speak up directly to an annoying coworker: a success story

A reader writes:

I used to think I had a very easy workplace. Most of my coworkers are very easy to get along with. I read your site to peek into the wild stories you’ve published.

Then came along “Polly.” She has the tendency to overshare and get aggressive when stressed. I felt like she needed a friend, so I overlooked the bad behavior and made a genuine effort to develop a work friendship. When coworkers complained about her to me, I’d defend her. Then one day out of nowhere, she blew up at me. It was an angry and aggressive rant which ended with “I’m not talking to you anymore.” I didn’t say anything in response. She walked away. I was really taken aback and after that outburst content to move on and only speak to her if it was work-related.

Her negative behaviors in the workplace increased. She ignored me but would lash out at anyone else and loudly. Communications became increasingly either overtly aggressive, personal, condescending or weird.

I began to feel a lot of personal stress. I started to feel like her oversharing was manipulative, as if she was trying to make us feel sorry for her to allow the bad behavior. I didn’t want to work when she was around. I felt the tension between her and others. I was afraid to speak up because I was afraid I was going to stoop to a level of unprofessionalism I wouldn’t recover from. I told myself I knew too much about her personal life, I told myself I’m angry and want so much to say the meanest possible thing that would make her regret coming in and I knew exactly what it was.

I read some of your posts about “tattling” (and how it isn’t really) and addressed some of the things with my boss. I told him about incidents I witnessed and expressed concern about the morale of our team. I felt he listened and seemed to take it seriously, though her behavior continued. I was not expecting immediate change. It wasn’t enough.

I read some of your articles about workplace bullies and asked myself, “This is how I communicate in my personal life, so why not trust myself to speak up at work?”

Today, I decided took a more proactive approach. I realized her personality isn’t going to change but I can say something for my own sake and it isn’t unprofessional. It’s freakin’ communication! I can do that and if she blows up, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. What’s the worst that could happen right?

When she loudly started to talk about her personal life, rather than look around and roll our eyes at coworkers saving zingers for later conversations, I responded with a statement that let her know I found the behavior distracting (though I really meant annoying!) and suggested that she keep the personal chatter to a minimum. She made a defensive apology. Further communication started with her obnoxiously pointing out “this is work-related so I am allowed to say it!” Fine by me, go on with the content. Two of my coworkers separately and privately thanked me for this.

When she interupted someone during a meeting trying to take control, I simply and calmly stated, “Bob was talking. I’d like to hear what he has to say.” Rather than continued eye rolls and crossed arms, my coworkers backed up my statement. She immediately stopped and allowed Bob to continue. Bob thanked me privately after the meeting.

When she sent out an email to the team implying we were unable to perform a basic task and desperately needed her input, I responded by hitting reply all and defending the abilities of my coworkers. She responded by doubling down on the criticism. I skimmed it for constructive content it and deleted it. Uninterested in her opinion.

I responded to each “thank you” from my coworkers by encouraging them to try these types of communications rather than bottling up, and pointing out that it might not change Polly’s behavior but it can take away her power to create an unpleasant work environment.

I left work feeling calm and confident that I don’t have to quietly accept Polly’s behavior simply because I’m at stuck in an office with it and if, and undoubtedly when, I encounter someone negative in the workplace in the future, I’m going to be able to handle it calmly and professionally.

So, I’m writing this email to thank you for the advice you’ve written. I feel like I’ve learnt an invaluable lesson and am almost thankful I have such an awful coworker.

{ 83 comments… read them below }

  1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Woo Hoo!

    I love that you made that conscious effort to change up your behavior … and that it actually worked!

    1. Annie Dumpling*

      And it is great that LW changed up her behavior without mimicking /responding in kind to Polly’s behavior! It is too easy to fall into the same manner/tone of the aggressor (they yell, you yell back; they make snarky comment, you snark back). LW was able to remove her emotional response from her commenting, and make her comments about the content (the deleting of the email after skimming for constructive criticism, no response needed – brilliant) rather than the conveyance. Calm, direct, impersonal – I’m in awe.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        This! In many cases simply… not retaliating… is the best-case scenario (and I’m not trying to be rude to those folks – because that alone can be hard when you’re frustrated!). OP went above and beyond. You are awesome, OP! I will think of you the next time I get frustrated by a difficult coworker (or customer, haha).

  2. voyager1*

    This is a great letter.

    But I wonder where is management in all of this? Taking over a meeting by derailing is not good for anything.

    1. Observer*

      I agree. OP, feel free to circle back with your manager, or go upstairs if things get worse. At the moment you’re keeping the most disruptive behaviors in check, so that’s good. But if it starts affecting your work, or it gets to a point where you can’t keep her from derailing meeting, etc. it’s time to take the next steps with your boss / grandboss / HR.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        Very true! You are a rockstar, OP, but it’s okay to talk to management as well about this,

    2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      Yes, this. I’d love to see how management responded. Unfortunately, in many of the workplaces I’ve been where this Polly flavor of bullying has been allowed to run unchecked, management would also class the strategies OP is using as insubordination (only management can correct Polly) or even bullying against Polly.

