Today, we’re going to talk about this real problem that one of my readers has.
Natasha wrote to me:
“There is this lady at work, and she is horrible. I’ve been at work in this new job for about 8 months now, and this woman (who will remain nameless) is not even my official boss, but she has been there forever, she knows everything, and she treats me like an insect. Every chance she gets, she undermines me, makes me feel stupid, and she even criticised my shoes on casual Friday. I’m not sure what to do. I know her life would be way better if I quit, but I like everyone else at the job, and I love the job itself. What should I do? –Natasha”
Wow—do I know how you feel! A very similar situation occurred when I was just starting out in my career. A lot happened in that job for me, and more happened after I left, so I’d like to share that story with you today, along with the two main lessons I learned. I think this is really going to help you and anyone else who is dealing with a co-worker making work life miserable.
I had just landed my first job as a receptionist at a large, busy, downtown law firm. I loved the job, the owner of the firm and all the attorneys who worked there, but this one woman seemed to enjoy making my life crazy. This lady’s name? Well, we’ll call her Heidi.
Lesson #1: Don’t put a lot of weight in one person’s opinion of you.
I really thought Heidi was a bully. Just like in your situation, Natasha, she had been there forever. She rarely made mistakes—maybe once or twice a year, if we were lucky—and she never, ever had patience for me. Just starting out in the job, I had a lot of questions, but she didn’t want to answer any of them.
One time, she tasked me with buying coffee mugs as gifts for all the office staff. When I asked for her opinion on what kind of mugs I should choose, she replied, “Figure it out.” I picked out some mugs that I thought were simple and nice.
When I shared my choice with Heidi, she told me, “These are the ugliest things I have ever seen!”
Being inexperienced and fresh on my career path, I didn’t have the tools to deal with her anger towards me. The best I thought I could do was go into her office and start telling her how I felt. I bawled my eyes out, and she apologised. She was nice to me for a couple of days, but she quickly went back to behaving the way she did before. I thought this was simply who she was as a person and that there was nothing that could be done. Either I had to learn to live with it, or I had to leave.
Well, after a while, I did leave. I was head-hunted by another firm who paid all the expenses for me to train and work as a paralegal with them. I was stoked! I also knew that this meant I didn’t suck at my job as much as Heidi wanted me to think I did. Although I felt like I couldn’t do a single thing right, I was, actually, pretty good at what I did.
Natasha, your co-worker’s behaviour towards you doesn’t define you or who you are. She’s just one person, and everyone else probably thinks you’re pretty awesome.
My story didn’t stop there, though, and very likely, yours won’t either.
Five years later, my husband and I were in the process of making a real estate purchase. We needed a lawyer to draw up the paperwork for us, and my old place of employment was the only firm that I knew did this type of work. I knew that the prices for these legal fees were high, but I also knew that the owner of the firm, the great guy that he was, would give us a big discount if we went there.
I didn’t want to go back because my old bully, Heidi, would be there, but I knew what I had to do. I made an appointment. Before I went in, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Heidi.
I thought to myself, “She will probably be super nice to my face and, as soon as I leave, will probably make some under-the-breath comment about what a silly decision I had made, or the location wasn’t great, or I would come crawling back—something mean.”
“Maybe she has changed. You never know, right?” my husband asked me.
I replied, “Nope. Not a chance.”
I really thought I had her pegged. I thought I knew exactly what she was going to say.
I was humbly proven wrong.
Lesson #2: Everyone is fighting their own battles.
I could not believe what I saw. Clearly, she was fighting a huge battle of her own. She had lost a lot of weight. I remembered her as a slim person, but now she was small, frail. She had no hair, and she was missing her right breast.
My heart sank. I felt awful for everything I had ever said or thought about her in the past. She was fighting breast cancer—and for who knows how long?
This was eye-opening for me.
Everyone is fighting their own battles, and the rest of the world really has no clue about it. I couldn’t help but think that there I was, sitting there, happy, healthy, grateful for my life—and ashamed that I had not even stopped to consider for a moment what was going on in Heidi’s life. She could have been going through a lot more than I could have ever seen, and she was just doing her best.
So, Natasha, this woman that you speak of—what is she going through? What is her life like outside of work? I’m not saying that excuses her behaviour; I simply want to open your eyes to things you might not be aware of.
What if you knew that she was fighting cancer? Would that change the way you felt about her? Would you still see her in the same light?
This was a big topic for me, and I hope that my story can shed some light on yours.
Now I’d love to hear from others. Have you ever worked with someone who was mean or a pain in the butt? How did you deal with it? Your insight here could be super helpful for someone else, so please share in the comments below.
In Work & Life