my coworker argues with every decision I make

A reader writes:

I work in a design field, and we work in teams of 4-5 people, which rotate by project. I am nine 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 for that 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 for this client before I joined this firm. The client has 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 argues every work plan, path forward, schedule, and goal that I set for the team. He phrases his input not as suggestions, but as direction, which quite frankly rubs me the wrong way. He’s basically acting like he’s the team lead, and like he’s my boss.

I’m usually a fairly straightforward, 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 nine months in, I’m still the new person in town, 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 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!

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. BeenThere OG

    Haven’t read the inc response yet, I came here to say immediately you losing your temper is EXACTLY what this guy wants. He wants you to look bad and fail so he can come back and rescue the project.

    1. AnnaBananna

      Yep. Because he already feels like OP’s totally unqualified to work with this client so any opportunity to save face in front of his peers/ex team he’ll probably take.

      That said, it would be incredibly short sided and a strategical dead end to ignore his input entirely. Because he’s right – he does have a bunch of experience with this client, including (more than likely) how the client ultimately makes decisions. Ex Team Lead could very well save OP a ton of time down the road, so I wouldn’t poo-poo Ex Lead’s thoughts entirely. But yes, it’s time for a come to Jesus with him, because the team is probably uncomfortable watching the power stuggle ping pong game those two have going on.

      1. D'Arcy

        I would argue that his “bunch of experience” with the client should be taken more as a sign of what not to do, given that the client explicitly requested that he be replaced with the OP.

  2. BeenThere OG

    Alison’s response is great, I could have used this advice a year and a half ago. It depends on culture how much you can get away with not accepting his input and how connected he really is. Sometimes this type of person will bad mouth every decision you make that isn’t made the way they want and sometimes leadership listen to them.

    1. RJ the Newbie

      Agreed. I just read Allison’s response and it was spot on. I’ve been in the design industry for over twenty years and have seen this happen over and over when PM and Team Leader assignments are handed out for projects. It can get contentious and the only way to end it is by the constant reminder of the decision being made by the PM and taking the conversation to another talking point.

  3. TootsNYC

    I think there is value in saying, literally, “This is my call, Andrew–I don’t want to discuss this particular decision any more.”

    And “I’m the team lead, so this is for me to decide.”
    “Sorry to contradict you, Andrew, but Jane, please follow my directions and not Andrew’s here, since I’m the lead with this client.”

    SAY it. “My job.” “My call.” “This is my decision to make.” “I am the team lead for this client.”
    “follow my directions, coworkers, and not Andrew’s.”

    Don’t be angry–be matter-of-fact. I sometimes think of it as “channeling my inner daycare worker,” but I might think instead of “channeling my inner middle-school teacher.” (the teacher people respected, not the overwhelmed, hysterical, or reactionary one)

    Firm, direct, and SHORT! Walk away when you’ve said those things.

    1. Hills to Die on

      That’s why I don’t think I would say, ‘What’s going on here?’ because it sounds like the OP has tried to talk to him already. I would have the same discussion but without asking Z what’s up and instead telling him what you need from him. Which is to stop arguing every decision.

      1. ragazza

        I think saying that is not really a request–it also signals there is a problem and he needs to address it. It places the onus on him, in a way.

    2. Faith

      I wouldn’t even say “sorry to contradict you”. You don’t need to apologize for leading your team.

    3. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

      I agree. I would even drop the “I appreciate your input”. I realize it helps soften the blow and is much more diplomatic but some people take that as saying, “Please keep arguing with me. I love the lively debates between equals!”

    4. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster

      Some people just can’t handle this kind of response. I had a VERY similar situation to the OP and when I took the “matter of fact, this is how we are doing things” approach it INFURIATED my team member. I was told I was overreaching and that I was MEAN. Mean!!!! Can you imagine?

      Thankfully that person left the company, because I reached a point where I truly did not want them on any team I was leading. They were IMPOSSIBLE.

      1. Close Bracket

        > I was told I was overreaching and that I was MEAN. Mean!!!! Can you imagine?

        May I ask your gender? If you are a woman, I can well imagine.

        1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster

          Oh yes, I am a woman, and I am sure that fed into the accusation. I’m supposed to be nice, you know.