      Singing the praises of this tactic- without seeing how it is received by management- is a bit premature, since it could have long-term consequences the LW is not yet aware of.

      1. Wintermute*

        I disagree entirely, LW kept it strictly professional. No manager I have ever met would classify saying to a peer “I would like to hear what bob said before you interrupted him” as insubordination! Saying that to someone higher in “rank” sure, because they’re allowed to control meetings, but not a peer. Same with calmly defending your team when their competence is called into question, if the boss agrees with the criticism they might push back but no one would call simply stating some facts about your group’s performance unreasonable.

        Cutting her off when she was talking about personal things is the only thing I think could come off poorly depending on your workplace culture, but the LW’s language seemed neutral and self-focused– *I* am distracted, not *you* are annoying– so I think it would take a pretty extreme manager to have an issue with that.

        1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

          I have had more than one manager that felt that way, though.

          1. Tony n*

            It’s all in the tact and use of the right words. If you state you’d like to hear someone opinion, this is not criticism. Are you sure that your case is similar ?

            1. boop the first*

              “Are you sure that your case is similar?”

              Or important enough to undermine OP’s confidence? And the confidence of anyone else with this problem who finally found a sliver of hope in OP’s solution?

  3. AcademicMama*

    This is just such a great story! I have learned so much from this blog about how to handle these kinds of conversations, and it’s wonderful to see it in action. Thank you for such a terrific example!

  4. Erin*

    “It might not change Polly’s behavior but it can take away her power to create an unpleasant work environment.”

    YES. I want to say “you go girl” but don’t know your gender, so know I am clapping internally.

    1. CoveredInBees*

      Yes. This. This all day long. It is applicable outside of work as well. Just because you can’t change someone’s behavior, doesn’t mean you have to be held captive by it.

      1. Fergus*

        Outside work if someone told me they did not want to talk to me anymore it would be very simple. I remove their number from my phone and then I block the number. I have done it and it works well.

    2. pamela voorhees*

      I’m always fond of “you go, you!”

      For real though, it’s brave to do something like this! Most of us aren’t set up to confront, and you’re doing it smoothly and professionally. I’m joining in on #standingovation

  5. Not So NewReader*

    Well done, OP!

    Your boss must be noticing changes in your responses. Hopefully, she is appropriately impressed.

    You do make an excellent observation, reliance on using eye rolls, crossed arms, etc., only makes the problem go on longer and longer. It’s much quicker to go directly to saying something. Most of us do not know what to say, so using down time to plan out what to say can be very helpful when the moment occurs.

    I tend to think of this as managing up. You are showing your boss how to do this.

    1. S*

      “I tend to think of this as managing up. You are showing your boss how to do this.” +1

      1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

        I’m realizing we have this eye-rolling culture around a nuisance of a co-worker. I’ve been doing a half-assed strategy of derailing the nonsense. I guess I should go full-ass now.

        1. sheworkshardforthemoney*

          We just hired an eye-roller who combines it with a huffy sigh. When you’ve been on the job for less than a month, keep your eyes straight while you’re learning.

  6. Eeether Eyether*

    By taking away her power, you will change her behavior. Best advice I ever received was if you want someone’s behavior to change, change yours. It’s not always easy to do, but it is effective.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      Reward the behavior you want, ignore the behavior you don’t. It works with dogs, and it works with children, and adults who act like children.

      It’s amazing what we can accomplish when grown ups act grown up, isn’t it?

      1. SunnyD*

        But she didn’t ignore it, she addressed it calmly and professionally. Which is the particular magic Alison teaches us.

      2. AS*

        Ignoring bad behavior/behavior you don’t want actually often DOESN’T work, as Alison preaches often – she addressed it head on, in a way that over time and with consistency is going to create the behavior change she’s looking for. That actually goes for dogs and humans as well. Destructive/bad behavior left unaddressed often does not go away on it’s own.

    2. wittyrepartee*

      I actually dealt with our nuisance employee who would come in and complain about the commute every day by asking her every morning about her commute. Sometimes you just have to lean in! I may have gotten this from my father, who used to keep a chalkboard with one of his coworker’s likes and dislikes (she thought it was funny). Every time she said she hated something, everyone would go and check the board to see if it was already on there.

  7. RJ the Newbie*

    Excellent work, OP. You’ve deflated a work vampire and effectively earned even more respect all around. It’s a great approach.

  8. 30 Years in the Biz*

    Fantastic!! A great way to support your colleagues and grow your own skills at the same time!

