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unless forced to; he gets quiet when you walk into the area; she answers questions as briefly as possible; he seems withdrawn in general and the communication level has dropped way off.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

Do You Need New Ways To Be Annoying?

If you're annoying don't complain if you get swatted.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the person who is driving me crazy is only that way in a specific setting (the one I’m in at the time) or if he or she is always that way. Fortunately for my peace of mind, I don’t consider the idea that I might be annoying as well. Highly improbable!

My friend Jeff Adams wrote a post last month about annoying airplane travelers.  I could relate to all of his descriptions–especially the passengers who hold up everyone else while stuffing their over-sized bags into the overhead  bins. Then it’s slam, slam, SLAM, while they try to close the door.

My neighbor, Larry Homenick, has a list of annoyances he encounters at casinos. (I don’t go to those places, so I’m taking his word on these). They include the Button Pounder, the Slot Machine Expert, the Slot Machine Hog, the Over-Your-Shoulder Starer, and the Childishly Excited. (Oh my gosh. Oh my GOSH! OH MY GOSH!!!!!!! I won two dollars!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Last week I was checking out at an Office Max and the guy in front of me was so preoccupied talking on his cell phone, he couldn’t respond to anything the sales clerk was asking–the sales clerk was visibly annoyed and so were those of us standing and waiting. We all have stories like that nowadays. They are as common as the annoyances of having someone scrolling through email while you’re teaching or conversing; talking on the phone loudly, as though others want to hear or won’t notice, or forwarding silly emails or urban legends to you and fifty others.

There are traffic annoyances; personal habits that are annoying; repetitious words and phrases that were charming, witty or interesting the first thousand times the person said them, but aren’t anymore; inside jargon; annoying children, annoying sounds (whistling, humming, snorting, etc.) and a myriad of other things. (And saying we should overlook those things is annoying too. It’s always easier to tell someone to ignore an annoyance than it is to ignore the thing that annoys you.)

More ways to be annoying: In case you don’t have enough ways to be annoying, I’ll give you an excerpt from the list you may have already seen. I haven’t found out the correct attribution–the source listed by some sites hasn’t proven to be correct. Very annoying!

  1. Learn Morse Code and have conversations with friends in public consisting entirely of “Beeeeep, Bip, Bip, Beep, Bip, Beeeep…”
  2. Specify that your drive-through order is “to go.”
  3. Sniffle incessantly. (Note: Or cough, pick your noise, scratch your arm, neck or face, etc.)
  4. Insist on keeping your windshield wipers running in all weather conditions to keep them “tuned up.”
  5. Reply to everything someone says with, “That’s what YOU think.”
  6. Follow a few paces behind someone spraying everything they touch with Lysol.
  7. Finish all your sentences with the words, “in accordance with prophecy.”
  9. Repeat everything someone says, in the form of a question. (Note: That’s why “active listening” techniques can be annoying.)
  10. Demand that everyone address you as “Conquistador”. (Note: I knew a guy who wanted me to call him Tarzan, but it might not be the same concept.)
  11. Stand over someones shoulder mumbling as they read. (Note: That’s still not as bad as standing behind a stranger and watching while they play a slot machine.)
  12. Deliberately hum songs that will remain lodged in co-worker’s minds. (Note: Like Mike O’Neill and Art Hutchison used to do to Gary Gosage with “Sh-boom, sh-boom. Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, sh-boom, sh-boom…”)

I saw a sign the other day that undoubtedly is appropriate for all of us:


Sh-boom, sh-boom. Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, sh-boom, sh-boom……

January 3rd, 2010 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Service to Customers, Clients and Coworkers | 18 comments

Discourtesy and Contention At Work: Describe it Correctly

The most pervasively negative
workplace behavior:
Discourtesy and Contention

It is trendy to call obnoxious people bullies, to to describe unpleasant supervisors as toxic. However, there are less dramatic ways to discuss behavior that should be corrected–then, correct it. 

The behavior I consider the most problematic in workplaces is behavior that is:
Impolite, unmannerly and rude
Pestering, stress producing and disruptive 
Devious, unfriendly and undermining
Obnoxious, offensive and irritating 
Argumentative, uncooperative and self-serving
Tormenting, sniping or purposefully hurtful

Any of those behaviors could be described as discourteous.  If they are unrelenting, frequent, habitual, regular or pervasive, they more likely fit the description of being contentious–part of a long-term conflict or frequent behavior that a reasonable person would consider unpleasant, disrespectful or uncivil to others. 