      2. Been There, Done That

        I can imagine very well because it happened to me. You dodged a bullet when they left, depending on their relationship with the boss. I hope you had support in your position.

      3. Poolside

        Oh my, you could be my coworker. She is relatively new to the “team” and clearly on a power trip. While I appreciate that she wanted to excel at her job and improve the business, she didn’t appreciate all of the working parts of the practice. Seemed that her MO was to get in good with grand boss under the guise of being a leader/team player. Two exceptional coworkers left due to her antics. Things are not the same now, I’m on my way out too.

  4. Mithrandir

    While OP is not Z’s boss, she HAS been appointed as team lead which DOES give her some authority. In this modern day, matrixed management paradigms, the old saying of having “all of the responsibility and none of the authority” really resonates here.

    I believe that the time for placating difficult team members should be OVER by this type of juncture. If continued dissent is being openly voiced by Z in full team meetings, I believe a response on the order of “I hear your objections, but I am the team lead and I have made the decision” is warranted. If he then continues to argue, I would then escalate the issue in a calm, professional manner “I’m sorry, but I cannot allow you to keep challenging me in this manner any longer. The decision is made and will remain the course forward.” I’d insist that it be documented in team minutes, and I’d definitely involve their respective managers as to his continued obstructionist behavior.

    OP needs to reinforce to management that the CLIENT asked for her specifically, and that continued open dissent may impact the project and company income detrimentally.

    1. Hills to Die on

      Definitely document. Once OP exerts her authority, he will escalate. I would get OP’s manager looped in sooner rather than later.

      I wonder how this one ever turned out. I don’t recall an update…

    2. Engineer Girl

      When I have tried in the past to talk about these sorts of issues with this person, he doesn’t seem interested in discussing it.

      He doesn’t get a vote on that. As his lead, you are allowed to tell him he will be discussing this subject.

      One of my failures as a new lead was being too nice, especially to those who were challenging my authority. At some point you have to tell them that the team is doing it X way.

      And yes, document. I suspect there may be some incidents where he decides on his own to do B instead of A. You won’t find out about it until time has passed.

      One technique I used was documenting team meetings and agreements. After every team meeting I sent an email listing things under discussion, job assignments, and future work. It prevented plausible deniability.

      1. Aveline

        Even with my husband, I’ve had to occasionally say “I’ve done all the research and thought through every angle. Your continuing to ask for me to explain my thought process is disrespectful and implies you don’t think I am capable of doing this or as capable as you are. Is that really what you believe? Is that really the message you want to send?”

        I would not necessarily bring gender up with the dude, but I’d be aware that a lot of men are taught to always question and always puzzle through. They only “follow orders” if they have to because the person giving the orders is too high up or has a bigger stick to swing.

        It’s taken my husband a lot of personal retraining to understand that I do really think through all the contingencies and sometimes he just needs to show up and put his back into it. And he loves me and tries not to be sexist.

        1. Mithrandir

          “I’d be aware that a lot of men are taught to always question and always puzzle through. They only “follow orders” if they have to”

          And I suppose you have never encountered any “strong, proud, self-empowered” women in a business setting?

          What a bunch of sexist garbage. A jerk in a business meeting remains a jerk, regardless of their sex, and should have their respective ears pinned back.

          1. pope suburban

            What a kind, necessary, and accurate thing to say. Clearly you’ve read the site’s commenting guidelines, and don’t feel entitled to trample them for whatever reason.

          2. Aveline

            #reverse sexism bingo

            Sorry, not buying today.

            What strong women may or may not do is beside the point. I am one, but I still realize we live in a society that has certain structures that influence us.

            Apparently, you don’t.

            No further discussion is warranted.

            I’m not going to continue, because this is totally derailing and we’ve had too much of that. It would also be pointless as you seem to have made up your mind reverse sexism is worse than the real sexism that women face every day.

          3. Jennifer Thneed

            It is legitimate to notice social realities such as differences in how the sexes are socialized. Acknowledging those differences is not the same as being sexist.

            You’re right that a jerk is a jerk. Being aware of the social realities helps you pick the best way to pin those ears back.