  9. ThinMint*

    This is wonderful!
    LW, when you did these things, did you have any sort of physical reaction within yourself you had to manage? When I think about these things, I get sweaty, nervous, heart racing. Any phrases you internally repeated to remind yourself that this is all ok to do?

    1. seller of teapots*

      Not OP, but for me it’s just about recognizing those fear-based responses, but proceeding anyway. And eventually they get quieter and quieter. But in my experience they only get quieter if I do The Thing; I can’t make myself unafraid of The Thing at the outset. Each time I say the things I’m afraid of saying, and I see that the world didn’t end and also that I feel better, it gets easier to say it next time.

      1. quaver*

        Do you have any tips about controlling your tone? I’m a conflict avoider, so I get nervous but I’m also mad because our Polly has been doing this stuff for many years, and you can hear it in my voice if I say something in the moment, so I usually shush.

        1. Mirve*

          I wonder if you just practice saying (out loud, not just to yourself at home) something you would need so that you get used to forming the words and saying them when you are not under stress if that might help?

            1. Lana Kane*

              I say it out loud in front of a mirror, to get a sense of the facial expression I want to have. That’s because I have no poker face, and even if I practice saying the words, my face will say “You are my last nerve”.

        2. gecko*

          Yes—start with something neutral and polite. If you’re in the middle of a conversation, maybe a “hmmmmm,” if you’re interrupting someone, “if you don’t mind,” or “sorry, excuse me,” or if you’re bringing something up, “I wanted to mention…”

          I think that neutral and polite things like this fade into the background BUT they also give you feedback about what your voice is sounding like, and you can modulate based on that. It doesn’t matter if your excuse me is shaky; you can hear that and then firm up your tone. It’s easier to do after listening to yourself than while you’re saying the uncomfortable thing.

        3. Angwyshaunce*

          I am also a conflict avoider – even giving a reasonable shutdown causes my stomach to tie in knots. Maybe it’s getting older, but I find that with age it comes easier to shed the forced social niceness and be blunt when the situation warrants.

          In getting older, time becomes a precious resource, and one that you may be more willing defend. It may not make it more comfortable in the moment, but (like ripping off a band-aid) better to get it out of the way and over with quickly than to endure indefinitely.

        4. wittyrepartee*

          I pretend I’m a queen talking to unruly courtiers. Seriously, it helps. If you need to, you can instead pretend to be some sort of royalty in disguise.

        5. Batgirl*

          In teacher training we were told to practice our voice tone and projection in a tiled room like the bathroom or shower which works really well.

        6. Tony n*

          Maybe picture the situation as a third person, you want to state facts rather than patronising the person.

    2. Anna*

      Also not OP, but I agree with Seller of Teapots above: I note the reaction (sweating and blushing, in my case) and calmly proceed anyway. I only rarely have this kind of thing on hand, so I don’t get enough practice to not sweat and blush anymore, but I say the thing that needs saying regardless. I don’t even care if the other person notices my physical reaction, because my physical reaction is not the point. And anyway I can’t control them noticing. So yah, just do it anyway.

  10. GreenDoor*

    Speaking up is so hard and akward the first time it, but it gets easier the more often you do it. And then you find you have given others the courage to speak up, too.

    Great job, OP. Keep taking the wind out of Polly’s sails!

  11. dramallama*

    I love how you’ve re-framed the problem, OP! Sometimes feeling powerless is the worst part of a bad situation, and you’ve beaten that. Wishing you continued success, that either Polly or management wakes up and improves things from their end as well.

  12. cwhfstl*

    Your letter reminds me of the saying: You can’t control other people’s behavior, only your reaction to it. Always true. Great job.

  13. Jennifer*

    Telling people they are behaving like jerks when they are indeed behaving like jerks sometimes gets them to stop acting like jerks. Who knew? Happy for the OP but can’t help but be annoyed that this was allowed to go on for so long by management, particularly when the fix was so simple.

    Glad things worked out.

    1. mark132*

      Sometimes it helps, sometimes it actually encourages them to double down on the antisocial behavior. I’m glad this is proving to be the former.

    2. FD*

      I think it’s a bit more than that. The OP is also making it not rewarding to behave in this way. People like this tend to want to stir up drama–specifically, they tend to like it when people rise to their bait. A calm, boundary-setting response makes the OP’s position clear but isn’t all that ‘exciting’ for the coworker.

      1. Batgirl*

        Yeah, instead of instructing Polly on how to play, she’s kind of taking away the ball.

        1. LMs 2 cents*

          I like that analogy, since people like Polly aren’t interested in ‘playing nice’.