Those two terms–discourtesy and contention–are not so dramatic sounding as some of the other terms that might be used, but I think they are more apt because they:
• Are less emotion-laden and offensive than bully, toxic or evil
• Describe behavior instead of labeling a person. 
• More clearly describes the reality of workplace communication problems.
• Do not automatically place people in the roles of aggressors and victims. 
• Provide supervisors and coworkers with acceptable terms for documenting complaints.  

However, do not doubt that discourtesy and contention can take a terrible toll on employees and the workplace.

Be on the look-out for these examples of discourteous and contentious behavior: 
*Facial expressions and gestures that are rude, mocking or demeaning.
*Purposely not smiling or responding to attempts to be appropriately friendly. Stone face.
*Using email to escalate a conflict or make someone look badly by forwarding or copying messages unnecessarily.
*Mocking, smirking, eye-rolling, smothered laughter or looking at others when someone else talks.
*Practical jokes that disrupt the work of others or create stress for them.
*Refusing to assist or pretending to not notice that assistance is needed.
*Using a tone of voice that is snippy, irritated sounding, hostile, contemptuous or sarcastic.
*Confronting people about a conflict in an excessively aggressive manner.
*Accusations, excessive emotionalism.
*Finding fault; excessively correcting others; pointing out flaws in an unhelpful way.
*Making work more difficult than it needs to be or purposely delaying work.
*Disingenuous remarks designed to create problems for others.
*Responding to requests with heavy sighs, resentful actions, anger or excessive questioning.
*Stomping, slamming doors, drawers and phones, making unnecessary noise and clamor.
*Purposely or repeatedly doing things that are unpleasant, foul, obnoxious, distracting and disruptive.

Why supervisors and managers should take immediate and strong action about discourtesy and hostility:

  • It can demoralize and demotivate the target and those who witness it and creates stress and uneasiness for everyone.
  • It takes the focus away from work and puts it on the unpleasantness.
  • It encourages people to take sides, or to encourage discourtesy byothers as a way to stir up problems.
  • It prevents or reduces effective communication.
  • It can be the source of actions and reactions that result in lawsuits, complaints andviolence.
  • If someone is discourteousto coworkers or you, they will almost certainly be discourteous to others when you are not around.
  • It puts the focus of supervisors onquarrels and upsetsinstead of key work issues.
  • When others are aware of it–and they will be–it presents the supervisor or manageras being either unwilling or unable to intervene.
  • Discourtesy is like a weed–it spreads and chokes out everything good you try to cultivate in your workplace.

A mental survey: Look and listen in your workplace this week:

1. Which employees interact the most courteously with other employees in the office and within the organization?

2. Who are some who are not particularly courteous, even though they are not obviously rude?

3. Who says or does things that, if you weren’t so used to them, you’d immediately think of them as discourteous? What are the things they say or do? Do they limit it to only a few or are they that way to everyone? Are there some mutually discourteous relationships?

4. Who says or does things that, had those habits been known, the person would likely not have been hired?

5. Would life at work be better if relationships that are now marked by discourtesy or hostility were civil, cooperative and pleasant?

Pay attention to courtesy and discourtesy this week–and notice how you act as well! Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “there is always enough time to be courteous.” Take the time.

April 16th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | no comments

Discourtesy And Contention At Work — Finding A Reasonable Perspective

Teasing, tormenting, taunting.

Since I wrote Parts One and Two  of this series about the over-use and misuse of the description bully for bad behavior in the workplace, three things have happened:

1. I have gotten many messages about the topic. Almost of all of them agreed with my overall view and had examples to share. Some of the writers shared personal stories about situations in which they felt someone tried to bully them, but they stopped it or found ways to handle it. I have appreciated all the responses.

2. I have done further research about the term and how it is used in books, articles, and internet forums, as well as reading hundreds of examples of what forum contributors consider to be bullying.  

3. I have given considerable thought to exactly how I do feel about the concept of bad behavior at work and how bullying fits into that issue.

