How to handle an antagonistic coworker

Our second Business Practice scenario offers insight for handling fragile new collegial relationships

Credit: Joey Guidone

George Wu | Oct 16, 2018

Sections Strategy

For the second installment of our quarterly Business Practice feature, we asked readers to imagine themselves as unwitting participants in a bit of workplace drama:

Recently, you joined a small software company in an engineering role. At your first all-staff meeting, Tom, a business-development associate, shares feedback from the company’s largest client, as well as an idea for a product enhancement based on the client’s needs. You ask several questions (you’re still learning the ropes) about how the enhancement might work, whether other customers have similar needs, and what the impact of the enhancement would be on other features of the software.

Afterward, Tom emails you: “What were you trying to do out there? I don’t know how it worked at your last job, but here you don’t make friends by wrecking other people’s presentations in front of senior staff. I’ll stop by your office after my next meeting to discuss.” You are caught off guard. How do you respond to Tom when he arrives?

We posted the above scenario and asked for your suggestions on how best to handle it. Readers who submitted answers were then able to rate other people’s responses.

Why is this situation difficult?

Tom has told you that he’ll swing by your office after his next meeting. I’m guessing that most of you aren’t exactly looking forward to this meeting. Why? 

First, it’s probably not clear what this blowup is about. Is there an organizational norm that you don’t understand? Or worse, perhaps there is something offensive about your conversational style that no one has shared with you until just now? Or could it be about Tom? Maybe he’s overly sensitive or didn’t get enough sleep last night? Or it is possible that he’s just a jerk. Yikes, maybe all your new coworkers are jerks.

Why Business Practice?

Words matter. The first year I taught negotiation, I ran into one of my students in the cafeteria. After a few minutes of small talk, she asked me: “What qualifies you to teach negotiation?” Ouch. I believe that she meant to ask: “Negotiation is an interesting class to teach. How did you come about teaching this class?” Words matter.

Preparation matters too. The “what qualifies you” question is one I did not anticipate, especially in my early days as a professor. But years later, I’ve heard many questions—straightforward, incisive and cutting, sincere but naive, tricky and lined with booby traps, difficult to answer, and just plain bizarre.

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Second, even if you understood what drove Tom’s reaction, you nevertheless might be reluctant to push back or voice your concerns. Numerous studies have documented a kind of “organizational silence.” Employees are reluctant to express their thoughts about corporate problems, whether they be about poor practices, organizational inequity, inappropriate interpersonal behavior, or ethical lapses. This tendency toward silence is due to a number of factors, including a reluctance to challenge authority, fear of being viewed negatively, and the possibility of damaging a relationship—or perhaps simply because an employee is inexperienced at initiating this type of conversation. Each of these reasons is likely to loom larger for a new employee.

Of course, Tom is coming to your office, which means being silent is off the table. You could be acquiescent and avoidant or try to pivot the conversation to social niceties. (“How about those Yankees? Where did you get that awesome tie?”) But that is not likely to be the best way to start your career at this company.

Scenario participation

We posted this scenario on July 26, 2018, and closed the survey on August 16, 2018. We received 150 separate responses, with the responses ranging in length from 1 to 630 words, with a median length of 65 words. The responses were rated 2,343 times. Each response was rated on average 15.6 times (median: 14) with 100 responses (67 percent) receiving 10 or more ratings. (The infrequently rated responses were submitted late in the cycle, close to when the survey was closed.)

Ratings

Responses were rated on a 1 (“Strongly disapprove”) to 7 (“Strongly approve”) scale. A histogram of all ratings is shown below. 

The ratings are normally distributed, with a mean rating of 3.79, a bit below the middle of the scale. There are over twice as many “strongly disapprove” responses as “strongly approve” ones. It’s a gnarly situation for which there are no foolproof options.

We next turned to the average rating of each response submitted. The analysis that follows is restricted to the 100 responses with 10 or more ratings. 

The histogram below plots the average rating for each of the 100 responses. They are clearly notnormally distributed—the median response (3.96) is much closer to the best-rated response (4.96) than the worst-rated response (1.20). Although there were no truly stellar responses, most responses were “reasonable.” And a few submissions were viewed quite negatively.

As for gender differences, 69 percent of responses came from men. However, female responses were rated slightly higher (3.98) than male responses (3.77). 

Sample responses

We have posted responses in random order for you to peruse.

To give you a sense of the range of ratings, I’ve listed a few responses spanning from unfavorably rated (5 percent, 10 percent, and 25 percent in the distribution, meaning that 95 percent, 90 percent, and 75 percent of responses are rated better), to average (50 percent in the distribution), and favorably rated (75 percent, 90 percent, and 95 percent in the distribution). All of these responses had 10 or more ratings. (All responses included in this article were subject to light editing for grammar and style.)

