my coworker is arguing with every decision I make — on a project that I’m leading

A reader writes:

I work in a design field, and we work in teams of 4-5 people, which rotate on a person by person basis. I am 9 months in at a new firm, which recruited me based on a very strong recommendation from a client. I am the lead for our current project, which is with said client, not only because that’s what my experience dictates but also at the client’s request. One of the members of my team, who I’ll call Z, was previously the team lead when working with this client before I joined this firm. The client has straight up said that I bring something to the team that they’ve never seen before and they prefer working with me as the lead rather than Z.

Z is a very nice, smart, talented individual, but seems to be having trouble accepting that I am the lead for the project and he is not. He seems to want to argue every work plan, path forward, schedule, goals etc. that I set for the team. He phrases his input not as suggestion, but as direction, which quite frankly rubs me the wrong way. He’s basically acting like he’s the team lead, and essentially like he’s my boss.

I’m usually a fairly blunt, straight forward, calm, and rational person, but lately I’ve been finding myself want to explode and yell “DUDE IT’S MY CALL JUST DO WHAT I AM ASKING YOU TO DO.” I am tired of explaining and re-explaining why I want things done the way I want them. At the same time, even at 9 months in, I’m still the new person in town (and I’ve only been working with this team for just under 3 months), and the culture of this firm is such that there isn’t a lot of conflict floating around.

How can I address this without being branded a troublemaker? When I have tried in the past to talk about these sorts of issues with this person, he doesn’t seem real interested in discussing it. But I’ve got to get through the rest of the year with this individual and I’m about to lose my normally well controlled temper!

Explaining the reasoning behind your decisions is generally a good thing — but with someone like Z, the answer isn’t in explaining and re-explaining, because that’s just signaling to him that you’re willing to engage when he behaves like this, which is turn reinforces his idea/hope/delusion that he has more of a leadership role here than he does.

Instead, some* of your conversations should sound like this:

Z: “We should do X instead of Y.”
You: “I’m actually set on Y at this stage. Let’s move on to talking about ___.”

Z: “I’m going to do the teapot spout design instead of Jane.”
You: “Actually, I’ve assigned that to Jane and am excited to see what she comes up with.”

Z: “I’ve changed the project specs to have all the artwork appearing on the side of a blimp.”
You: “I appreciate your input, but I’ve decided to do traditional billboards.”

Z: “I’ve set all your plans on fire and think these orange flames are the way to go.”
You: “I have a clear vision for the goals and the work plan, but I’d love your input on ___.” (Fill that in with something where it’s reasonable for him to have input.)

If you use these a few times and he keeps pushing back in response to them, then it’s time to move to a more direction discussion of what’s going on. For instance: “Z, can I talk to you about the way we’re working together on this project? I’m needing to make a number of decisions as this work unfolds, and while I appreciate input in general, I’ve noticed that you’ve been disagreeing with nearly every work plan, schedule, goal, or other detail I lay out. If something is extremely important, I want to hear about it — with the caveat that I may end up going in a different direction anyway — but disagreeing with so much is starting to get in the way of our work. What’s going on?”

You said that you’ve tried to talk to him about the issue in the past and he’s seemed uninterested. But it’s not really up to him. Schedule a meeting and have the conversation.

If it continues after that, consider giving your manager a heads-up; he might need to hear from her that you have her backing.

* Note: While you don’t want to get drawn into debating every decision, make sure that you don’t go overboard in the other direction. Sometimes in your shoes, people get fed up and stop explaining or engaging on anything. That’s a mistake too. You don’t want to signal to him that every decision is up for endless push-back and debate, but you also don’t want to become so closed off that you’re not operating with any openness or transparency at all. Getting the balance right here will matter.

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