

Some last-minute executive decisions by Jane and her “‘favorite” have put my workmate “Dave” offside. The decisions had consequences for Dave, and I supported him emotionally during this time. Dave was badly burnt by this and is now very negative about anything from Jane. He is steadily case-building against her, and describes her in very unflattering terms. He feels that he is being deliberately excluded from projects, his skills not being recognised or utilised, etc. This may be accurate, and he has a particular affect that does appear to affect his assignments. However, he has a truly remarkable and deep range of skills that ARE underutilised. Possibly Jane is intimidated by both this and his manner, and she also appears to err on the side of involving people who volunteer themselves cheerily and proactively, and are more enjoyable to deal with, i.e. she has a “type.”

I suspect Dave thinks I have “changed teams,” and it’s making our working relationship difficult. He frequently comments when he sees me talking to Jane, and I’m struggling to get input from him on projects or ideas. Our team has a strong pitch-in culture, and although he has capacity and is often the only person with the necessary expertise, he either doesn’t follow through or uses the opening to complain about how something is done. I see his hurt and frustration, but I think he is shooting himself in the foot by not moving on (having been there myself) and I don’t really know how to address this without damaging the relationship. In a way I AM changing teams, in that I’m not willing to get stuck in old issues and want to do the best job I can, including fostering positive relationships with people I would not necessarily have a personal relationship with outside work.

Is there a way to salvage my relationship with Dave while also moving forward with my own professional goals? Dave and Jane are both intelligent, skilled, good people. Is there any way to help them repair their relationship? Is there any way I can mention the tension to Jane without dropping myself or my workmate in it?

I think you need to separate emotionally from Dave a bit.

Dave’s assessment that you’ve “changed teams” is pretty out of sync with the nature of the workplace — or at least a healthy, high-functioning workplace. While there are certainly people like Dave, who see things as “us vs. them” when it comes to employees/managers, it’s rarely an attitude held by successful people. Successful people generally see themselves as on their managers’ teams, and don’t see that as being in conflict with getting along with coworkers. (And if you’re in a workplace that makes you choose, there’s a problem with either the employer or the coworkers. In this case, it’s Dave who wants you to choose, and Dave is the one in the wrong.)

While Dave may have legitimate grievances against your boss, his own problematic work habits trump that. Not giving you input on projects, not following through on assignments, and apparently nursing a grudge are all things that harm his credibility and make it impossible to have any real standing to complain about Jane not giving him the recognition he wants.

You speculate that Jane is “intimidated” by Dave — but it doesn’t sound like intimidation to me. Favoring people who are responsive and easy to work with is a pretty sound management call — and to the extent that it’s favoritism, it’s a perfectly reasonable favoritism shared by most managers (and most non-managers too).

In any case, Dave is not your problem to fix. You can certainly explain to him that you’ve found that you’ve gotten much better results at work since changing behaviors A and B and mindset C, and that those changes have made work more satisfying and productive for you. But beyond that, I’d pull back. (And definitely don’t mention the tension to Jane. Again, not your problem to solve.)

You’re entwining yourself with someone who sounds pretty clearly like a Problem, and to the extent that Jane and others see you as aligned with Dave, his reputation problems are likely to splatter on to you too. And that’s especially the case since it sounds like you had your own performance and attitude issues in the past that you actively want to counter now.

I’m not saying “abandon a friend for the good of your career.” But I’d think pretty deeply about how close you really want to be with Dave, whether you respect his stances and behavior, and what kind of boundaries you want to have in place at work.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. hayling

    Alison I think you gave some great advice here. Do you have some suggestions of more concrete advice/phrases to use to distance oneself from someone like Dave and set boundaries?

    1. LBK

      Speaking from my own experience, I think outlining the ways in which the manager DOES delivery on expectations and help the team succeed can really put things in perspective for an “us vs. them” coworker. I did this by saying “Look, I know Jane has some communication problems sometimes, but she’s done everything you asked and that you said you wanted in order to be successful. You wanted a new bonus plan, a business trip to talk to our remote team, reduced sales targets and a marketing campaign to our field reps. Jane made all that happen. What are you doing now to keep up your end of the bargain?”

