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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Confessions of a Condescending Colleague

There’s at least one in every office—that woman who just seems to have it out for you. No matter what you say or do, she’s right there with a biting comment, just looking for the chance to discredit or embarrass you (or both).

And while us ladies have long been known to use our wits to win battles rather than our fists, attacks like these can still make you feel like a punching bag, even if you don’t have the bruises to show for it.

Today, though, I have a confession to make: I’ve been the offending party. Yeah, I know, I’m not proud of it. But I’m hoping that, by being completely honest about what I was thinking, you’ll have better insight on your own workplace nemesis, and be much better equipped for the next verbal assault.

Here’s the story: A few years ago, I worked with a woman that I’m still convinced was hired purely for her ample cleavage (we’ll call her Sally). I’ll admit, that alone didn’t make her my least favorite person—it’s not like she could help it, right? But, when she introduced herself to me as a consultant who was hired to do my job, the claws came out.

Though she was seemingly oblivious to the fact that our roles clearly overlapped, I wanted to make sure she knew she wasn’t welcome, and decided to resort to my eighth grade recess attack strategy.

Like I said, not my finest moment (and sorry, Sally), but I did manage to learn a few lessons from this experience. Here are three strategies you can employ to help combat your catty colleague.

Get Perspective

After sitting myself down and thinking about my actions, I realized I had never considered where was Sally was coming from in all this.

To be fair to her, I had no clue what she was told when she was hired. Maybe she wasn’t told that someone already fulfilled her new role. (Or, even worse, maybe she was told I wasn’t getting the job done.) As soon as I started to consider how things looked from her vantage point, it was much harder for me to be so critical, and I was forced to accept the possibility that we had both been misinformed about each other’s roles.

If you’re not feeling the love from a colleague, yes, make an effort to understand where she’s coming from—but try to share your perspective on things with her as well. If you can help your colleague understand your circumstances, you’ll also help dispel the million (or more) assumptions she may have about you, help her see things in a new light, and, hopefully, encourage her to act her age.

Grow a Pair

The battles you’ll face in the office may not leave a mark, but your ego will certainly take some hits. Although I was previously convinced that Sally was deprived of a soul, I realize now it probably didn’t feel too great when she showed up for an event and her name tag was misspelled (every time), or when no one seemed to want to talk to her, or when her fellow co-workers constantly asked her to clarify for the hundredth time, “what is it you do, exactly?” (and, er, yes—those are totally fictional examples).

If I were Sally, I would've been tempted to hide in a corner until it was safe to go home, but of course, that never solves the issue. On the contrary, Sally could’ve easily earned my respect—and instantly put me in my place—by calling me out on my childish actions.

If someone is deliberately trying to put you down or make your life miserable, don’t take it. You don't have to put up with that behavior at work, and even though it’s tough, standing up for yourself and confronting someone may be just what it takes to cut her off for good.

Know Your Enemy

Of course, there might not be anything you can really do to completely quell your colleague’s fighting words. In these cases, I suggest the classic battle strategy that advises “know your enemy, and know yourself.” It was effective in feudal China, and it happens to be a smart approach for the office as well.

After I recognized how unprofessional my reactions were, I decided to actually try this one myself. I set about learning a bit more about my enemy—specifically, her motivation for taking this role.

What I discovered was painfully simple. I won’t go into the gossip here, but suffice it to say that, once I understood what she was really after (hint: it wasn’t my job), she became a lot less of a threat.

If someone has an issue with you at work, take some time to do a bit of research on her. Don’t snoop in her filing cabinets, obviously, but Google her, read articles she’s written, and casually ask your co-workers questions about her.

Understanding a little more about your enemy, where she’s coming from, and what she might be after might not end the battle, but it may make you feel a little better about the situation.

It’s a fact of life not everyone is going to like you, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with condescending remarks. By taking some time to deconstruct your workplace enemy, you may be able to figure out where her hostility is coming from and react accordingly. And, if not, beat her at her own game, and make it a point to outclass her by doing a stellar job and never stooping to her level. Believe me, I’ll be taking my own advice on this one from now on!

Photo courtesy of John O'Nolan.