Part Two of the SueJanTina Ant Eradictor Story
Remember the ant in my last article? The one who worked and worked on an impossible task and finally had to stop? I ended that article by asking if you know someone like that. I heard from many people who do–and a few who admitted to being that way. This post adds to the first article.
Being Very, Very Busy About The Wrong Things
Someone with whom I used to work was like that ant in many ways. She was busy, busy all the time and we couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t getting her work done. That is when we discovered she was taking on tasks she wasn’t supposed to do, because she liked those better. Volunteerism and creative initiative can’t take the place of doing one’s real job.
Many offices have one or more employees who seem to be involved in Heculean labors. They sigh heavily, talk about how early they arrive and how late they stay. Often they try to drag others into the drama of their work by asking for excessive help, making every request a rush job and generally being a pain in the neck.
Ironically, often the work being done by those employees isn’t vital work anyway. It’s a big crumb that didn’t need to be moved in the first place and won’t be useful when it is moved. Many managers and supervisors allow that to continue because it’s difficult to tell someone who seems to be working hard that their efforts are resented and ridiculed more than appreciated.
Are you that kind of employee? If you are the kind of employee who feels you are doing far, far more than anyone else because of the hours you work , the way you rush around or because you’re over your head with busyness all the time, consider how you might appear to others.
Instead of seeming to be dedicated and hard working, you may just appear to be showing off, disorganized or foolish. Are you doing your real work to the degree needed or are you creating work so you can impress others?
Do you manage or supervise the work of an employee like that? If you are a manager or supervisor with an employee who has become a joke for his or her excessiveness about work or attempts to seem like the only one working, take action to bring that back into balance.
*If you evaluate the situation and decide the employee is truly inundated with work, see about realigning it to be more equitable.
*If you think the employee’s heart is in the right place but he or she simply isn’t managing time well, do some one-on-one training about that and consider reassigning work.
*Stop work that is requiring far more staff and resources than the end result justifies–and don’t reward attempted martyrdom.
*Be direct about the ineffectiveness of the employee’s work and the negative effect it is having on others.
*Provide guidelines, set parameters and discuss what the employee should be doing more of and less of and what they should not do again.
That is the manager’s kinder and more gentle version of SueJanTina, the miracle ant eradicator.
Want to buy some SueJanTina Ant Eradicator?
The summer I was ten, my friends Cheryl Sue Glaze and Janet Ross and I would spend the afternoons at Cheryl’s house making a concoction to kill ants–especially the ones near the swings where we liked to play at Frances Willard School in Arkansas City, Kansas. We thought the huge ant hill there was unsafe and should be eradicated, so we decided to invent a liquid ant killer. Also, mixing chemicals seemed like a fun thing to do.
Cheryl’s Dad told us we could mix everything he gave us but we couldn’t touch anything else. We agreed (and it wouldn’t have occurred to us to disobey) and I would rush over to Cheryl’s house every afternoon so we could experiment with water, tea, sugar, salt, soda, lemon juice, liquid soap and vinegar.
When we had mixed a new varation of those ingredients, we’d take it to the school yard and dump about a quart on the ant hill. We were nearly always gratified to see that we did away with some of them. (I know, I know, that sounds mean, but at the time it seemed like a fascinating scientific experiment.
We named our product SueJanTina and half-seriously thought we might be able to sell it. Looking back on it that experience was prophetic about what the three of us might do when we grew up.
Janet Ross English: Janet kept careful records of everything and had a whole notebook of our various mixtures. (Her mother was a pharmacist, which probably contributed to her tidy approach.) As an adult Janet worked as an administrator in a school district. She also was elected to the city council and served as the mayor of Arkansas City. She passed away two years ago, after fighting cancer for several years.
Cheryl Glaze Geske: Cheryl mixed the ingredients carefully, put the finished miracle formula in jars and kept the counter tidy. She was precise about measuring and telling Janet exactly what to put in the records. Cheryl became a nurse.
Tina Lewis Rowe: I never mixed anything or kept any records. Instead I stood on the picnic table in the backyard and yelled, “Come one, come all! Buy the amazing SueJanTina Ant Killer! Available now at a store near you!” I had a complete spiel about the product and why everyone should buy it.