        2. LSP

          I literally had a similar conversation with my husband and hour ago! We both work from home on Friday’s and I was boiling water in a sauce pan to make my lunch. He says,”The water will boil faster with a lid,” to which I responded that particular pan does not have a lid that fits it.

          Normally, he would just beginning looking in the cabinet to find the lid, but I was standing in front of it at the time.

          DH: I don’t believe there isn’t a lid for that one pan.

          Me: Ok, but I have looked thoroughly, and there isn’t.

          DH: But… (seeing the look on my face) It’s not just you. I do this with everyone.

          Me: Sure, but it’s mostly with me, because we live together and you have the opportunity to second-guess me more often.

          DH: True. I’m just going to look for it later.

          [No he won’t. He has a terrible memory and will completely forget about that conversation by the time he comes from his office again at 5.]

          1. Dust Bunny

            “You do that.” If he does remember, let him waste as much time as he wants looking for the lid that doesn’t exist.

            1. AnonEMoose

              Here’s what I have never understood about this particular dynamic: Why does it always have to be a competition? I mean, in this instance, it’s LSP’s lunch, and it doesn’t really affect the spouse in any way. So…why bother to argue about the lid?!

              It’s turning something into a competition, or at least a “who’s right,” when it. doesn’t. matter. I just find it exhausting. I only have so much energy for interaction, and I’d rather not waste it on something that pointless.

              1. Jennifer Thneed

                > I’d rather not waste it on something that pointless.

                So much yes. I just give up when that happens. “Oh, you’re competing? Okay, you win, the conversation is over.”

                I mean, suggest things, sure, but don’t argue with me about MY stuff that doesn’t actually affect YOU. Because I won’t bother to argue. I will literally say, “Okay” and go about my business.

              2. Been There, Done That

                Because with some people, it IS always a competition. I remember a couple of conversations, one with a significant other and one with a neighbor, that quickly moved from conversation to intense debate and the crux was clearly about who was right. One of the conversations began with just chat about the TV show we were watching! Two different people, two different settings, two different conversations. In both cases I got tired of sparring and just stopped. They both responded to that with a smile and the proclamation, “I love to argue.”

  5. designbot

    I’d consider asking to move Z to another project team. Depending on how team leadership works there, it may be that he can lead another team just not this one, or that he’d be a contributor on another team. Either way it works better than what’s currently happening. If he gets to lead another team then his ego is intact; if he is a contributor to another team that transition will work better where the rest of the team around him isn’t accustomed to responding to him as an authority figure.

    1. Aveline

      Why the need to protect his precious ego? So he’s not the team lead. So what?

      Good employees are willing to lead or follow as the situation requires.

      I’d ask to have him moved. Not to save his ego, but for the benefit of the company as he’s wasting company time constantly questioning what OP says.

      That’s the angle I’d raise. That she’s tried to explain to him, but he wants to question every decision and can’t let it go. So it’s wasting time he could be putting to use for the company doing actual work.

      He’s not being paid to question her or evaluate her work. So he’s both overstepping and not doing his actual job during this time.

      1. Annoyed

        This!

        His ego? So what? His precious make ego is no more important than and deserves no more hand holding than anyone else’s.

        He needs to understand that he’s not the boss of this project and behave accordingly. Full stop.

          1. voyager1

            I would consider moving the guy if the success of the project hinged on it with documentation to why he was moved. The “precious male ego” aside, there is a real possibility that Z could undermine the LW in ways that are not public and hurt the success of the project. Right now Z has shown that he can be annoying when his “ego” gets bruised at worst or can’t relinquish control at best.

            The LW could try to have the conversation that AAM suggests, depending on how Z is, that may just reinforce his belief that LW is in capable of leading. If you move Z off the project though that shows his behavior was wrong and that there are consequences.

            Of course if Z is the lead on everything else and LW reports to him, then things get sticky if Z decides to be a jerk about it all. Also we don’t know how long Z has been there and he could feel threatened by the LW. While I get that may be seen as more “precious male ego” territory people get all sorts of weird when they feel threatened professionally in the workplace…. no matter the gender.

