Welcome to the first post in the Ask a Coach series.  Today’s question is about how to handle a frustrated coworker.
Q:  I have a co-worker who is older than I am and seems to be having trouble taking direction from me because I am younger.  He has also recently had his job responsibilities changed as part of a downsizing, he moved to my department to keep his job.  He frequently makes remarks about me being the “chosen one” and how he “doesn’t make the decisions around here”.  What can I do to be more effective as a project lead with people that are older than I am who don’t report to me?
A:  That sounds like a tough situation.   It can feel very difficult to influence others, especially when you don’t have formal authority in a situation, but feel responsibility for the project outcome.  There is a lot going on in this situation, which is typical in work environments with teams.  First, I’d challenge your assumption that the issue you are having is due to your age.  Think about how you came to that conclusion.  Are you sure that the issue is related to you and your age?  From what you have told me, it appears that this co-worker has gone through some pretty major transitions lately.  Is it possible that your age isn’t the main factor in his resistance?
One of the clues that we have to your co-workers state of mind are his specific comments.  From what you have said, it sounds as though he feels as though he lacks control and influence over his environment.  That can be difficult for anyone.  One thing that people who feel like they have no control are often in need of is some recognition and validation of their situation.  Feeling helpless and unseen is a tough spot to be in.  One thing you can do when you hear from your co-worker that “he doesn’t get a vote” is to acknowledge how that must feel.  Saying something like – “It must be really difficult for someone with your experience to not feel like you have a vote.”  Then stop.  Listen for the response you get.  Acknowledging and really listening to your co-worker is going to be powerful for him.  He may continue a bit with a rant or he may be taken back that you have acknowledged how he feels.  Either way, once you have listened carefully to what he is saying in response, you can begin to enlist his ideas.  Maybe something like “how do you think we can improve on what we are doing?” or “if you did get a vote, what would you do differently?”.  This may further help him dispel some of the negative energy he has and give you some new ideas for your project.  Even if you aren’t able to incorporate his ideas, listening carefully and acknowledging the idea will help your co-worker feel heard.  If you don’t think you can use any of his ideas, perhaps share what an obstacle to implementation of his idea would be and ask for his help to overcome that obstacle.
Acknowledging and validating feelings of your team are powerful leadership tools that can be used by anyone on a team.  While it may take some practice to get comfortable with those techniques, they will serve you well.
How do you deal with co-workers like this?  Share your thoughts in the comments.
Want to have your question answered?  Post in the comments or send an email to Nikki@RidgelineCoaching.com and put “Ask a Coach” in the subject.
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