How to protect your workspace from being invaded

An intern wrote me recently, because she’s in a bit of a pickle. The good news is that she’s got a dream internship. The bad news is her that a fellow intern, who does the exact same tasks, with the same supervisor, is adding extra pressure and stress to the situation. They sit together and the other intern is constantly invading her personal space to ask questions and look at the work she’s doing. The two are competing for a full-time position at the firm. This intern is feeling overwhelmed by her colleague, but feels as if she can’t express herself or deal with this issue without causing more problems. It also doesn’t help that the other intern has a friend who already works at the office, in the same department. What’s an intern to do?

 

As an intern, dealing with office politics and relationships can be treacherous territory. You’re new, so you don’t have any strong allies or good friends in the office whom you can confide in, which makes situations like this very solitary. Everyone else has been working together and has a set dynamic that you’re coming into with fresh eyes. On top of that, you don’t have much work experience to begin with so you’re completely new to office dynamics in general, so you don’t have experience to act as a guide in this experience.

 

dealing with difficult coworkers

 

The following are concrete actions you can take to help relieve the tension in the situation:

 

  • Engage your coworker in a positive, non-work-related way, if you can. Instead of her asking questions to you, get ahead of that by asking her about her life instead. Push the energy and focus on her and off of yourself, if you can.

  • When it’s time to buckle down and work, ask your supervisor if it is OK to work with your headphones on to help you focus. If they are OK with that, spending some time every day with headphones on should send a message to your fellow intern that you aren’t able to engage with her.

  • If the headphones don’t help, ask the intern to lunch and explain to her that you need some boundaries. Say that you really enjoy working with her, but you really prefer to do the work on your own and ask her if she can respect that. Confront her in the warmest way possible, while still being direct. You don’t want to make it a big ordeal, but it is also important that she understands that you mean what you say.

     

dealing with difficult coworkers

 

  • The pressure of a potential job opportunity at the end of the internship is exacerbating the stress of this invasive coworker. You need to accept the fact that you may not get the opportunity, and that’s completely OK. Whether or not you get the position is out of your control. So focus on what is in your control. Think about how you can do the best job possible. Work on improving the quality and efficiency of your work. Ask for constructive criticism and respond to it. Shine and focus on the work at hand.

  • If the intern continues to bother you, it may be appropriate to talk to your supervisor about it. In this case, ask your supervisor to lunch just the two of you or ask them for a private meeting whenever it’s convenient. Preface the meeting with the fact that you’re really grateful for the opportunity and have found the job to be very rewarding. Explain that while you find the other intern a nice person (even if you’re lying about it), she is having a hard time respecting your personal space and time. Say that you genuinely feel that her interruptions are affecting the quality of your work and that it’s been causing you stress. Likely, the supervisor has observed this intern’s behavior and has already taken note. If you bring it up, then the supervisor should address the other intern, encouraging her to keep to herself.

 

Photos

1. by Elizabeth Trovall

2. based on Tag der Lehre 2015, by Universität Salzburg (PR), CC-by-2.0

3. based on I put these headphones on so I couldn’t hear the flies buzzing around., by Marlon E, CC-by-SA 2.0

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Elizabeth Trovall

After short stints in Argentina and Belize, Elizabeth is finishing up her fourth year in Santiago, Chile. Elizabeth writes about international internships, life abroad and professional development for The Intern Group. She also reports on politics, business and culture in Latin America for public radio and print media. An Austin, Texas native, Elizabeth first left home to earn her journalism degree from the Reynolds Institute of Journalism at the University of Missouri. Besides her friends and family, she misses live music and Mexican food the most.

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