    3. pentamom*

      She’s not just telling what she thinks of the person’s behavior, she’s redirecting her behavior to work-appropriate interaction. Addressing defective behavior in a general way is likely just to cause backlash; addressing the specific ways in which the behavior is interfering with work and not providing anything for her to defend herself over is less likely to. “That behavior is annoying” leaves an opening for an argument. What is someone going to say in self-defense when simply told that something other than her drama needs to be the focus of the moment?

  14. LSP*

    This is a time I’d really love to be able to respond in GIF form, because OP would be showered with well-earned high-five GIFs .

    1. Elizabeth*

      They’d definitely be well earned, but the fact that the comments would all be gifs would keep me from ever reading comments here :)

  15. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Wow. This is wonderful.

    Also, I really hope your manager(s) note what you have done and pick up the ball. You shouldn’t have to shoulder all of this yourself.

  16. Jerm*

    I did much of what you described, but to a coworker who was doing to me what you described. Detachment is a very freeing experience.

  17. Diana*

    I think this is one of my favorite letters published on this website. Congratulations, OP, great job!!

  18. JobHunter*

    Great job, OP.

    Does anyone have some insight on how to deal with Polly as a supervisor? It might be helpful to have advice for both cases in one thread for future reference.

    1. Just Jan*

      My boss is a Polly — overshares, acts chummy, and blows up occasionally for strange reasons. There is no way to reign in this behavior; consequences have to come from peers or superiors, because they don’t have the self-awareness that would be required to notice their patterns of behavior and to take any feedback from subordinates.

      1. Fergus*

        The answer Allison always states is your boss is an ass and never going to change and the advice is can you work under those requirements of the job if not look for a new one and be like a tree and leaf, paraphrased.

      2. PSB*

        Mine is too, with a large side of talking about people behind their back. Even to us about our peers. He’s enabled by a conflict-avoidant grandboss who values the boss’s personal loyalty over all the people he’s driven away. After months or years of this, HR finally took notice and interviewed all of us and recently delivered a ton of detailed feedback to Grandboss about Boss. Grandboss talked to Boss about all of it last week. We’ll see if that produces any lasting change. We’re skeptical but we realized months ago that getting help from outside our leadership was the only chance of changing anything.

  19. Moonbeam Malone*

    Honestly, this is also Polly’s best chance. It may be unlikely she’ll improve but at least you’re giving her an opportunity to learn that her behavior is unwelcome in the workplace! Good work all around.

  20. Justme, The OG*

    My kid learned “tattle versus tell” in school. What you did is telling. There was a problem that needed solving so you sought to fix it. Totally not tattling.

  21. in a fog*

    Honestly wondering if OP works with a former coworker of mine. May you have better luck than I ever did!

  22. LadyCop*

    If I had a dollar for every time I stood up to a Polly for my co-workers and either never got a thank you…or got my wrist slapped for trying…I could retire. Wish I had an OP to stand up to the Pollys now because I am done sticking out my neck.

    1. Frankie Bergstein*

      That is really awful, LadyCop, I’m so sorry. I am guessing that you solved workplace problems before they began and boosted morale where you’ve worked. Sorry that you didn’t get the recognition and gratitude you deserved.

  23. Jeannie*

    This is so great. I wish more people would operate like this in the workplace. We’d have fewer interpersonal issues. Staff would learn at an early stage in their career what is and is not appropriate- and hopefully, by the time people got to be managers, they would have learned not to bully people into yielding to them.
    And definitely – the more you do it, the easier it is. Practice in front of a mirror, get a friend and practice on them. Practice on your cat – because everyone knows that’s a lost cause anyway, so if you make a mistake no one’s going to get upset.

    1. Frankie Bergstein*

      I agree wholeheartedly! On one hand, OP is doing serious emotional jiu-jitsu. On the other hand, shouldn’t we all know how to do this — teach people how we would like to be treated?

  24. Massmatt*

    What a great letter! I love how you were really honest about how you felt, for example being tempted to be petty or nasty, and how you tackled the problem. You are showing management skills, it seems more than your manager!

    Obnoxious people either don’t pick up on basic social cues like people rolling their eyes or grumble impatiently when they talk, or they just don’t care. Much better to deal with it head on when you can.

  25. ThatsMyStapler*

    This is AMAZEBALLS. I don’t even know you, but I’m intensely proud of you. A classy, professional, take-the-bull-by-the-horns approach. Fabulous Alison implementation right there, folks. Savor it!

  26. OhBehave*

    I can’t reply to any comments?

    This is a great update. You have impacted no only your personal work life but that of your coworkers too. I’m glad they are reaching out to you. This gives them confidence to do the same not only here but in future situations.

    Update in a month please! We have to know the impact of this new attitude and what management said, if anything.

  27. Anonandon*

    I wonder what it would be like if everyone had the confidence that comes from knowing you aren’t the only one to see a problem and the people around you will support y0u.

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