5 percent response
Answer: “I don’t know how it works here. But if your presentation can be wrecked by questions, it’s not a very good presentation.”
Average rating: 2.20

10 percent response
Answer: “Let us discuss enhancements needed one by one before subsequent presentations so that we can be on the same page.”
Average rating: 2.69

25 percent response
Answer: “Be contrite. Apologize, but also be firm—say that as a new staffer, you wanted to learn and engage.”
Average rating: 3.34

50 percent response
Answer: “Respond to Tom by saying: ‘It was certainly not my intent—absolutely let’s discuss how I can better partner with you.’”
Average rating: 3.96

50 percent response
Answer: “I would respond in an email with an immediate reply:

Dear Tom:

Thank you for your email and for bringing this to my immediate attention.

I in no means intended to show you any disrespect. Rather, I was trying to be helpful. I wanted to provide you and our team with input in what I thought was a nonthreatening situation. I was hoping that my questions would allow us to analyze the customer feedback more deeply. By doing so, my aim was to allow us to better serve and maybe even grow this line of business.

I look forward to our talk. If possible, please stop by at x [define the time]. If I came across as wrecking your presentation, I look forward to hearing from you how I could improve. Also, I look forward to understanding when you believe open analysis is appropriate and when not.

Regardless, I would like you to know that I deeply and profoundly apologize if my questions came across as diminishing your work and your presentation. It was absolutely not my intent. 

I look forward to our meeting and to building a better relationship that will allow us to productively build this product line further and expand our relationship with the customer.

Sincerely,

Average rating: 3.96

75 percent response
Answer: “I’d welcome Tom into my office. I’d attempt to control the energy of the room by closing the door, and then state, ‘The tone of your email tells me you felt slighted in the meeting. I’m open to discussing this issue with you but I want to ensure this is a productive conversation that leads to a solution so that we can work collaboratively in the future.’ After hearing him out, I’d reassure him my intent was to add value to the conversation on a product to improve our client experience. If I had experiences in the past that created problems down the line because these types of questions did not come up at the beginning, I’d share those examples. I would further explain my style of learning and working so that he would be aware of my approach to potential solutions.”
Average rating: 4.32

90 percent response
Answer: “Hi, Tom, I want to apologize. I’ve worked in places where it’s totally normal—expected, actually—to ask lots of questions in presentations. I’ve been trained to question everything. I didn’t realize that it’s not the usual thing to do here. So—can you tell me what is? I want to be respectful of the culture going forward.”
Average rating: 4.53

95 percent response
Answer: “Tom, I’m so glad you decided to talk to me about this rather than have this become a lingering resentment. It’s also helpful to hear from someone with a long tenure at the company as I’m navigating my way around and figuring out how I can be most helpful to you and the rest of the team.

“Please know my intent was certainly not to undermine your work in any way. My questions were genuine curiosity, as I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the organization, our products, and our clients.

“If you have suggestions for more effective ways to learn, I’d welcome them. I’d also welcome input on the company’s unwritten rules about meetings, presentations, etc. It’s so hard to make sense of those things when you’re new, and your experience would be so helpful to me.”
Average rating: 4.65

Some clear patterns emerge. The two responses judged most negatively are not contrite, with the lowest-ranked response alarmingly direct. The remaining responses generally contain:

  • Some form of apology (“I want to apologize.” “I deeply and profoundly apologize.”)
  • Some statement of good intentions (“My intent was certainly not to undermine your work.” “I in no means intended to show you any disrespect.”)
  • Some pivot to making this conversation a constructive opportunity for learning (“I’m navigating my way around.” “Let’s discuss how I can partner with you.”) 

Of course, responses differ in the order in which these elements are used, with some words doing a better job of striking the balance between contrition and growth. 

To unpack the ratings a bit more, I coded the responses in terms of whether they contained one of five actions:

  • Explicitly apologizing (“I’m so terribly sorry about that!”)
  • Pushing back (“I felt it was an appropriate forum for bringing up . . .”)
  • Asking for advice (“Help me understand the company.”)
  • Offering advice (“I can help you.”)
  • Expressing good intentions (“I didn’t intend to derail your presentation.”)

The graph below shows the frequency with which each response element is used. Not surprisingly, a majority of responses attempted to communicate good intentions, with almost half of responses expressing some kind of apology. Pushing back, asking for advice, or offering advice were relatively infrequently used.

I ran a regression to understand how each of these components contributed to the ratings of a particular response. In all cases, the effect was positive: everything else being equal, adding any of these elements to a response earned it a higher rating.

Surprisingly, offering an apology had a positive but modest (and statistically insignificant) impact on how a response was evaluated. Pushing back also resulted, on average, in a similarly small positive effect. Of course, it matters how respondents push back. Compare two responses:

Response A (rated 4.4): “It is always beneficial for ideas to face critique and honing up front rather than later.”