            This whole thing stinks for the LW… I need to go look and see if there was an update :)

          2. Been There, Done That

            I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder if ethnicity could have something to do with it as well, although OP doesn’t address that. It’s easy to bash “male ego,” but I’ve worked on a diverse team for years. It’s hard to believe there could be so many cliques among so few people, but some of the lines of alliance are very clearly drawn.

      2. Dust Bunny

        This.

        The root problem here is that Not Team Lead Guy can’t deal with not being the team lead. THAT is what needs to change.

      3. designbot

        Okay so then assume he won’t be a lead on the next team he’s on. Fine. It’ll still be easier if it’s not the team he was formerly a lead on. People tend to keep responding to a former leader as a leader in subtle ways, and starting with a clean slate will make him easier to manage for his new team lead than he is for OP.

        1. Been There, Done That

          Makes me curious aboue how fluid the team makeups are in this workplace, like, this time on this team you’re the lead and next time you’ll have a different role, or is it that leadership opportunities are rare and losing one is big deal?

    2. Trout 'Waver

      Speaking of saving his ego, how much do you want to bet that the client requested OP specifically because of the argumentative nature of Z rather than the excuse they offered up?

        1. Specialk9

          And also, is he really a nice guy? I feel like this needs to be challenged more. He’s not nice. He’s not kind, or thoughtful, or respectful. Does “nice” mean able to converse in a genial way when getting the answers he wants? Because that’s not nice.

          1. voyager1

            But is anyone really “nice” then? We all have our moments. I commute to work via bicycle. I am sure folks would say that the people in cars who buzz me or honk at me or flip me off or yell etc are genuinly nice people…. but boy howdy if I happen to be in the bike lane on Friday afternoon and they are behind me… nice isn’t the word for them. But I bet their pastor, friends, kids, spouse, partner, etc think they are nice.

            1. pope suburban

              I think it’s about larger patterns. Reacting poorly to something on rare occasions, under stress, is one thing, especially if you apologize or feel ashamed after. Reacting poorly to something consistently, though, that’s another thing. I’m inclined to agree that Z may not actually be a nice person because he habiually acts confrontational and disrespectful. Sure, he might also just need to be told that point blank, maybe he got some bad advice about “gumption” on the job, but…he might be a rude person, too. Hard to say from a distance.

    3. Artemesia

      This is the guy whom the client asked to NOT be further assigned to his project. Rewarding him by making sure his fee fees are protected by another team lead job seems like a mistake to me. I think the advice here has been good and the OP needs to make sure she keeps her cool but is more assertive.

  6. Kate R

    Does Z know that he is no longer the team lead? I know this seems like an obvious question, but having worked in conflict averse situations, it would not surprise me if a decision was made that OP was the team lead, and it was assumed Z would just figure it out. Alison’s suggestions are great, but I suspect the more direct route will be necessary.

    1. irene Adler

      Yep. Seen that happen. Someone comes in and starts directing the lab projects. The prior supervisor gets upset. They were never told they were off the projects. Caused a lot of hurt feelings.
      And each manager blamed the other manager for not communicating this to prior supervisor.

      1. A username for this site

        This happened to me. My boss asked me to take over as program lead because the previous program lead was in a degree program that had him on internship rotations that semester that conflicted with our program’s schedule. She, however, forgot to tell him it was effective the first day of our program, not the first day of his placement, so he walked into work all ready to go and found me sitting in the lead’s desk with the program materials all set out!

        He was livid, and even though I hadn’t thought much of his work quality, he was right. He should have been told in advance.

      2. Jennifer Thneed

        This happened to me. Someone started giving me lots of suggestions for how I did my work, and it got my back up a lot. (It was a short project. I lived thru it.) Years later it occurred to me that someone might have asked her to “direct” me, and nobody told me about it – including her, and she shouldn’t have had to, but it would have cut down on friction.

  7. McWhadden

    A lot of creative fields have a “the customer is always a moron” philosophy. As in the customer doesn’t really understand their vision or ability. So, the fact that the client specifically requested LW could be a notch against her to the team rather than for her. There could be the thought that Z is the rightful leader and the no-nothing client screwed it all up.

    Which is 100% insane and unacceptable, of course. It doesn’t change the answer here. But that is not an uncommon attitude.