We never found the perfect formula for SueJanTina and the next summer we were interested in other things. However, in Janet’s last conversation with me she mentioned the fun of those times and said she remembered it every time she drove by Frances Willard School.
Not all ants are effective in their work
I thought of SueJanTina the other day when I saw an ant in my kitchen struggling with a big bread crumb ten times his size. I often have a few ants in the house this time of year and generally sweep them up and put them outside in the dirt (I’ve become much more humane as I’ve matured!) This one was so valiant in his efforts I decided to watch him and see how long it took for him to get to the door where the ants emerged and disappeared all day.
The ant staggered and dropped the bread crumb but eventually picked it up and moved forward. He dropped it again and climbed all over it trying to get a better grip. He toiled, he worked, he worked overtime and probably through his lunch hour. Finally he got to the door. I was thinking how industrious he was and what a lesson there was for all of us in his refusal to give up, even though he was almost overwhelmed with his task.
That is when I realized the crumb was far too big to go under the door–and the ant realized it too. He spent the next hour trying to get the bread crumb under the door, to no avail. He left twice and brought back other ants to help. Each time the helpers would give a half-hearted try but soon leave and go back to their own work.
Finally the ant went under the door without anything to show for his exertions. I purposely left the crumb where it was, to see if it would be nibbled into smaller pieces. Nope. It was still there a day later so I vacuumed it up.
The ant showed perserverence by trying to move such a big crumb for so long. Unfortunately, he didn’t show good judgment about what crumb to move.
Do you know someone who stays very busy doing work that shouldn’t be done? What about you?
Part Two of this saga is in the next post!
Strategic Thinking and Tactical Thinking
The semantic and actual differences between strategic thinking and tactical thinking are discussed in thousands of websites, books and magazine articles. If you look at the overviews on search engines, you’d almost think one article had been copied 483,672 times. The essence of most of them is this:
Strategic thinking is about what should be done. Tactical thinking is about how to do it.
Organizations Need People Who Will Do Something
In the last few decades there has been a tremendous emphasis on the components and by-products of strategic and tactical thinking: leadership, creativity, analysis, judgment, innovation, courage, vision, persistence, insight and inspiration. As a result, many employees are much more concerned about being considered a thinker than they are concerned or even interested in being a doer. However, in the real-world of work there are no job descriptions that say,
“Job only requires thinking brilliantly and making plans. No grunt work, administrative work or plain old work involved, ever. Once the big thinking is finished, employee can pick and choose what tasks seem most impressive and dump everything else on others. An infinite amount of time is available for thinking about, meeting about and talking about every project.”
Doing Is Important But Getting Work Done Is Even More Important.
In an effective workplace, work comes in, gets done, goes out and another task–or several–takes its place. In many ways, all work involves an assembly line and a conveyor belt. However, there is a tendency to think that when an employee is very, very busy, working furiously on task, it is an indicator that he or she is being productive.
That overlooks the fact that some employees stretch every task to the maximum time allowed and beyond. Some employees create such havoc over routine work that more time is required. Some employees generate extra steps or they need more input, more time, more everything, than is reasonable. Just working at work isn’t enough. In most workplaces, getting done with a task and moving on is what builds the business or the organization.
When Strategizing And Planning Are Out Of Balance With Getting Work Done:
- You hear, “Let’s meet about this again tomorrow” almost every day.
- There are large visions without immediate plans of action and a timeline for achieving them.
- It seems that being asked to strategize or plan is considered a compliment but being asked to do something is irritating or demeaning.
- Some employees act as though their work is done after they have planned work for others.
- Tasks and projects are backlogged. Picture a clogged drain pipe with a cup of water being poured in every day but only half a cup draining out.
- Time lines are extended repeatedly.
- There are many times of “back to the drawing board” because of obsessive concerns or a failure to make decisions and get going with the work.
- A task becomes all-consuming and other employees are expected to make it a priority, no matter how much it disrupts their own work.
- Coworkers and clients make “joking” remarks or come right out and complain.
- Forward progress has slowed or stopped and daily work has become painfully and unreasonably laborious.
The bottom line: Conceptual, strategic and tactical thinking is needed in every workplace and it should be valued. However, there is a time when the talking and planning needs to stop and work needs to be done–on time, efficiently and effectively.
