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Help! My Coworker is a Curmudgeon

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 strategize 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.

Stuck in the 90s

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

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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19 thoughts on “Help! My Coworker is a Curmudgeon”

  1. We had a similar situation a couple of years ago and found that it helped to bring the co-worker in on the decisions for proposed changes. When we brought her in at the start, from planning to educating others, it made a huge difference. The computer was more of a challenge, but when we explained why it was important, she became less resistant.
    It took effort, but it was much more pleasant after that.

  2. Two things you did not realize. 1) At seventy years old she did not grow up with a computer. We did our math by hand or on a sliderule. Everything was by/on paper. 2)When IT geeks “teach” the system they move the mouse at 60 miles per hour and talk at 60 to like used car salesman. I would guess that her training was worthless. There is no way that she will ever get up to the speed of the computer generation and they should never expect her to. BUT, her experiece iw to valuable to just write her off.

  3. I work in I.T. and come across resistance to change on a weekly basis. Based on my experience, I have found that the root cause of this resistance is mostly fear that they won’t be able to figure out the technical parts of the new system…they have fear of looking incompetent or “dumb.” I have found that a LOT of people have shame with regards to not understanding computers…because they don’t understand them, they think something is wrong with them. My strategy first and foremost is to make sure they understand expectations. I let them know that I never expect perfection and that it is very normal to struggle with technical systems, especially at first. I let them know that it’s okay to call me anytime whenever complications arise that they can’t figure out. I will patiently help them through the crisis. I assure them that anytime we take on a new system the road will be bumpy at first (even for myself!), but that I have committed my support for the long haul. I would recommend that Stuck be very careful and humble when trying to propose a new system. Stuck should promise support and patience with trouble along the way, and assure the coworker that perfection is not expected. Because Stuck calls the coworker a curmudgeon makes me wonder if hidden resentments or hostilities are seeping through and the coworker can tell. A little empathy goes a long way, and absolutely no one will jump on board with you if you are making them feel dumb or not listened to.

  4. Eerily similar to a situation in my father-in-law’s office. A long term staff member did not “play well with others” and resisted all efforts in upgrading to computers and other billing technology. Turned out the co-worker might have been a “pill” because once the new system was implemented – irregularities in the books were discovered. The co-worker left without incident but thousands went missing over the years… just a thought

  5. It’s tough to address this issue, but other considerations are:

    Does your staff have defined job descriptions, and if so, are all staff complying with the expectations outlined in those job descriptions? If there is a performance gap regarding equal work, that is a possible issue to bring up to the physicians.

    If there is a written job description, are the physicians making accommodations for your co-worker which do not fit into the job description as written? You could point out the potential loss of productivity based on the allowances made for your co-worker—in terms of deficient customer service, poor relations, et cetera.

    Good luck

  6. I’ve faced similar situations numerous times in my career. If you feel you’ve made a series of positive efforts (i.e. those David suggests) that focus on common ground and mutual respect but still can’t create the change you’d like to enjoy, find a new job. A new opportunity where you get to work with and around people that share your passion for progress/improvement. Sometimes hitting a wall in life, while character building and formative, is the universe’s way of telling you you’re ready to move onward and upward. In addition, your leaving may either result in your owners changing things to keep you or at least realizing that they’ll continue to loose good people like you (and customers) if they don’t adapt to the types of ideas you’re presenting.

  7. Candy makes some excellent points in her response. I would add this: people often identify their worth with the work they do and the way they do it. Perhaps she feels if you change the system from what she knows, she won’t be needed anymore–anybody will be able to do what she does. Just one more observation, picking up on Candy’s point–you felt it was necessary to mention your coworker’s age and to describe her as a “curmudgeon”–not a term often used to describe young people. Could a little ageism be getting in your way? There are lots of reasons besides age to feel insecure.

    1. Thank you all for your caring, thoughtful responses. It has been so long since I wrote to VitalSmarts, that I can’t remember all the details. I don’t think I gave the label of “Curmudgeon.” I think that was a title they gave. But, it is still an accurate description of her personality, and could apply to anyone of any age. I brought up the age issue because of the delicacy of handling it. Since I am close to her age, I would hope I am not guilty of ageism! In the time since I wrote this, I have decided that I have hit the wall in my ability to excel in this type of management environment. I will be giving notice this week, in fact. I appreciate all your comments. It is truly a complicated situation that deserves all the care and respect that all of you have encouraged. Thank you!