      You don’t have to explicitly frame it as “I am now Team Jane so I don’t want to hear about complaints anymore,” but playing interference on behalf of your manager can help. The flipside of this, though, is that you have to be 100% Team Dave when he IS correct, and you have to be willing to play interference on his behalf when it’s called for.

      In essence, be Team Doing The Right Thing For The Business instead of aligning yourself with a specific person. In the end, focusing on the work instead of who thinks you should be doing it will garner more respect and compliance from both parties.

    2. Malissa

      I’ve used, “Dave have you talked to Jane about your concerns?” with great success. Or “Dave, sounds like you need to discuss that with Jane.” And one I personally love, “That sounds like an issue between you and Jane, I don’t have any place in the middle of it.”

    3. Erin

      Allison, thank you so much for this article! I was in a job where I was “Dave”, and had to leave that company in order to see my part in the whole mess. In my new job I work with “Dave”–I came into a troubled and dysfunctional department whose whole boss bashing culture is led by “Dave”. Here is what I did after quickly realizing the situation I was in. I lowered my seat in my cubby in order to not be able to see over into Dave’s cubby, ate at my desk, and when he tried to pull me into a bash session of my new boss, I said, “Look, ignorance is bliss, and I am keeping my honeymoon going as long as I can, so I am staying out of this.” He was a little taken aback, but laughed and has kept his comments to himself, and the rest of the department has pretty much followed suit. Any time someone says something I just joke, “Honeymoon phase here” and deflect it. I know this isn’t exactly the same thing as dealing with it, but I am very aware of the hole I dug for myself at my last job, and am avoiding pitfalls any time I see them. I thought I was going to be at my former job until I retired, and I became so bitter at the changes and not-so-subtle abuse that I was receiving from one of the Executives I worked for that I didn’t even recognize myself. I can’t imagine how unpleasant it became for my former coworkers.
      I am happy to report that some of my new coworkers have come to me and thanked me for making work a nicer place to be, and how our boss seems to have calmed down since I came on board. I know that reminding myself to keep firm boundaries has helped, and remembering that I don’t need any more friends–I have plenty–and that I come here to do a job and bring home a paycheck, nothing more. I do the best I can each day, a day at a time, and read blogs like yours to remind me of what my purpose is.

      Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

  2. Adam

    I think this merits the same advice I gave a friend of mine who was stuck being the go between for two lifelong friends who started to not get along too well as they got older. They used to all hang out regularly but for whatever reason two of the people in the group started to not get along so well, and every time my friend would hang out with one person or the other solo she’d get accused of “playing favorites”, regardless of how she actually divided her time between them.

    She would vent to me about this until I finally said: You are investing a lot of time and energy into something that isn’t your problem.

    My friend is a natural nurturer and helper type who desperately tries to “fix” situations because she gets upset when people don’t get along, but she hasn’t realized just yet that she can’t fix everything, nor is it her job to. These people are adults and they must learn to settle their differences and work together and judging by your letter the problem seems to come entirely from Dave and his attitude. If Dave can’t sort this out he will continue to make things awkward for everybody until somebody finally up and leaves the situation altogether. If that happens OP you did not fail in any way. The only relationships you are responsible for are those that are directly between you and another person. Dave needs to take care of himself, so there’s no need for you to hold his keys for him.

    1. fposte

      Yup. OP is making Dave her job, and she already has a job. Stop being the venting audience and start deflecting or ignoring any interrogation about closeness with Jane.

      And I’d also say stop prioritizing Dave’s liking you. It’s okay if he doesn’t like you. That’s always true, but it’s especially so when it’s for a dumb reason like “is good at her job and gets along with her manager.”

  3. Various Assumed Names

    This is more advice for Dave then for you, but the best career advice I got early in my career is the simple (cliched) “always take the high road”. Even if Dave has legitimate grievances, nobody is going to take them seriously if he acts like a giant baby. I’d encourage him to try focusing on his own actions, which he can control, rather than dwell on Jane’s alleged problems. That said, it sounds like he’s not mature enough to take that advice yet.

