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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Approach a Coworker Who Goes Over Your Head

Dear Candace,

What should I do when my coworker complains about my performance to my superiors before or without addressing the concern with me? I wish I had the opportunity to talk with her, but she always goes over my head.

No Opportunity to Address My Performance

Dear No Opportunity,

It does seem unfair to not have the opportunity to address an issue before it gets escalated.

As you consider how to effectively confront this situation, here are a few tips:

Start with Yourself. What Can You Own?

Is there something you can own about your behavior in this situation? To be clear, I’m not suggesting you are the bad guy here. I am suggesting that we all play some role in how our situation is turning out. Owning your part in it—even if it’s small—can set a tenor of humility and candor that invites reciprocity. Have you been sitting on your frustration and could have brought up your concerns sooner? Have you given her reason to not feel safe delivering feedback (perhaps getting defensive or being resistant or dismissive of suggestions)? Have you had a conversation agreeing on a process for addressing concerns in how you work together? Consider your role in how the situation got to this point and own that. The more humility you bring to the table, the more likely she’ll feel comfortable to hear your message.

Identify and Remove the Fear

Your co-worker repeatedly avoids talking with you. What could be her fear? Think about what she might be afraid of when choosing to not speak with you directly. Perhaps she is afraid of your reaction or your perception of her—or perhaps she’s afraid to confront and reveal her own lack of communication skills. Consider ways you can address and remove those fears when you talk with her: “I get that it can be awkward to address performance issues when we aren’t each other’s supervisor. Please know I welcome the opportunity to address performance concerns—particularly when they first appear. I want to do my best work and if it appears I’m not, I’d honestly like to know.”

Be Honest with Your Intentions and Consider Her Feedback

Do you really want to hear your coworker’s criticisms and what she sees as your shortcomings? Or do you just want a chance to defend yourself and dismiss her concerns? If you’re inviting her to do something that seems risky, prepare to really hear what she might say, sincerely consider her feedback, and keep your reactions in a healthy zone of response. You don’t want to punish her for her honesty. If you ask someone to open up the expired tuna that’s been in the fridge, you have to be ready for the potential smell.

Solve the Problem Long-Term

It could be tempting to have her share some concerns about your performance, address that, and quickly move on. The concerns in your scenario seem to go deeper. It sounds like you want a process in place where both of you can bring up concerns quickly and count on each other to sincerely consider the concern(s). For that process to be sustainable, you must have a working relationship of trust and respect.

Feedback Fridays

You don’t want to feel like every interaction holds a potential performance smackdown, and yet you want to have a candid working relationship. Create some boundaries and make it easy to have these conversations regularly. Consider meeting with your coworker for “Feedback Fridays” every other Friday. The time can be brief, and you can even make it fun (Feedback Fridays with French fries!), but it serves as a trusted placeholder for you both to check in on how you are working together.

I hope these tips help.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

1 thought

  1. bean

    i like your tuna metaphor, especially in the context of privacy ethics: when you have to dig for feedback, success smells like catharsis: you’ll feel better even if it smells a little funny…

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