  8. I worked in sales for a small firm where a similar situation arose as I was the person who was there since day 1 only I was the youngest. By the time I was 19 I had been there 3 years doing sales and service. As other sales folks were brought on they were older and because of their experience assumed the role of seniors. Each month during our sales meeting, even though I was moved to a part-timer role, I continued to be top salesman. This created problems for the other sales people and one in particular didn’t want me to be in sales at all. He felt I was taking food from his family. The boss was caught between “senior” folks vs. top sales. He asked if I could demonstrate to the others some of my techniques as to why I was so much more successful as a part-timer than they were as full-timers. I tried to show them how I was doing it but of course no kid was going to teach senior saleman how to sell. I talked to my boss who was not prepared to talk to them or even sit in on the demonstration especially since the loudest complainer was an elder from his church. With no respect from my peers and no support from my boss I had two choices: stop selling or stop working. I chose to leave that organization. They are still in business today but I don’t know how many sales folks from then remain. Sometimes when a person’s safety is in jeopardy or stress level is too high and will not be reduced like this person in the above story, very good advice is to seek gainful employment elsewhere. Lack of support from management regarding her safety is truly saying “I don’t care about you” and to me, that is completely unacceptable. Staying teaches you wish to be treated this way and accept this type of leadership.
    Regards

  9. Thank you all for your caring, thoughtful responses. It has been so long since I wrote to VitalSmarts, that I can’t remember all the details. I don’t think I gave the label of “Curmudgeon.” I think that was a title they gave. But, it is still an accurate description of her personality, and could apply to anyone of any age. I brought up the age issue because of the delicacy of handling it. Since I am close to her age, I would hope I am not guilty of ageism! In the time since I wrote this, I have decided that I have hit the wall in my ability to excel in this type of management environment. I will be giving notice this week, in fact. I appreciate all your comments. It is truly a complicated situation that deserves all the care and respect that all of you have encouraged. Thank you!

  10. Thanks to everyone for their helpful comments. This is a tough one, right? The radio show, Car Talk, has a feature they call, “Stump the Chumps.” It’s great to get feedback from the original submitter. Sorry it took so long to get to your question–and I’m especially sorry that you feel you have to leave your job. I’m sure your clinic will miss you. Best wishes! David

    1. David, by no means was my comment about time directed at you. I am honored you selected my submission, which was written in exasperation not all that long ago; I know the volume you receive, so never expected a reply. It was much more directed at my awful memory! The comments here have been wonderful. Thank you for your kind words. I’ve discovered through VitalSmarts, that sometimes the best thing to do is move on. I’m excited about what the future holds!

  11. Several things come to mind regarding your coworker:

    1. She may need more time to consider ideas. I once talked to a subordinate about my unhappiness with her resistance to change and new ideas. What I got back was “You have been thinking about your idea for a while, then you spring it on me and expect an instant response. I need time to think too.” We agreed that she should have time to think and that she should remind me of it if I asked for an instant reply. That worked.

    2. Another time, I was trying to teach an older relative something on the PC. It wasn’t going well and we were both frustrated. Suddenly I had the thought that she couldn’t see the screen. She confirmed it. After her new glasses came, we were able to progress with the PC. It’s possible that your coworker has a physical issue that makes PC work difficult.

    3. Regarding using the computer, she may just need more time. If you are like me, you have been using PC’s forever and are at ease with them. Technology can be scary to someone who doesn’t have our history with it. It’s not really an age thing, but tends to happen more with older people.

    I think it’s great that you are not just giving up and putting up. Bravo!
    Vernel

  12. On the positive side, my Mom, who is 77, learned to use a computer at age 72. She did so mostly out of necessity when my father passed away, because so many things including her pension information are available now only online. You might find that encouraging your co-worker that we can all learn, as life-time learners! Also, she may naturally find that it would be nice to know how to check her bank balance online, view her favorite magazine online, etc. Once she has mastered the skills for work, she may enjoy it personally as well.

