Sensitive co-worker

Question: One of my co-workers becomes defensive when I or anyone else offers constructive criticism. The last time I made a suggestion, she acted very offended and said she felt that I was telling her that she wasn’t doing her job well.

We share a workspace for part of the day, and I’d like to suggest a more effective way to keep the area neat and full of resources for others who may have to cover in our absence. How do I broach this topic with such a sensitive co-worker? — K.R., New York


Since you know that your co-worker is defensive when she is criticized, it would be prudent on your part not to offer any criticism to her. Her reaction might also depend on the tone of your voice when she is criticized. None of us like to be criticized even if it is as you call it constructive criticism. As far as the work space is concerned, suggested to her that you would like to reorganize the workspace and offer your suggestions and ask her if she has any ideas of how the area can be made more efficient. You might find that if you seek her cooperation, she might be less offended with you, and if she does not respond in a positive manner, remember that we cannot change anyone else’s behavior.

It is a very sticky situation to give anyone else advice — especially to a co-worker. That is something people expect from their manager rather than their co-worker. If I really thought it was necessary to give constructive criticism, I’d try to keep the communications from my point of view. For example, “I feel(or I think) this change would benefit both of us. What do you think?” This should help prevent the other person becoming defensive.

I would try approaching her with something like – “I’ve been thinking we need to reorganize our work area so that others can find things in our absence. Do you have any ideas how we can do this?” Then after she has given you her ideas you can throw your ideas into the mix and hopefully settle upon a solution. If you give her your ideas first, she may feel like you are criticizing the way she keeps the area. It isn’t always the words that make a person defensive, but the way they are delivered.

Oh, been there done that! Not a good situation to be in and very frustrating for the one who is doing nothing but trying to help. I have also approached someone in my office and asked for help or suggested changes and it did nothing but get me into trouble cause she went back to the boss and said I was acting “superior” over her. My suggestion to you is to take any ideas that you have to improve something to your boss first and get his/her “ok”. Once you have his/her blessing, your protected the other employee has no choice but to make the change. Good luck!

I could be wrong on this one, but it seems like this is more of an issue with you that someone being able to cover in your absence. If this is true, make your area spotless and your co-worker will get tired of others commenting on your workspace and start trying to make his/hers better.

You could also try bring in a small plant as a peace offering, and I can almost promise you things will slowly change. I truly believe when people make a positive effort for change it will happen, if you build it they will come.

One thing that I remember quite well from a communication skills course is that “constructive criticism” is an oxymoron. If advice is unsolicited, even between a supervisor and employee, most of the time it won’t be received very well.

Instead of making suggestions, why not sit down with her and get her input on what she thinks should be done. Say something like, I find it really helpful to have this area stocked with resources for _____. Or say it’s really important to me to keep this area well stocked so that people can easily cover for me when I am away. Then, once she is interested, brainstorm ideas with her. If she comes up with the ideas herself, she is much more likely to see value in them and use them.

You might want to spend some time first to think about the words you want to use. Try to use words that have a positive connotation instead of negative. If she is upset, ask her what it is about what I said that you find difficult to hear and let her talk, even if she says things that you react to. You may find that you are both on the same page as far as what you want.

I think the comments listed are all very good. Since your co-worker has already demonstrated that she doesn’t take people’s advice well, you should try to handle this differently. Did anyone come to you and say that there’s a problem with resources when they need to cover you? If so, just state that it was bought to your attention that you need to develop a more effective way to leave your desks etc… If she sees this as an issue that someone bought to you she may not be so quick to get offended. Also, its a good idea to ask her if she has any suggestions on how to accomplish this.