Baby birds have to be fed every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset. Mother and father birds spend their time getting food, returning to the cheep-cheep-cheep of their babies, popping food in the tiny open beaks, flying out again and repeating that all day long.
This goes on for two or three weeks, at which time feeding is reduced to every one or two hours, then four hours, then after seven or eight weeks the birds are weaned and they are pushed out of the nest and taught to fly. It’s not uncommon to see a relatively large juvenile bird following its mother around hoping to be fed–but she doesn’t do it and the baby has to grow up and feed itself.
Do you have baby birds in your workplace? Many workplaces have one or more people who are like perpetual baby birds. They never have learned to provide for themselves and they don’t seem to care about the effect that has on everyone else. For all practical purposes they are in a nest that looks like a work space and they spend their work hours demanding to be fed.
Unfortunately, many supervisors and managers not only cater to them, they make everyone else do it too.
“Just go along with her. You know how she is.”
“Don’t let him upset you. You know how he is.”
“Do it the way she wants this time. You know how she is.”
“I’m going to stop that very soon, but for now try to deal with it. Otherwise, you know how she’ll be.”
Empowering Not Enabling
When employees are trained effectively and expected and required to be effective in their performance and behavior, they are more likely to become empowered. They can do what needs to be done and help others too. They appreciate support and encouragement but they also have the ability to draw from their own sense of worth and personal responsibility. They self-initiate work and are self-motivated and self-disciplined. They have a strong sense of personal responsibility and are willing to be held accountable. What a pleasure! Supervisors need to be careful that they don’t take those employees for granted.
Baby bird employees are different. They are in the habit of working with their little beaks open all the time–and whatever you give them is never enough. You can hear their cheeping in one or more of these ways–it varies according to the personality, interests and ego of the individual:
Self-promotion at every opportunity–or creating the opportunity.
Making everything they do a major event.
Inappropriate actions or disruptive behavior.
Complaining, sulking, whining or pouting about many matters, big or small.
Taking the role of a victim–especially a saintly victim.
Wanting to be in charge or wanting to be considered the expert.
Angling to be thanked and thanked and thanked again.
Being hypersensitive to their own feelings and insensitive to the feelings of others.
Often being in the middle of a major emotional upheaval over minor issues.
Asking for excessive help, encouragement or support, even after learning a task.
Taking up more supervisory or managerial time than others but not getting more done.
How To Stop Enabling The Baby Bird Behavior
1. Accept your responsility and the need for a change in your own behavior. If you have allowed the inappropriate behavior even a few times, it will be difficult for you to change your responses. It may seem easier to buy a little peace and quiet by catering to the employee just one more time. Resist the urge. Talk to other supervisors or managers and report back now and then. You’ll be less likely to give-in when you have to admit it to someone you respect.
2. Support the behavior and performance you want to see continue. Thank the employee when he or she handles something the right way. Support other employees fully and let it be seen what you value and what the rest of the organization values. This also helps the mature, self-responsible employee who has been carrying the load but not getting the praise because the squeaky beak got it.
3. Stop the behavior and performance that is creating problems or that you do not want to see continue. You don’t need to do a closed door counseling session–unless you want to and think it is needed. Just tell the employee to stop. If you’ve never done that, you’ll be amazed at how effective it is! There are many ways to say you want someone to stop doing one thing and do something else instead–you’ll figure them out. The important thing is to stick with it like a broken record. It’s your way of saying, “We’re not feeding you any more.”
4. Keep the focus on good work. If you’re not careful you’ll replace the time you spent catering to the employee with an equal amount of time noticing whether or not he or she is still being a problem. Instead, focus on what must be done or could be done or on being more efficient and effective. One really good thing about work: It fills the empty time between arriving and leaving the workplace. When everyone is appropriately busy, there is little time for personal agendas and self-centered behavior. The moment you see time being wasted by the neediness of one or more employees, stop it and get the focus back on turning out a work product, whatever that may be in your business or organization.
When someone has been accustomed to only needing to chirp a few times to get attention, it isn’t easy to change things–but it can be done. Like other professional training and development, it’s for his or her own good and for the good of the organization and everyone else–including you.
Spite and malice harms everyone and should be stopped.