    Alternately, as a manager, I understand that a long-term employee may be valued in a special way by the owners. If learning to use the computer is too high a hurdle, it might be a good time for the employer to think about un-coupling the computer duties at the front desk from the other duties – greeting and phone. Perhaps a junior associate position could be created to do the technical part of the job. This has the added advantage of cross-training and development for the junior associate and at a future time, that idividual may be the one to step in when the long-term employee chooses to move into retirement.

    Obviously, this will involve a truly crucial conversation to assure this individual that she is not being “forced out” or “replaced.” You may find that she has new motivation to learn the computer portion of the role, rather than to have an understudy, because now there is motivation – similar to my mom who had no interest in the computer when it was my Dad’s “job” to keep track of pension information, but who could willingly learn when she needed to step up to the role (with kind and loving assistance, of course)!
    Best regards !

  13. I find all of the above invigorating. I feel there are key points to consider:

    Lack of Leadership is the leading problem plaguing the work force today. Resistance to change is understandable. Strong leadership can easily address this issue by assigning the co-worker a task such as leading a special project which involves work on the computer. This could even go so far as having the co-worker train the rest of the staff on the project. This should make her valued and special, and she may warm up to the notion of using the PC.

    Hostility and personal attacks are, in short, unacceptable. There is no place in any situation for this behaviour. It is objectionable that the owners are not prepared to deal with this behaviour. If it is true the owners are allowing this abuse to continue, the problem is not with the co-worker at all. Simply put, the owners are the problem. If they are not providing leadership, they are shunning it completely.

    Lack of leadership directly impacts the bottom line. If the lack of leadership is leading to dissention, lack of participation and thwarting progress, it is costing the company money. This is the long and short of it. It may take some time to gather the evidence. I suggest a spreadsheet indicating the various incidents that have cost the office workers extra time, or any other compensatory measures the staff have made in this regard. Resisting change and thwarting progress is costly, hostility and personal attacks are also costly as they lead to drops in productivity and decrease in job satisfaction, which in turns to loss of hardworking productive staff, which in turns to hiring and training of new staff all of which cost company dollars.

    I would go so far as to make this gathering of such evidence that very same special project I mentioned earlier and assign it to the co-worker who is resisting change! Not only would she feel valued and important, but one could only hope she would see the impact of her actions in the data she gathers!

  14. I have been working in a relatively small animal hospital for the past 9 years. On any given day, we have about 8 or 9 people working. With a private owner, it began as what felt most like a dictatorship. Highly motivated to see it succeed, the owner kept a very tight hold on almost all decisions, policies, procedures, and was a little heavy handed with criticisms. As our practice has grown, many of us that have been around for a long time, have grown with it… including the seemingly unmovable owner. There were a few things I did before we were a more solid team that helped get things started:

    1) I started holding monthly nurse-only meetings where they could all get the same information from the same source at the same time (AKA respect and accountability). They felt more free to ask questions, and after I had been consistently asking for feedback, they eventually felt comfortable enough to voice concerns, raise issues, and talk about what barriers or frustrations they have in doing their jobs. Things they were not comfortable doing in the team meetings.
    2) I also started reaching out across hospital-hierarchy lines, to ask for feedback, and gave SAFE and usable feedback to doctors and receptionists.

    It took a while, but we began to build trust and create an environment where individuals could have a voice with less fear of being immediately shut down, because they knew I was backing them up.

    3) The other manager and I also got on the same page, which meant having some uncomfortable but honest conversations about what we wanted, what the other was doing that made us feel insecure, and coming together on how we wanted to make the changes we wanted to see in our team.
    4) We made it a point to openly support, encourage, and thank the other team mates regardless of “rank” or position. The rest of the team followed suit.
    5) I spent a lot of time on introspection to learn where I needed to change or adjust, and I openly talked about identifying my own shortcomings as well as a desire to make those things better.
    6) The real Ah-ha moment came when the owner realized that we could accomplish all of this without having every task completely mapped out and handed down to us from above. She too became an open and supportive force in the hospital.

    Now we work together, struggle together, problem solve together, and celebrate each other. Don’t get me wrong, we still have some less than perfect history of how we interacted to overcome, and a high volume of 20-something women, which can sometimes cause some gossip or complaints being voiced to everyone but the person who should hear them, but this is less frequent, and now there are more solid leaders in the hospital to help sort through it with them before it’s too much trouble.

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