  8. That Would be a Good Band Name

    Would it make sense to tell Z that the client has said they prefer the direction the OP is taking? It’s not clear if he’s been made aware of that and “this is how projects for this client has always been handled” is a pretty pervasive attitude in a lot of workplaces. I’m not sure if that would be a conversation for the OP or the manager though.

    I also agree with a comment above that it’s possible no one spelled it out to him that he’s not the lead. I’ve worked in a lot of conflict avoidance environments where someone else would just be put in charge of a task and no one would tell the other person that it wasn’t their task any longer.

    1. Ali G

      Yeah agreed. I might actually start with my manager on this one. Something like:
      “I know that Client asked that I be the team lead on this project, and I am happy doing this work, but I am wondering how it was communicated to the rest of the team that lead was changed from Z to me.”
      If you get something wishy washy back, you can assume that it probably wasn’t done and then ask the manager to reiterate to the team who the lead is.
      Or if the manager is adamant that it has been communicated properly then maybe you could ask for some back up in getting Z to take a step back so the whole team could move forward.
      I’m also kind of surprised there isn’t some sort of work plan for the project that has roles and responsibilities laid out, along with timelines, etc. Something like that could go far to thwart some of this. “No Z, as the workplan says, Sarah is responsible for teapot painting, let’s move on.”

  9. Bea

    The LW is new and now in charge. So this guy is trying to express dominance. You have to cut the crap and continue to tell him he’s not in charge.

    If LW is also a woman, his precious ego is probably smashed all to hell.

    I had some guy essentially try to override my decisions and directions despite knowing damn well that I was the manager and he was a crew member. It boiled down to sexism and firing him was the only termination that had no negative effects on my otherwise thoughtful and caring nature.

    I think it needs to be addressed by the supervisor in clear words to the group that “LW is the lead, she’s the one up follow on this project.” Then there’s no question and he needs to be a team player or get out.

    1. Lucille2

      First time I was promoted to manage a team, I was a bit blindsided by this as well. Former manager told me one of my direct reports, Fergus, was a model employee, knew his stuff and was easy to manage. And he was….when he reported to a man whom he respected. He turned into a a monster reporting to me, a woman. If only I had read this and some of Alison’s other posts back then, it could have saved me so much trouble. I ended up leaving that company and Fergus is still there, still hating women of authority. Good news is that I’ve grown professionally and my career has really progressed since that job. Bad news is I would be very reluctant to return to an otherwise great company as long as Fergus is still there spreading his ill will.

      1. Bea

        I’m glad you escaped, it sucks he gets to stay at a great place and drag it’s progression down. At least you learned and ended up in a good place too.

  10. Sara without an H

    Alison’s script is fine, as far as OP is concerned. I’m concerned here about whoever hired OP for this project on the client’s recommendation. When hiring somebody to replace an existing team lead, it seems to me that an obvious first step would be briefing He-Wh0-Is-About-To-Be-Replaced on the reason for the change and making sure he understood that he was expected to work constructively with the new lead. If HWIATBR indicated he couldn’t do that, or if my past experience as his manager indicated he’d have trouble doing that, then I think I’d thank him warmly for his previous contributions and assign him to a different team.

    And when introducing OP to the new team, I would have made sure to emphasize OP’s previous experience and successful track record and indicate how much I was looking forward to what she and the new team would accomplish together. Some preliminary expectation-setting might head off some of the difficulties OP described. And I’d check in regularly, just to see how things were going.

  11. Ann Nonymous

    Perhaps an occasional, dry “duly noted,” or “objection noted” can be used and immediately move on.

  12. Teapot librarian

    Dear self: if this is the response to “my *coworker* disagrees with me on everything,” consider how much more so the response applies to “my *subordinate* disagrees with me on everything.” Love, TL

  13. mrs__peel

    I’m very curious about the gender dynamics of this situation, and (if the LW is female) whether the guy in question would feel as comfortable challenging a male team lead’s authority in this manner. I have my guesses….

  14. Girl friday

    It would be great if you could put a link at the bottom of your Inc. posts that says, “Please feel free to join the discussion at askamanager.org?” Not to argue, or set it on fire, or anything… please. I know a lot of people looking for jobs that would get a lot out of this post and the discussion.

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