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unless forced to; he gets quiet when you walk into the area; she answers questions as briefly as possible; he seems withdrawn in general and the communication level has dropped way off.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


  1. Hi! I have a long and complicated situation at work that involves this. Can I send you the details and get some advice? Thanks!

    Comment by C.M. | February 1, 2010

  2. I agree with most of this but I’m surprised you are suggesting to give a conflict several days to get better on its own. You’ve mentioned about being direct many times in the past and I like that approach. Letting things wait seems to me to not be very direct. Also, if someone is ignoring a supervisor or manager that probably is a violation of a rule and shouldn’t/couldn’t be overlooked. Not arguing with the basic idea, just think there may be some other circumstances that should be taken on quickly.

    Comment by J.J. | February 1, 2010

  3. What if it’s the same person over and over? We have someone who gets her feelings hurt or is offended about something at least every couple of weeks. How much do you have to cater to these people?

    Comment by A.L.S. | February 1, 2010

  4. Tina says:

    C.M.: We’ve written and you have a plan of action now, so thanks for contacting me. This way was fine!

    J.J.: It’s difficult to cover it all in a short post! I do like to be direct, but I was thinking more of relatively small levels of coolness not rudeness or ignoring someone else. You’re certainly right that something serious can’t continue. Thanks for giving me a chance to say that!

    A.L.S. When the situation is repeated and creating a problem, as the situation you describe is, it’s time for intervention by a supervisor or manager. I was mostly referring to the rare or only occasional issue. I sent you an email about this.

    Comment by TLR | February 1, 2010

  5. Another insightful post! I agree that there are times when the issue is much larger and has a broader impact, however, this post was helpful in remembering that some instances can be handled on a more subtle scale, especially if the behavior is unusual for that person.

    Comment by SMC | February 2, 2010

  6. Hello Tina! I once worked in a shop where a guy got into a snit over something I don’t even remember now. I followed your advice about giving the situation time to improve. In fact, I gave it six years and when he retired I knew we wouldn’t have any more conflict. Was that what you meant?

    We miss you up here in Laramie!

    Comment by wiseacre | February 2, 2010

  7. Tina, what about a situation that is worse than this? I work with someone who hates me for some reason. I swear to you, she just started from the first day I was hired with doing mean things. I can send you the details! I have looked at your archives and don’t see anything specific about that. My supervisor will write to you too, if that will help. We all want to stop the daily problems we have with this employee’s rudeness. Thank you for any ideas.

    Comment by Hated | February 3, 2010

  8. Tina says: I’ve written emails to everyone who commented, since this issue is important in every workplace.

    I can see though that I need to write something about serious contentious behavior as well as this one about minor and unusual coolness with a coworker.

    I’ll do that in the post that follows the one after this one! (I like to mix topics.) Thanks to all of you who wrote or commented. There is certainly some unhappiness in many workplaces!

    Comment by TLR | February 3, 2010

  9. Re: Your comment that there is unhappiness in many workplaces. My business takes me to several offices a day and usually at least two cities a week. Since I make a circuit I sit and wait in the same waiting rooms and get to know the receptionists, clerks and assistants.

    I’ve noticed that some people seem ready to get offended by anyone and anything. They are the ones who treat me the worst (snippy, dismissive, rude, ignoring me, etc).

    Some people are ready to be pleased or at least satisfied with the world, and they treat me with the most courtesy. (Smiling, courtesy, saying something if they see I’ve been waiting for longer than usual, etc.)

    I don’t have any ideas to share about getting along with unpleasant people, because I think other than placating them they will find some reason to snub people and at the same time get offended.

    Comment by Observer | February 6, 2010

  10. Leave everything to God, nothing is impossible. Have self respect, self control, be more understanding, always think that you can’t please everybody. As long as you treat every single person with respect and sincere love, it’s up to them if they can’t appreciate you and if they treat you badly in return.

    Comment by G. | February 26, 2010

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