Taking the right approach with a defensive co-worker

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Question: “I recently started a new job and can see many ways to improve things. However, 'Beth,' my main co-worker, refuses to consider any of my ideas. She has been working here for 15 years, and she gets very defensive if I suggest ways that she could do her work more efficiently. How can I get her to listen to me?” — Frustrated

Marie's Answer: If you consider Beth’s point of view, her reaction isn’t surprising. After 15 years of successful job performance, she’s suddenly informed that she’s doing it all wrong. Based on her own experience, the old way works just fine, so why should she listen to a newcomer?  After all, she hardly knows you.

To turn the situation around, consider these suggestions:

•    Your intentions are positive, but your approach is ineffective. If you want Beth to embrace your ideas, you need to start by developing a relationship with her.

•    Show Beth that you respect her years of experience. If you are willing to learn from her, she will be more open to learning from you. Ask her questions about the job, the customers or the history of the business. 

•    Talk about the work, not the person, to avoid sounding critical.  Saying, “You could do that more efficiently” implies that Beth needs improvement. But saying, “I think we could streamline the billing process” keeps the focus task-oriented.  For more Office Coach feedback tips, check out How to Give Feedback without Criticism.

•    Finally, don’t hog the credit. When you have an idea, include Beth in developing an implementation plan, then make a joint presentation to your boss. 

Because you’re the newbie, your manager will likely see you as the source of these new approaches.  He will also be impressed by your collaborative spirit.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Naomi Rose November 5, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Your response was right on, but I would like to add a few thoughts.
1 Many times, there is business reasons or past experience’s that created the need for a more detailed job process. To a new employee, it may look like the job can be streamlined, however, there could be many valid reasons for the processes in place. Take time to understand all of it before offering up new ideas.
2) I would suggest this new employee quietly demonstrate more efficient processes and work habits. In my experience, when one employee is more efficient than others, the others tend to ‘step it up’ too.

3)If the new employee truly does have better ideas, share them with the manager. This way, if there is a business reason for the current process, it will be explained. If the ideas truly have merit, the manager could coach the co-worker, without causing animosity between the employees.

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