my coworker refuses to answer questions I need to do my job

A reader writes:

Yesterday, a colleague of mine refused to show me how to perform a task or even to allow me to observe her performing the task. She actually said, “I can’t show you this because I don’t know if you are supposed to have user-permissions to perform this task and I could get in trouble.” It’s a simple task of maintaining a library of inventory that is checked in and out regularly by my department. This task is directly related to my responsibilities. The company recently reassigned this particular task from her to me because it made better sense for my department to manage it. She is the only person who was ever trained and involved in this.

This is a very on-point illustration of most of our interactions since I began with this company. She refuses to part with information that might help me. She has responded to my queries for assistance in the following ways:

“Call someone in the Australian office for help” (we are in Canada)
“I don’t know how to do that” (even though she was previously doing it)
“I don’t know who you should ask for help with that” (others will point me back to her for help)
“I don’t remember who showed me how to do that”
“I can’t show you that or I will get in trouble”

Although we have had many interactions like this one, yesterday was the first time her manager witnessed it. His response? He said, “What’s the big deal? Why don’t you show her…you won’t get into trouble! And if you do, I will take the heat for you.” She then begrudgingly showed me.

Afterward, I went to speak to my manager about it and HER manager was already in there talking about it. So, I joined their conversation and expressed my confusion and frustration. They were empathic and suggested that next week we all go for lunch to clear the air. After ruminating on the situation, I feel pissed off that her manager didn’t discuss this with HER but chose to approach my manager about it. I also feel that a lunch date will not solve this issue.

This company is one of the most laid-back, culturally responsible, value-conscious places I have ever worked. I know empirically that she would never get in trouble for being innovative and helping to accomplish a task. She is in a completely different department, with a vastly different role. We have zero need to collaborate, except for the occasional question or two.

My question is threefold. How should I stand up for myself but also remain professional? What angle of approach would you recommend for dealing with this particular incident? What angle of approach would you recommend for dealing with future interactions with her?

They want you to go to lunch together to “clear the air”? That’s ridiculous. Her manager simply needs to do his job and direct her to stop being obstructionist with you. End of story.

If I were you, I’d say that a group lunch will make this into a bigger matter than it needs to be and you’d prefer it if her manager would simply explain to her that she should help you when asked. And that if you’re not actually supposed to be asking for her help with these things, someone should tell you that so that you stop.

Aside from that, if you want to, you could try having a one-time, big-picture conversation with her about what’s going on. Say something like this:  ”Jane, when I’ve occasionally needed to ask for your help with something, I’ve gotten the sense that you don’t appreciate being asked. You’ve told me that you aren’t allowed to show me things that you are allowed to show me and that you don’t know how to do things that you’ve done yourself. I need to be able to rely on your assistance to get my job done, and I’m wondering if there’s something going on that I don’t know about.”

But after that, if the problem continues, stop engaging. At that point, each and every time it happens, go to your manager and say, “I need Jane to show me X and she’s refusing.” Or, if it’s appropriate in your particular office, you could go directly to Jane’s manager with this instead. Ultimately, they need to deal with Jane as the problem she is; it’s not a problem you can solve yourself.

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