Help! My Coworker is a Curmudgeon


Q. Dear Crucial Skills,

I work in a busy, growing medical office with five support staff, and I share duties with a coworker who just turned seventy and has been with the clinic since it opened. We don’t have an office manager, so the clinic owners expect us, as peers, to come up with policies and procedures for the front desk, solve problems, and strategics on improvements.

My coworker resists every suggestion of change or improvement to the front desk area and refuses to use the computer unless she has to. When I try to suggest changes in a nonthreatening manner, she gets very hostile and attacks me personally, and I no longer feel safe talking to her. The owners are aware of the situation, but they won’t address it. I want to see the clinic continue to grow but frankly don’t see how that can happen if the front desk doesn’t keep up with the times.

A. Dear Stuck,

You’ve just described an incredibly messy, complicated, and value-laden problem. There isn’t likely to be a simple or easy-to-implement solution.

Let’s begin by identifying the different issues that are involved.

  1. You don’t have an office manager, so your team of five organizes its own work and handles any disagreements.
  2. One of your coworkers resists changes and improvements.
  3. This coworker becomes hostile and attacks you personally.
  4. This coworker is seventy years old and has been with the clinic since it opened.
  5. The owners are aware of this situation, but haven’t addressed it.
  6. The clinic is growing and the front desk needs to keep up with the times.

I think we can break this problem into two parts based on who could take action to solve it. One problem is with your coworker—her resistance to change and her personal attacks. A second problem is with the owners—their unwillingness to take action.

I would focus my efforts on the owners for a couple of reasons:

  1. I don’t think you will reach an accommodation with your coworker until they make their position clear.
  2. The owners have more options than you do for creating new solutions. In any case, I think they need to step up and take responsibility for the situation.

Determine What You Really Want. Before you talk with the owners, decide what you want in the long-term for yourself, for the owners, for the clinic, and for your coworker. I’ll guess that you want the clinic to continue to grow, the front desk to keep up with the times, and a fair distribution of work within your team.

Find Mutual Purpose. What do you think the owners want? I bet they want many of the same things you do, plus a couple more: They don’t want to have to get involved in personnel issues and they want to show loyalty to a loyal employee. Can you buy in to these five goals? Do you think the owners will as well? Agreeing that a high-quality solution will achieve all of these goals will take you a long way toward crafting a solution.

Make It Motivating. There is a good chance the owners don’t share your view of the problem. They may see it as a personality clash, while you see it as a productivity issue. Take the time to describe the situations that occur, and the impacts they have on the clinic’s ability to function. Avoid personalizing these issues. Remember, the owners are prone to dismiss your concerns if they sound like personality differences. Stick to the facts as they relate to the clinic’s ability to grow.

Make It Easy. Give the owners time and space to discuss possible solutions among themselves. Don’t press for a “simple” solution—one that could sound to the owners like you win and your coworker loses. Remember, the owners may want to reward your coworker’s loyalty as well as maintain a healthy workplace. This will take some consideration and creativity on their part.

Yeah, But. There are several ways this conversation can go wrong. I’ll anticipate a couple.

What if the owners still refuse to get involved? Here is how I would read this outcome: they want to protect your coworker, they don’t want to get involved in a personnel issue, and they think you can work it out on your own. That’s the story I’d tell myself, but I’d want to check it out with them. Ask them whether you are reading them correctly. If that is their position, then you need to ask yourself whether you can live with the results. It may mean redefining the roles within your front desk team. Your coworker may need to stick to her preferred jobs, while the rest of you work more flexibly. It may appear unfair on the surface, but maybe she’s earned it.

What if the owners ask your coworker to change, but she doesn’t? What if she becomes even more hostile toward you as a result? The ideal is that peers hold peers accountable. However, peer accountability requires that leaders back them up when the going gets tough. Since you know this scenario is possible, discuss it with the owners in advance. They can’t just ask your coworker to change; they need to support her and hold her accountable. They need a plan—who will do what by when—and a way to follow up.

Good luck with this tough situation. Have other readers resolved a similar situation? I’d love to hear what worked for you.

David