Have you ever noticed that sometimes, when you ask a supervisor for help dealing with a co-worker, the conversation goes really badly? Suddenly, instead of talking about the original problem, you’re having an argument about whether there is a problem in the first place. Who has the problem? Are you the problem? One experience like this can keep you from ever approaching a supervisor again, which actually robs you of a great resource.
There are two main reasons why you might want to talk with the supervisor. One is that you believe the supervisor is in a position of power to actually do something about the situation. According to an organizational chart this might be true. From the supervisor’s perspective, however, the view might be a quite different. I’ll address that in a moment. Another reason that you might want to approach your supervisor is because your supervisor usually has more knowledge or experience than you do. So, if the conversation goes sour, you lose the potential to benefit from the supervisor’s relative power to change the situation and the opportunity to learn from the supervisor’s experience.
What happens? Why does the conversation go wrong? Let’s look at the conversation from the viewpoint of your supervisor. First, your supervisor is a human being. If you are in a very hierarchical organization, your supervisor’s humanity might not be obvious to you. If supervisors and supervisees don’t really interact with each other, what you see is a status rather than a person who can feel as vulnerable and frustrated and clueless as you do, just in a different context.
Your supervisor might feel tremendous pressure when you approach him or her with a problem because the supervisor may feel that their power and status depends on their ability to solve every problem. So, from your supervisor’s perspective, here you come with an annoying interpersonal issue and just dump it in his or her lap. Whether you intend for your supervisor to feel pressured to solve the problem or not, he or she might feel that pressure. Think how much of your supervisor’s self-image is riding on whether or not he or she can maintain that sense of all knowing power in front of you while, in truth, he or she has no idea how to resolve the issue.
Consider this as well: pointing out a negative issue can easily be perceived as a criticism of your supervisor’s ability to do his or her job! When you approach the supervisor with a problem, it can sound to the supervisor as though you are criticizing his or her effectiveness as a manager. Of course, this not what you intend. But that is a major reason why a conversation that you intend to be about resolving the issue between you and a co-worker becomes and argument about whether there is a problem and who is the problem.
For the supervisor, there is an interest in making the problem go away. So it is in the supervisor’s interest to have an argument about whether there is a problem. If the supervisor wins that argument (and supervisors usually win) then there is no problem and the supervisor is off the hook. In a similar way, if the argument is about whether, maybe, you are the problem, then it is a simpler issue for the supervisor to deal with. Rather than having to listen to and understand what you are saying and then bringing in the complication of the co-worker you are concerned about, the supervisor can dispose of the issue simply by dealing with one person and one issue: you.
So, how can you approach your supervisor so that your supervisor actually hears you and embraces your need for help?
The first thing you can do let your supervisor know that you own the problem. Try presenting the issue as a concern rather than a problem. The word “problem” is already so negatively loaded that what most people hear when you say “I have a problem” is “you have a problem”. Why do they hear this? Because the logical next step from the statement, “I have a problem” is “and I want you to fix it”. In that case your problem becomes your supervisor’s problem. So, immediately, your supervisor is put on the spot.
To say that you have a concern might mean that you have a problem but it could also just mean that you have a question or that you have an idea. You are not trying to dump a problem in your supervisor’s lap, you are asking your supervisor to brainstorm with you about a concern that you have. You are presenting an invitation to collaborate. You could call this collaborative self-advocacy. You are advocating for your own needs by bringing them to your supervisor’s attention. However, you are not dumping the problem and stepping back, expecting your supervisor to solve the problem. You are asking your supervisor to join you in exploring ideas for approaching the situation together.
The second thing you can do is to help the supervisor to understand that the supervisor has an interest in joining you in brainstorming ways to navigate the situation. Does your dispute with your co-worker cut into work time? Does it affect your productivity? Does the lack of cooperation between you lead to inefficiencies in how the work is done?
Now, you do want to tread carefully here because the way you present the issue is critical. Put one way, you are presenting a concern about workflow. Put another way, you are a tattle-tale whiner. Also, unless it is your purpose to sink you co-worker, making your co-worker out to be the bad guy could seriously damage any opportunity to nurture a collaborative relationship between you both. If you make your co-worker out to be the bad guy, your supervisor might approach your co-worker as the bad guy, and the adversarial situation you were trying to change will actually be reinforced. So, your intent is not to vilify your co-worker but to present an issue.
You can avoid making your co-worker look like a villain by focusing your conversation on yourself, on your perspective. You might have heard couples’ therapists talking about using “I” statements. Well, that works in this context, too! Your supervisor should understand that you are presenting your understanding of things based on your perspective. It is to your benefit to freely acknowledge that there are other perspectives, to acknowledge that your co-worker most probably has a totally different understanding of what is going on. That you are interested in understanding your co-worker’s perspective and that it would be helpful to you if your supervisor could help you to figure out how to approach your co-worker to get a better understanding on your co-worker’s perspective.
It takes a lot of courage and generosity to do this, especially if you feel hurt and attacked by what your co-worker’s behavior. It is an instinctive, human, reaction to behavior that you don’t understand, that also has a negative impact on you, to assume that the other person intended to hurt you. Sometimes it is true that the person intended to hurt you. Then it is useful to find out why. Is that a reaction to something that the other person perceived as a harmful act on your part? Is the other person a sociopath who just enjoys hurting people? Is the other person actually feeling really insecure and disempowered and truly frightened that other people will figure that out and take advantage of that and so is acting preemptively to cover his or her true feelings?
It isn’t your job to fix any of that. But understanding it is a critical part of knowing how to form an understanding that allows you to work together. A useful step in achieving that understanding is drawing upon the wisdom and experience of your supervisor. Expressing your concern in this way is only helpful to you because it helps you gain access to the resource that helps to address your own needs. So, rather than complaining, try collaborating.
Talk and make it happen.