I work in R&D at a small (40 people) technology company. About six months ago, a new engineer was hired to work on the same project. We have different responsibilities, but with a lot of overlap. He has about 6 years more work experience, but I have a lot more technical expertise. He was hired on the recommendation of one of our executives, so the power structure / dynamics favor him.
My problem is that from the day this person has joined, he has tried to upstage me and take credit for my ideas and treated me like a junior. To be fair, he works very hard and has valuable experience, but his competitiveness and rudeness (e.g. interrupting others at meetings) make working with him quite miserable.
Some examples – he often comes to me with a question, then presents my ideas as his own at meetings. Or he will call a meeting about a part of the project that I am already working on and without acknowledging what I’m already doing, declare that “we need to solve this problem urgently,” ask people for their ideas, hand out action items, and try to take over and monopolize critical path activities. At the same time, he holds back information that I (or others) need to do our jobs and is very defensive if we ask him questions or suggest he do anything differently.
I find this both frustrating and insulting. My job responsibility requires me to serve as the resident technical expert, so I cannot simply bow out of helping this person. I’ve tried hard to maintain a semblance of collegiality, but this takes a lot of effort and seems to work against me because he tries to take advantage of it by getting my help with no change in his behavior. In truth, our relation is very strained and difficult. Our managers have noticed this too, but seem to tolerate it. While I have not seen anyone else in the company behave like this, our company culture encourages initiative, and management seems to prefer to let things work themselves out.
I tried talking to him about some of these issues one-on-one a few weeks ago and suggested we work together rather than compete. He agreed, then went right back to the same behavior!
Any suggestions would be appreciated.
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
One of the first things I do whenever I’m having an issue with somebody is find out if I’m the only one. I know it’s nearly impossible to believe, but sometimes I do rub people the wrong way.
You don’t even need to go on a lynch-mob-witch-hunt to find out the word on your coworkers. Watch other people’s body language around this individual. Bring up his name in casual conversation and see how people react (facial expressions speak volumes). This is an important first step, because if the problem resides with you, then we have a different strategy. Because of how you present yourself, this person may have developed a case of “manifest destiny” on your ideas… his sense of superiority and his experience may have provided him a feeling of entitlement to any of the ideas in the department. If you do not present yourself with a sense of credibility or confidence, then you are perceived as an easy target. If he is offending others with the same frequency and degree that he is you, then there’s a different issue. Then you have a “problem child” in the office, and it will take a team effort to address the issue. You may need to set examples for everybody else in the office.
As far as this individual having power just because of an executive’s recommendation is purely perception, unless that theory has been tested. Have you (or anybody else) been called on the carpet by this executive because you stood up to this irritating engineer? Or does this engineer name drop as a form of a threat?
So, what are some strategies that you can employ to help out?
1. When this engineer comes to you with a question, just provide the bare minimum to answer it. There’s a difference between asking a question, and stealing answers. If he asks for more than a simple response, politely encourage him to do some more research. “I’m sure somebody with your vast experience can find the answers to this question. When you do, I’m sure the rest of us would love to know what you find out. After all, we’re all on the same team.”
2. Create a code of conduct in meetings where interruptions and rude behavior are not tolerated. Then leverage your coworkers to help police this. “Excuse me, but I believe Sue was talking. We don’t interrupt people here. Sue, please continue with what you were saying.”
3. The next time he calls a meeting to step on one of your projects, speak up. “Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but this is part of the scope of my project, which I communicated in the last status report. Perhaps we should not waste so many people’s time by discussing a project that you can ask me about directly. Everybody, I’m sorry that your time was wasted by this meeting.”
This has a residual effect, since you’ve just take him to task for not paying enough attention to what is going on in the office. He will learn quickly not to do this to you.
4. When he gets defensive when you ask him questions, identify the behavior. “I perceive that you are not comfortable by this question. Is there a problem I should know about which would prevent you from sharing this information with me? If there is an issue, let’s schedule a meeting with our manager to get this out on the table and resolved. After all, we’re on the same team here, and I don’t want you feeling uncomfortable with sharing information.” He will probably back down if he feels his behavior will be called on the carpet.
5. Watermark your work (electronic signatures, etc.) to prevent him from taking credit for it. You need to begin standing up to him and letting him know what is your work and what is his work. It’s a little hard to do when he’s presenting the idea as his own. But if you’ve created a dated document that shows when you originated the idea, it becomes easier to defend your documents. I start all of my files with the date that they are created. (Example: 20080315 Requirements Document.doc).
Another thing to remember is to document, document, document. Every time he pulls one of his stunts, you will want to write down the date and time, who was involved, the issue, and the outcome. If his behaviors persist, eventually there will be a “reckoning” meeting, and the credibility will be on your side if you can produce documentation.
Thank you for writing to Office-Politics.com
Timothy Johnson, Author & Consultant
Timothy Johnson is the Chief Accomplishment Officer of Carpe Factum, Inc. His company is dedicated to helping individuals and organizations “seize the accomplishment” through effective project management, strategic facilitation, and business process improvement. His clients have included Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, Wells Fargo, ING, Principal Financial Group, and Teva Neuroscience. Timothy has managed projects ranging from a $14 billion class action lawsuit settlement to HIPAA compliance, from software conversion to process reengineering, from strategic IT alignment to automated decisioning, from producing a training video to creating a project office environment. He is currently an adjunct professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, teaching MBA classes in Leadership, Managing Office Politics, Creativity for Business, and Project Management.
An accomplished speaker, Timothy has enthusiastically informed and entertained audiences across the nation on the topics of project communication, office politics, creativity, and meeting management. He has written two books, both business fables: Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable and GUST – The Tale Wind of Office Politics.