Whether you are a manager, supervisor, employee, parent, sibling, friend or just want to be a decent human being, be on the alert for indicators of mean-spirited, petty, maliciously vile behavior. Don’t do it yourself and don’t ignore it in others.
The card game, Spite and Malice, has been around for a long time under a variety of names. It can be fun to play when played in the spirit of fun, even though it certainly appeals to the competitive spririt as well. It’s described on one site as “a game with attitude.” One reviewer commented on the fun of playing the “Stop anyone” card, when you see someone is on a winning streak. Another said, “This is a cutthroat game where you do what it takes to keep someone from winning, then they do it back to you.” The Hasboro card box says, “If you can’t beat’em, annoy’em.” It sounds like some workplaces I’ve heard about!
At work, these are often the indicators of spiteful, malicious behavior:
- Sarcastic, snide remarks to diminish someone or their work.
- Behavior or comments designed to make it difficult for someone to do their work effectively.
- Waiting until others are around to point out a mistake or problem.
- Doing something you know will result in a bad situation for someone else.
- Facial expressions, gestures, comments or actions that cause someone else to feel unwanted, disliked, or demeaned.
- Frequently ridiculing or mocking someone rather than talking to them directly about a problem or issue.
- Being an obstructionist and stubbornly resisting someone else, just to avoid complying or just to create a problem for them. (This is also a description of passive-aggressive behavior.)
- Stabbing someone in the back and twisting the knife. (That’s a high-level psychological phrase.)
Spiteful, malicious behavior is a clear indicator of ongoing contention that harms everyone, even those who are not the direct target. It uses time ineffectively and often results in long, long meetings or frequent cross-purpose conversations that get no positive results. It creates tension and ill-will. It’s nasty. Even if there is someone who seems to be deserving of a slap-down or a put-down or a straightening-up, it isn’t the appropriate way to improve things.
If you are a manger or supervisor and you hear or observe something that seems malicious or spiteful: Stop the behavior immediately, investigate it further and if you were correct in your observations, direct the employee to never do it again. Make it clear that the behavior was not useful, not professional and not acceptable. If there was provocation, deal with that as well. But, make sure the petty, vengeful behavior stops.
If you are the target of spite and malice: Don’t respond with more of it. Get it out in the open and let the other person know you heard it or felt it. See if you can deal with the underlying problem. Find out if you have created part of the problem. If that doesn’t help, document what happened and the effect it had on you and others and ask for assistance in getting it stopped. Don’t drop hints, act like a long-suffering victim or gossip about the other person, just ask for help in a reasonable way.
Some good comments when confronting directly:
“You say that as though you’re joking, but I don’t think you mean it that way. How do you mean it?”
“It seems as though you are purposely resisting this. Is it because of me or because of the idea or both?”
“It seems like there is some hidden message in what you’re saying. If you talk to me directly maybe we can get things in the open and deal with it.”
If you are tempted to be malicious or spiteful: One indicator of spite and malice is sneaky, behind the scenes, manipulative behavior designed to harm someone else. But you can also be nasty and mean right out in the open. A good test is this: What results are you trying to get?
If you are trying to make life difficult for someone else or trying to harm them or their work in some way, stop yourself before someone else has to stop you. Find the root cause for your feelings of anger or agression and deal with those issues.
The bottom line: No one ever looked more professional after showing spite or malice. No one has ever brought about positive changes through malicious or spiteful behavior. Stop it when you observe it and don’t do it yourself.
In card games it can be fun to block other players in every hand they play, while chortling to yourself or openly about it. At work, the stakes are too high to play those kind of games.
Have you ever needed to talk to someone
about a hygiene issue?
You’ll notice I didn’t ask if you had ever talked to someone about a hygiene issue–just if you have needed to. Most of the time supervisors, managers, coworkers, friends and family members only think about how unpleasant or embarrassing that person is to be around. Some of the most frequent questions on the Ask The Workplace Doctors website, to which I contribute, are about such situations–which often have been going on for years, even decades!
Not all personal odors or grooming issues are easily remedied by the person who has them. However, it is still the responsibility of the person most directly responsible for an employee’s work to talk to the employee and to document that conversation in case it gets solved now but occurs again.