    1. BethRA

      That, and if he can’t resolve the issue to his satisfaction, he needs to move on. I have a coworker like this – our boss isn’t perfect, and she has some legitimate grievances, but refuses to do anything to address them productively, and has put us such a wall she’s not open to the boss’ attempts to work with her (why our boss puts up with this is beyond me). She’s still holding a grudge about a salary issue, and I finally told her she needed to either make peace with it, or find a new job, because she’s making herself and everyone around her miserable.

      1. LBK

        This sounds EXACTLY like my coworker and my manager. My boss isn’t perfect, but he’s not nearly as bad as my coworker makes him out to be by refusing to meet halfway on anything, even the stuff that’s perfectly reasonable for my boss to ask for.

  4. Emily

    Excellent post, Alison (and props to the OP for successfully reframing his/her mindset about the boss and the work environment). Hopefully “Dave” can do the same, or otherwise find a work environment where he clicks better with the management and work style.

  5. Training Manager

    I completely agree with Alison. When I read the OP’s message I see, “Dave doesn’t want to be a team player and does not contribute, then complains because he is not asked to give input and contribute.” He is creating his own environment and OP should not get dragged into it. For direct lines to address the issue, when I have experienced this situation with a co-worker who was venting I would ask, “Have you discussed this with (manager/person name here)? It really helped me.” If they haven’t and keep complaining, I finally say, “I have given you what worked for me, there is really nothing else I can offer to you.”. Best of luck.

  6. BethRA

    One thing OP does need to deal with regarding Dave, though, is her working relationship with him. If she’s not getting the input she needs from him, that is her problem. That she needs to address, either directly with Dave (focusing, I would think, on the work issue and leaving the other drama out of it), and failing that, her manager.

  7. OriginalYup

    It sounds like you’ve made great strides to get yourself to a good place at work, mentally and emotionally. It’s tough when you don’t click with a manager’s style, or end up feeling like you’re on the outside. I really commend you for finding positive ways to cope and to be great contributor and coworker.

    As for Dave, he has to do his own processing to get to that place. You can model good behavior and attitudes, and you can halt any negativity spirals that you witness by not engaging or commiserating. Unfortunately I don’t know that there’s a specific thing you could say to leapfrog him to where you are – he needs to walk the path himself. I agree with Alison that this might mean changing your relationship with Dave a bit.

    One thing you could do (optional, not required) for Dave and Jane is to be fair to them both if you encounter one being not great about the other. If she’s unenthused about adding him to a team, you could say, “Jane, I know Dave can come off as dour sometimes, but he has a lot to contribute. Your call, of course, but his manner might be hiding some great skills that you’d find really impressive.” Or if he’s badmouthing her decision, you could say, “Dave, it’s not the call I would have made either but she’s doing a great job with the Pinsky project and in the end it’s her decision to make.” They still might choose to not get along with each other, but you can be reasonable and clear-eyed with them both and thereby set a let’s-be-grownups tone.

  8. HAnon

    When I read the title of this post, I thought to myself “did I write in and forget about it?” Because…that is the exact situation I’m in. Thing is, your coworker’s attitude is not your problem. It would be one thing if he was approaching work with a good attitude and trying to work things out with the boss…but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. In my situation, my negative coworker routinely complains about the boss/things she doesn’t like about work/etc…and I have started just deflecting by saying “It sounds like you and Boss need to talk about that.” or “Have you brought this up with Boss?” Usually she just wants someone to complain to, and not engaging in the negativity shuts it down pretty quickly…sometimes I have to listen to a minute of gripe, but I don’t verbally agree and I NEVER badmouth the boss. The fact that he is doing that just shows his unprofessionalism. I can whine about the boss over cocktails with my friends outside of work, but never at work, and never to someone I work with…that’s the quickest way to get thrown under the bus. I say just don’t engage and let him work out his own problems. If you want to stay friendly, try to talk to him about non-work related things instead, but don’t get drawn into his negativity…it can really affect your outlook to have too much exposure to whiners, and you need to be able to focus on the things that you do enjoy about working with your boss and keep a positive attitude at work. Don’t let him drag you down.

    1. HAnon

      I should add to that, if his unwillingness to contribute in areas where you really need his input is affecting your work output, you need to address that with your boss so she understands that it’s not that you’re doing shoddy work, but you’re missing vital information. If she’s a good manager, she will be understanding and work to address the issue.