Response B (rated 2.5): “If you are uncomfortable answering questions in front of senior staff, perhaps that’s a reflection of how you don’t understand the mechanics of the whole thing.”

The three biggest contributors to higher ratings are communicating good intentions, asking for advice, and offering advice. The benefit of the first two are pretty clear, but I was surprised somewhat by the positive effect of offering advice. Advice could be inappropriate, or viewed as arrogant or presumptuous. But the positive effect makes more sense when you turn to examples:

Response C (rated 3.9): “In the future, and if you prefer, please feel free to run any ideas by me, and I’ll be happy to provide feedback from an engineering perspective ahead of time so you can put your best foot forward in the all-staff meetings.”

Response D (rated 4.4): “Let me know if you want to talk in advance about any future product ideas you plan to float, and I can help you flesh out your presentation to include some of the information others are likely to look for.”

Research by my Chicago Booth colleague Emma Levine suggests how people can combine these elements. Offering advice, for sure, is not always productive or actionable. In addition, Levine’s research suggests that advice is only going to be viewed positively when benevolent intentions are also expressed. As a new employee, you should be especially cautious in assuring that you have, in fact, established good intentions; otherwise, productive and well-intentioned advice might be seen as demeaning or insulting.

Top-rated responses

Now for the top five responses! I’ve listed names and background information when I’ve gotten permission to do so.

#5
Response: “First send a cordial email response saying that you appreciate him reaching out and expressing his opinion, and look forward to chatting and working together to set up some ground rules for future meetings so everyone feels included. Acknowledge his feelings of being shown up (“I’m sorry you feel antagonized by my questions”) but firmly state that that is not the case or intention. Close on a positive note (‘Let’s talk after your next meeting to clear out this misunderstanding.’).”
Average rating: 4.69
Participant: Giselle Hsu
Background: Health care 

#4
Response: “I’d start by being open and apologizing for making my new colleague uncomfortable. I would listen to him to understand where he is coming from and then keep listening before doing more talking. Finally, I would offer insight into why I asked questions and what my own interest in understanding the work in my new job is. The direction of the conversation could go one of two ways from that point, but would depend on how open my new colleague would be to coming to a mutual understanding: One, we shake hands and agree on best intentions and move forward. Alternatively, we could start off on the wrong foot and have to have a deeper conversation at a later time. But the important thing in any case is to do more listening than talking right away—impulsive anger or feeling easily insulted usually come from a place of fear or another misunderstanding about intent.”
Average rating: 4.79
Participant: Roxanne Anonymous
Background: Other

#3
Response: “Hey, Tom: Sorry if it came across that way to you. I think you answered my questions very competently. Rather than wrecking your presentation, my questions demonstrated that your proposal was well-thought-out. That said, I’m more than happy to discuss how we work together in future pitches to upper management.”
Average rating: 4.79
Participant: Sam Anonymous
Background: Management consulting

#2
Response: “Thanks for bringing this up, Tom. The last thing I intended to do was undermine you, so I really hate that that’s how you felt. In fact, I was really intrigued by your idea, which was why I had so many questions! Since you know this place so well, would you be willing to help me understand how I could have framed my questions better in the meeting?”
Average rating: 4.85
Participant: Ally Batty
Background: Associate director of marketing and communications at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at Chicago Booth 

#1
Response: “Hi, Tom, I am very sorry if my questions turned out to be a problem for you. I am new at the company and I was asking questions mainly to better understand the business, the company, and the project itself. I didn’t mean to compromise you in front of senior people. If that’s the feeling, I’m sorry. 

“On a separate note, I think you gave a nice presentation, and your ideas make sense to me. 

“I am happy to talk in person and to share some more feedback.

“Please let me know when you can stop by.

Best,”
Average rating: 4.96
Participant: Gerardo Manzano
Background: Finance

Many thanks for these submissions. Each of the top five respondents will receive a Business Practice coffee mug. Display it proudly! 

Strategic takeaways

There is no single approach to this type of interpersonal conundrum that transcends context. Your employer, your position, your colleagues, and your own personality will affect how you respond to the Tom in your office. But that needn’t stop us from observing a few useful, generalizable lessons from the responses and ratings we received for this exercise:

  • The responses with the highest average ratings lean toward the conciliatory. Few people, it appears, think that meeting aggression with aggression is an effective solution for this kind of problem.
  • Each of the top three responses makes a point of flattering Tom, subverting his impression that you (and others) thought he performed poorly.
  • Taking the opportunity to solicit Tom’s advice, which is itself a flattering gesture, is on average an effective element to include in a response.
  • Offering advice can also be highly effective, but research tells us it has to be done judiciously.

George Wu is John P. And Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth.