Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I work for a midsize production company. I believe our manager, "Jane," manages well, but I've had some issues that have affected my performance and attitude, which I have now owned, and I've resolved to work on being an excellent employee. Since recovering from a health condition and addressing my personal issues, I have volunteered for more projects, brought forward more ideas, and communicated more positively with Jane, and it's really improved my work life.

Some last-minute decisions by Jane have put my workmate "Dave" offside. The decisions had consequences for Dave, and I supported him emotionally during this time. Dave felt badly burned and is now very negative about anything from Jane. He is steadily case-building against her, and describes her in very unflattering terms. He feels that he is being deliberately excluded from projects, his skills not being recognized or utilized, etc. This may be accurate, and he has a particular affect that does appear to affect his assignments. However, he has a truly remarkable and deep range of skills that are underutilized. Jane does appear to favor people who volunteer themselves cheerily and proactively, and are more enjoyable to deal with.

I suspect Dave thinks I have "changed teams," and it's making our working relationship difficult. He frequently comments when he sees me talking to Jane, and I'm struggling to get input from him on projects or ideas. Our team has a strong pitch-in culture, and although he has capacity and is often the only person with the necessary expertise, he doesn't follow through or uses the opening to complain about how something is done. I see his frustration, but I think he is shooting himself in the foot by not moving on (having been there myself), and I don't really know how to address this without damaging the relationship. In a way, I am changing teams, in that I'm not willing to get stuck in old issues and want to do the best job I can, including fostering positive relationships with people I would not necessarily have a personal relationship with outside work.

Is there a way to salvage my relationship with Dave while also moving forward with my own professional goals? Dave and Jane are both intelligent, skilled, good people. Is there any way to help them repair their relationship? Is there any way I can mention the tension to Jane without dropping myself or my workmate in it?

Green responds:

I think you need to separate emotionally from Dave a bit.

Dave's assessment that you've "changed teams" is out of sync with the nature of the workplace -- or at least a healthy, high-functioning workplace. While there are certainly people like Dave who see things as "us versus them" when it comes to employees and managers, it's rarely an attitude held by successful people. Successful people generally see themselves as on their managers' teams, and don't see that as being in conflict with getting along with co-workers. (And if you're in a workplace that makes you choose, there's a problem with either the employer or the co-workers. In this case, it's Dave who wants you to choose, and Dave is the one in the wrong.)

While Dave may have legitimate grievances against your boss, his own problematic work habits trump that. Not giving you input on projects, not following through on assignments, and nursing a grudge are all things that harm his credibility and take away his standing to complain about Jane's not giving him the recognition he wants.

Jane's choice to favor people who are responsive and easy to work with is a pretty sound management call -- and to the extent that it's favoritism, it's a perfectly reasonable favoritism shared by most managers (and most nonmanagers, too).

In any case, Dave is not your problem to fix. You can certainly explain to him that you've found that you've gotten better results at work since changing behaviors A and B and mindset C, and that those changes have made work more satisfying and productive for you. But beyond that, I'd pull back. (And definitely don't mention his dissatisfaction to Jane. Again, not your problem to solve.)

You're entwining yourself with someone who sounds pretty clearly like a problem, and to the extent that Jane and others see you as aligned with Dave, his reputational problems are likely to splatter on you. And that's especially the case since it sounds like you had your own performance and attitude issues in the past that you actively want to counter now.

I'm not saying to abandon a friend for the good of your career. But I'd think pretty deeply about how close you really want to be with Dave, whether you respect his stances and behavior, and what kind of boundaries you want to have in place at work.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Feb 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.