The bottom line on my perspective about bullying behavior in the workplace: 

  • Bullying –cruel and misery producing behavior to someone who is powerless to stop it– is wrong and inexcusable.
  • I have stopped others from cruel or aggressively hostile behavior when I have known of it and I always will.
  • Working with or for someone who acts in a bullying manner is one thing–being bullied is something else. Being bullied is what we allow to happen to ourselves over time, when we fail to take any constructive action to deal with the behavior.
  • If someone–even someone who can fire me or hurt my career–behaves toward me in a way that seems to be intentionally and unbearably mean, I will find an appropriate way to stop it. If I cannot or will not do that I will either learn to manage my reactions to it or I will leave that job or position. I am not powerless.
  • I think the way the term bullying is used in some writings and research, incorrectly increases the number of accusations about it and makes it seem more prevalent than it is.
  • I believe some people use the term bully as a defensive weapon to present themselves in a better light, and an offensive weapon to hurt the reputation of others without having to present verifiable evidence.
  • Labeling someone a bully can itself become a form of bullying, because it can cruelly harm someone’s reputation based solely on a description that may not apply to the situation at all.
  • If someone is a bully their behavior should be stopped, not just labeled and complained about.

In the next two articles I will discuss productive ways to deal with discourtesy and contention at work.

April 12th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 3 comments

Discourtesy And Contention At Work — Defining Terms

Defining terms: What is Bullying?

In keeping with the advice to not argue until we have defined terms, I want to clarify how I use the term bully, and my experiences with how others often use the term

Let me re-state that I acknowledge there are situations in which people suffer emotionally, mentally and sometime physically, because of the purposeful actions of coworkers and managers. I detest that kind of behavior and will take action to stop it. What I want to emphasize in this series is that using an emotional term like bully puts adult relationships at a juvenile or adolescent level and tends to reduce attempts to do anything positive about problems.

Another concern I have is that many people are amateur psychologists and lawyers at work, based on reading a few articles or watching TV. Whether they are discussing harassment, hostile work environments, stress, a toxic workplace, dinosaurs at work, or bullies, they embrace the workplace horror of the moment and swear they are dealing with it. It is similar to reading a list of symptoms and becoming certain that your cold is actually Zambalisian Swamp Fever.

Bullying behavior: A bully, by dictionary definition, is someone who is cruel to others who are powerless to stop the behavior. That is the definition I will use, rather than, as the author of an article on bullying wrote, “A bully is someone who makes you feel bullied.” Good grief!

Bullying behavior can include any number of tyrannical, mean or cruel actions:

  • Repeated taunting, ridiculing, threatening, destroying personal property, dirty tricks, creating serious work problems, malicious gossip, purposely creating stress, nervousness or tenseness, unrelenting criticism, yelling, accusing, unreasonable demands, and anything else that is cruel and done to exert power, out of spite or a sense of entitlement, or for the sheer enjoyment of it.

What is something other than bullying? On the Ask the Workplace Doctors site to which I contribute, we receive many, many letters from people who say they are being bullied. Sometimes when I read substantiating information I agree with the perspectives of the letter writer, even though I might not use that term. In many cases, follow-up information discloses a much different picture. I do not think the writers lied, but I do think they were using the phrase more as an insult than as an accurate descriptor.

  • The person being complained about is often unpleasant to deal with, but has no power over the person complaining and has never been personally intimidating.
  • The essence of the complaint about someone’s behavior is, “I don’t like it.”
  • There is a long-term feud in which both have taken part.
  • The person being complained about is a supervisor who has negatively critiqued the work of the person who is writing to us.
  • The writer has never asked the person to stop and never made a complaint to a supervisor or a manager.
  • The writer has been bullied in every job he or she has ever had and has never had a supervisor who was not a bully.
  • Frequently writers will use dramatic terms to describe something that has happened, but when I follow up with specific questions the facts are much less dramatic.

“My supervisor is a bully!” (He told me I had to get back to work instead of talking on my cell phone.)
“My coworker is a bully!” (She is snippy to me and responds rudely when I talk to her.)
“We have a group of office bullies!” (There are several gossips, but everyone listens to them and spreads what they say.)
“…screamed at me” becomes, “..talked in a louder tone than usual.”
“..berated me in front of everyone” becomes, “…corrected my mistake and people in other cubicles could hear  it.”
“Demeans everyone” means, “Tells me my work product has to improve.”
“…threatened me” becomes, “told me to mind my own business.”

Mental and emotional maturity. There is a level of mental and emotional maturity that is required to be effective at work. That maturity must extend to learning ways to deal with the wrong behavior of others. It seems to me that letting academicians or the media provide us with yet another inflammatory label will not help solve problems and will make bad situations worse. In further articles I will discuss a less dramatic way to view unpleasant behavior at work–a way that is more likely to result in positive actions.

April 8th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | no comments