Make sure you are being appropriate. Talk to the person above you in the organization, or to HR or others who can advise you about what is appropriate to discuss and what is not–and how to best talk about the subject. A supervisor lamented to me that he got in trouble for telling an employee, “You smell like *************!” I hope you wouldn’t consider anything that inappropriate! It’s possible to talk to an employee and get a commitment to make an improvement, without being crude, rude or inappropriate in any other way.
What is the link to work? The answer to that question can provide you with a reason to talk directly and immediately to an employee who is not pleasant to be around for a personal reason. That can give you an opening statement and help you get over your awkwardness about telling someone they must improve in that area.
*Could it make coworkers less likely to want to work closely with him or her?
*Could it represent the organization poorly to others?
*Could it reduce effectiveness with clients or customers?
*Is there something in the employee manual about appearance or hygiene?
*Could it be an indicator of a health or emotional problem that could become more serious?
*Could it distract people from their focus on work?
*Could it harm the effectiveness and professional development of the employee?
Any of those issues are reason enough for a supervisor or manager to intervene about hygiene problems. In addition to the more obvious ones are too much perfume (even strong smelling deodorant), tobacco smells, greasy smells and stains, foot odor, chewing tobacco residue on teeth and stale coffee breath.
Use the One Minute Manager concept: The book by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson as been around since the 1980s, but it still offers a great approach, especially for awkward communication scenarios. The characteristics of a brief correction or re-direction (or other action) are: Immediate, Specific and Brief. It’s sort of like Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover–just do it.
Instead of being immediate, specific and brief, supervisors tend to talk all around the subject or try to minimize the problem to save the feelings of the employees. As a result they often cause hurt or hard feelings and still don’t get the situation changed—and a changed situation is the requirement for effectiveness.
If you supervise someone who needs to improve his or her hygiene, appearance or overall personal presentation, fulfill your responsibilty about it. If you are a coworker or family member, help the person avoid public embarrassment by talking to them directly and in a friendly way. Talking about such things doesn’t require a judgmental tone or an embarrassed, nervous, hesitant approach. Say what you have smelled or noticed. Take the initial approach that you are sure they will want to do something right away to fix the situation.
Expect some disagreement but get a commitment.A natural reflex when we are criticised or corrected is to be defensive and to respond hastily–sometimes angrily–to avoid embarrassment. Expect that and don’t let it bother you or stop you. You have the responsibility and the authority to ask for appropriate changes, so do it without lengthy justifications and arguments.
Most of the time, even if an employee doesn’t agree there is a problem, he or she will agree to do something to change the situation. If that doesn’t happen, spend a few more minutes to insist upon it in a firm but friendly manner.
The bottom line: We live in a culture where body and breath odor, uncleanliness or unsightly hygiene issues are not acceptable. Usually they can be corrected fairly easily–but often a supervisor, manager, coworker or friend has to bring it to the attention of the person involved. If you have that responsibility or that opportunity, do it the right way but do it.
“You two work it out” is almost never an effective way to handle contentious situations between employees. It can create even more problems for several reasons:
*It is unlikely that employees will have the skill, the will, or the capability to improve the situation. If they have the ability to resolve a serious problem they probably would have had the ability to avoid it in the first place.
*If there is clearly an aggressor that person will not see a need to change and the other person may not feel able to communicate directly about it.
*If an effort is made by one or both employees, but it doesn’t change the situation, the employees may feel justified in negative responses.
*The “solution” decided upon by employees may not be in the best interests of everyone involved or the overall work group or organization.
*A hands-off approach by a manager can leave an employee vulnerable to increased hostility and an escalation of the problem.
*In every case the manager or supervisor fails to fulfill an essential role: To develop and maintain a work place in which everyone can stay focused on work.
How to know there is a need for supervisory or managerial intervention:
- You have observed or heard about an ongoing conflict between employees. (More than one or two incidents or only one incident that created a work disruption for the employees or others.)
- Someone has hinted to you about it. If it matters enough to mention it to you, it matters enough for you to do something.
The bottom line: When there is a conflict, disagreement or a situation that is often frustrating or upsetting to employees or that stops or hurts work for anyone because of issues about it, it is time for a manager or supervisor to find out more and say or do something directly. The employees can be involved in the process but they should not be left to do it alone.
One thing is certain: There has been a management failure when employees start accepting a breakdown in civility, cooperation or effectiveness as normal for work or something they have to learn to work around or through on an ongoing basis.