  9. Another Manager

    OP, you mention that you’ve put a lot of work into changing your mentality towards your workplace–which is super commendable!, but I’m concerned you may still have some seeds of resentment to smooth out. Claiming your boss has a “favorite” doesn’t sound particularly healed–unless your boss is a crummy boss that indeed plays favorites–however, your claim that your boss has a “type” of cheerful, responsive people calls into question your judgement on the topic of “favorites”.

    As a manager, my neck is on the line with my superiors if projects from my team are not completed on time. Therefore, especially for big/high-profile projects, I am going to assign people to the work who I have the most confidence in, and who will introduce the least amount of friction into the process. The people I have the most confidence in are the people who behave in a manner that is cheerful and responsive. The people that will introduce the least friction into the process are also the people who behave in a manner that is cheerful and responsive. Why would I make a project more difficult than it has to be by dragging someone with a poor attitude along, kicking and screaming the whole way?

    As a manager, my responsibility to someone with a poor attitude ends with having an honest, compassionate conversation with them about how their attitude is adversely affecting the team’s performance, and their own professional opportunities. It’s not my job to coddle them and continue to put them on projects that their poor attitude makes them ill-suited for. (Projects that require cross-team collaboration is one case that immediately comes to mind–why would I want someone with a chip on their shoulder representing our team to the rest of the company?) What someone on my team with a poor attitude can expect is, at best, not getting the most challenging projects, and at worst, being actively “managed out”.

    Again, I really commend you for the hard work you’ve put in so far in changing your mentality towards your workplace. I truly do! I just mean to say I think there’s still a part of that that may need some extra work.

    1. OP here

      Thanks so much for all your comments so far! It’s slightly hard to cite specific examples here without completely outing myself, but for context’s sake, Janes ‘ favorite’ is a well accepted fact in the office, something we all accept and work around. It’s not something that bothers me anymore as I see Jane as being fair and I feel happy with my own treatment and opportunities. That being said, I’ll investigate my thinking around it and of course I do NOT use that terminology at work. Your comment has brought up a good point though, and that kind of terminology probably doesn’t deserve real estate on my head!

      1. OP here

        P.s. I also agree that cheerful and responsive isn’t a type! Janes close friend employee is not really a Barbie Brightside so those comments were unrelated 😊

  10. some1

    “He is steadily building a case against her”

    Wait, what? What does he think he is going to do with his “case”, get her fired or force her to change? Good luck.

    1. MissDisplaced

      “Some last-minute executive decisions by Jane and her “‘favorite” have put my workmate “Dave” offside. The decisions had consequences for Dave”

      I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sounds like something happened that affected Dave but not the OP.

  11. krisl

    “Favoring people who are responsive and easy to work with is a pretty sound management call — and to the extent that it’s favoritism, it’s a perfectly reasonable favoritism shared by most managers (and most non-managers too).”

    This!

    1. Jessica

      Yes, exactly. Also, “she also appears to err on the side of involving people who volunteer themselves cheerily and proactively, and are more enjoyable to deal with”… this doesn’t sound like an “error” to me, it sounds like a good and well-supported decision! If that’s “erring”, then I “err on the side of” not smashing my head into brick walls.

  12. C Average

    I just want to say this kind of question and answer is exactly why I love this site.

    Workplaces contain so many crazy little alliances and counter-alliances and subtexts and nuances that seldom get well-defined, much less intelligently discussed.

    I’ve learned so much from this site by reading this kind of thing and recognizing my own and others’ behavior and realizing learning how to play better with others in the office environment.

    Thank you, Alison! You perform a great service for those of us who are a little thick in deciphering workplace dynamics.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Aw, thank you! I actually plugged this post in at the last minute because I felt like I’d been light on this kind of topic recently, so this is good feedback to hear!

  13. Dave Jr.

    I have been a Dave. Here is how I became Dave. Manager is not engaged in the day to day operations of the department. Manager tells employees in new operational positions that they should be learning the job duties of senior positions, but doesn’t communicate that to the senior positions. New operational positions are meddling in the senior position’s work before they learn their job. Senior positions are asking why this is happening and manager says to foster collaboration/teamwork, etc. Manager doesn’t define role clarity when asked, or commit to a training plan. Manager has to save face, so everything that Dave does/says is now scrutinized and manager doesn’t support Dave with anything. Dave wants to lay low to avoid criticism, and then is branded as not being a team player.

