Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

When Someone At Work Is Upset With You

Nyah nyah!The signs are obvious:  A coworker or someone you supervise is unhappy with something you’ve done or said. You may have been in the wrong–or not–but this reaction of pouting, sulking, or giving you the evil eye is certainly irritating. Other indicators that he or she is teaching you a lesson: She won’t make eye contact unless forced to; he gets quiet when you walk into the area; she answers questions as briefly as possible; he seems withdrawn in general and the communication level has dropped way off. 

What do you want to accomplish? Most of us just want to get over the rough spot and move on. But, you should also work to be an example or a model of how such things should be handled. Which means you can’t add to it with gossip, sarcasm or being even more rude back. (You also shouldn’t whine, beg or give in inappropriately just to restore peace.)

If the problem was caused by misunderstandings that need to be clarified or a situation that needs to be fixed not just moved past, you will need to work toward those improvements as well.  The focus of this short article is primarily on less complex situations–the temporary frustrations and irritations of work.

1. Communicate normally with the employee–neither more than usual or less.  Most well-adjusted people don’t enjoy sulking, so give them a chance to get back to normal. If you are still focused on work, they will regain their focus as well.  Ask for assistance as you normally would.  Discuss mutual concerns.  Almost always after a few days, things will improve. Just don’t lose track of what caused it in the first place. If you contributed to it, don’t do that thing again!

2. Give the situation a few days to improve.  If it hasn’t, approach the employee directly, with a concerned tone not an exasperated one.
 “Jan, since Tuesday, you’ve acted different than usual–not talking, not making eye contact, not responding when I talk to you. What’s going on?”

You may want to say that but be even more direct: “Are you angry about my remark during the meeting? I said that because I meant it and I still do, but I don’t see why we can’t work together in spite of our different opinions. I hate it when things are so awkward that we can’t even talk.”

Or, “Jan, I may not have fully apologized for what I said in the meeting. I meant to be funny but I could see it wasn’t taken that way. I hope you’ll forgive me and we can move past it.”

One approach is to act as though you don’t realize it has anything to do with you at all.  I only mention this because I know it can work (even though it is more manipulative than I usually would suggest.)  “Jan, you’ve acted a little down the last couple of days and that’s not like you. I heard you coughing awhile ago. Are you feeling OK?”

Very often the other person will grab at that reason for their actions. And who knows, maybe it’s true!

3. Be willing to listen–and probably listen more than talk.Someone who would treat you to a sulky spell is probably not as professionally skilled at handling conflict as you are–or as you should be.  Focus your talking on moving forward with work, not on a rehash of the thing that started it all–unless you truly do need to apologize for something or clarify an issue or get a commitment to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again.

4.  Recognize when your efforts aren’t being successful. This is the tricky part in some situations! If you are a supervisor or manager you shouldn’t allow an employee to be rude or to refuse to talk to you about resolving a conflict.  At the point the employee is not communicating but only being angry, you should draw the conversation to a close and say you will talk to them again later. Go to your own manager or to HR or other resources to discuss the matter.

If it is a coworker who is not wanting to resolve the conflict and only wanting to argue more, bring the conversation to a close by saying you’re sorry the two of you can’t find common ground about work, but you hope soon the employee will be able to feel better about it. Walk away and give it another day. After that, talk to your supervisor about it and get some advice.

5. Once it’s over, let it be over. Whether you talk to the coworker or employee or the situation fades on its own–or you have to get assistance that forces the employee to behave appropriately–you be the one who never falters in professionalism and mature behavior.  It’s over, move on. (I imagine you will have learned some lessons from the situation, either about your own conduct or about the conduct of others.)

Keep your goal in mind: To get back to work and, if it’s possible, get back to a comfortable relationship.  Live your life at work in such a way that when situations like these emerge no one thinks of you as the cause, because they know you are above petty behavior.

January 31st, 2010 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 10 comments