A large part of a supervisor’s job–and certainly the task of a leader–is to identify problems and work with and through others to help solve them. Situations that keep employees from working well together are problems that require direct involvement by a supervisor. The task cannot effectively be delegated to employees–especially not to the employees involved.
Supervisor Paul Sanderson sent out three corrective emails in a week, to all sixteen employees on his shift. He sent one to everyone because he saw two employees leaving trash in the break room. The second was sent because he noticed one employee not following procedures on a task. The third email was sent because Paul found a door unlocked and he didn’t know who did it.
- Employees who had been performing and behaving correctly felt as though they were being chided unfairly. They knew who the real culprits were and they knew Paul knew. They wondered why Paul didn’t just gutsy up and deal with the problem.
- The employees who had not been doing the right thing assumed they weren’t the only ones cutting corners, since everyone got an email.
- The employee who left the door unlocked figured he got by with it this time.
Scatter gun correction is nearly always ineffective and creates frustration and hostility. Even if you hit the target with one or two employees you can alienate others. The biggest concern is that it makes you seem unable to investigate a problem or afraid to deal with it directly.
Take the time to analyze a situation, find out who is involved and what can be done about it, and do effective supervisory work to correct or redirect the appropriate employee and solve the problem. If you think everyone needs to be reminded, at least also speak to the person who specifically was in error this time. Don’t depend upon him or her getting the hint in your scatter gun correction.
The next time you are considering a scatter gun comment at a staff meeting or briefing, or you’re thinking about a scatter gun corrective email, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I know a specific person who is making this mistake or doing this thing? If so, talk to that person face to face.
- Is there a better way to deal with this than in writing? Often a private word with an employee will accomplish much more. It will also allow you to build a more personal relationship.
- Am I considering the scatter gun email to avoid the discomfort of talking to someone directly? Being a supervisor can be uncomfortable, but that is your issue–and one that will improve with experience. Don’t make employees pay the price for your lack of comfort by sending them all a corrective email or giving them a corrective lecture, or even a corrective reminder, about something they haven’t done.
An active supervisor who observes the work environment, the work product and employees, will see things that should be commended and things that need to be corrected. The employee who is doing good work should be thanked personally. The employee who needs to change performance or behavior should be corrected personally.
Don’t scatter your efforts. Focus on the correct person and demonstrate knowledge about what is going on at work, as well as on demonstrating fairness and self-confidence.
Don’t Take Away The Goody From Good Work
I heard this week about a manager who seems to be unable to say “Good job!” or “Thanks!” He always seems compelled to take the positive feeling out of even a compliment by pointing out a flaw or diminishing the good work of employees.
When an employee proudly reported that she finished a project on time, he said, “Yeah? Well, I just hope you didn’t rush to the point that you made mistakes or you’ll have to do it again.”
When someone told him about how well a suggestion was accepted by a group, he said, “That’s just one group. There are a lot more groups to worry about than just one.”
When an employee brought work to him that was creative and essentially flawless, the manager looked at it and said, “This is pretty good. So, how come you don’t do this kind of work all the time?”
It doesn’t hurt you to let others have successes.
Don’t be like that manager! Don’t be like that with anyone–whether it is people you supervise, people who supervise you, people with whom you work, your family or anyone else. Let people have victories–even small victories that don’t seem significant to you. It won’t hurt you and it may be the very thing that gives the other person the incentive to move toward larger accomplishments. It may be exactly what that person needs right at that moment, to give them a reason to keep going with work or with life.
The concept in Ken Blanchard’s books about catch people doing something right, has become a bit hackneyed, but it’s true. It’s especially true when someone has an obvious expectation that they will be praised or that their efforts will be appreciated. How sad when the goody is taken out of good work, for the sake of acting superior, to keep someone from getting a big ego, or for any other reason.
Anyone will notice gigantic achievements, but it takes someone special to recognize the small achievements that indicate attempts to grow, gain new skills, practice, or try to do something that is challenging. Encourage people to be proud of what they have done, even if you must guide toward improvement. The key is to leave the goody in what they have done right, while helping them make the rest of their work match that high quality.
Tomorrow, next week and habitually after that, look for small victories all around you and verbally applaud them. You’ll soon see even greater things to commend.
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.