    1. fposte

      If you didn’t regularly complain about it to a colleague and hold it against her that she didn’t have the same problems, you weren’t a Dave.

      1. Dave Jr.

        I stayed very tight lipped about the situation. It was my unwillingness to gossip about the situation that branded me as not being transparent team player. I am just glad the situation is behind me.

        1. fposte

          Yeah, you’re not a Dave. A legitimate split from a problematic manager doesn’t Dave you. (You may be actually named Dave, of course, but you’re not Dave for the purposes of this post.)

  14. some1

    Another thing: if Dave’s issues with Jane were legitimate, he wouldn’t need the LW’S validation about it. And if Dave was really the LW’S friend he wouldn’t put her in the middle.

  15. Artemesia

    You are getting great advice here. I think women tend to fall into this trap of taking on resolving this sort of interpersonal problem at work; I know that I used to get sucked into dealing with fixing problems that were not mine to fix. Perhaps it gave me an ego boost to be the go to person other people used to confront issues. Or perhaps the fact that I tended to straddle social groups, getting along with many factions, made me a natural when some nurturing act of conflict resolution was needed. But I found myself getting associated with employees I didn’t want to be allied with more than once. Alas it took me many trials to learn this. Being a rabble rouser can be a choice but it needs to be made consciously. Taking on a problem that isn’t yours just gets you tarred with the problem and the reputation of being a busybody.

    This guy is digging his own hole; don’t jump into it with him.

  16. Not So NewReader

    I have seen this pattern before, too.

    Bob sours on the boss. Slowly it works into daily complaints about the boss. I get tired of listening and say so 500 different ways. The next thing that happens is “Oh you are on the boss’ side. You’re a brown noser [etc].”

    Dave has picked his path and is determined to remain on that path. Since you have regrouped and changed your thinking you can expect to hear Dave start to talk about you the way he talks about the boss. In other words, Dave is probably going to turn on you.

    Here are some of the things I have tried saying:

    Eh, She’s the boss. It’s her call, not mine. I can’t fix that.

    We all need to eat. I have to eat and pay my bills.

    I am here for eight hours a day. For those eight hours, I have to do what is asked. If I like it or not that has no bearing on anything. I still have to do it.

    Just as an aside, these third party situations never go well. This holds for personal life, too. Only in personal life examples the two arguing parties end up being besties and you are left out in the cold.
    Encourage people to handle their own relationships. Other posters wrote in some good statements to make to try to redirect the conversation to the appropriate person (in this case, your boss).

    I have helped people with wording, that can often be a hurdle. And sometimes a person just needs help figuring out what it is that they want that they are not getting. So I can help in that manner. But everything else, I say, “I am not a UN diplomat nor a professional mediator, I won’t be much help to you.”

    Privately I would tell myself that things are not looking well for Dave and it is questionable how much longer he will be with the company. I sometimes have to tell myself these things in order to keep my perspective in place.

  17. PoisonIvy

    This is a great post, and one comment in Alison’s response particularly hit home – “You’re entwining yourself with someone who sounds pretty clearly like a Problem, and to the extent that Jane and others see you as aligned with Dave, his reputation problems are likely to splatter on to you too.” I too have a Dave. I haven’t taken it upon myself to fix his issues, although I do listen sympathetically, and back him up when he’s right, as well as tell him when I think he’s wrong. He is definitely seen as a Problem in the business. He’s been here a lot longer than me however – about 8 years to my six months – and I sometimes worry that I’ll be tarred with the same brush. How do you deal with this, without sounding like you’re badmouthing your colleague?

    1. Erin

      Poison Ivy, please see my original post–I have just passed the six month mark and my Dave has been here for 15 years. He is seen by others in my new company as a trouble maker, and I think he almost wears that as a badge–old hippy mentality. Don’t get me wrong, I am an old hippy myself, but I am very aware that the 1960s and 1970s were a long time ago. Keep your head down, do your job well, and figure out what you want from your new company–I was making a 5 year plan my first month here. All my actions stem from that plan.

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