Co-workers on eggshells? Check your attitude

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Marie G. McIntyre

Posted: Sunday, February 9, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:01 pm, Fri Jun 27, 2014.

Q: Several years ago, I asked our human resources manager to mediate an ongoing disagreement with a co-worker. We were able to hash out our differences, and the issue was resolved. I assumed this conversation would be kept confidential, but now I’m not so sure.

I have begun to notice that my colleagues frequently preface comments to me by saying “you’re not going to like this” or “this might make you mad.” Sometimes they just tell me to breathe. Although I have asked them not to begin our interactions with such negative remarks, they continue to do so.

After thinking about this, I finally concluded that either the HR manager or my co-worker must have shared information about our previous conflict. That would explain why I apparently have a reputation for being difficult. What should I do about this?

A: I don’t think you will like my answer, but I do hope you will consider it. Based on your description, I believe you are jumping to some unwarranted conclusions about the cause of this problem. If you are open to a different interpretation, however, you might take some steps that would benefit your career.

You’re assuming that your colleagues are wary because they heard about the earlier disagreement, but you seem to be ignoring the fact that this incident occurred “several years ago.” After so much time, that single event would not influence current perceptions without more recent evidence.

A more likely explanation is that people are responding to the way you receive unwelcome information. Having observed that negative news tends to irritate or upset you, they attempt to lessen this reaction by providing a warning. But since you don’t see yourself this way, that reason would not occur to you.

To either validate or disprove this theory, solicit some candid opinions from trusted friends, family members or colleagues. Ask them the following question, using these exact words: “At work, I’ve noticed that people keep trying to calm me down, but I don’t know why. Can you help me understand why they do this?”

Encourage honest answers, then quietly listen without arguing or debating. After reflecting on this feedback, make any changes that seem helpful. If you want to put an end to these annoying comments, you will have to demonstrate that they are no longer necessary.

Q: Before I went on vacation, my manager said that I needed to be available by phone. He seems to think this is a normal request. Do you agree?

A: Unless you have a very routine job, there may be times when others need information that only you possess. For that reason, leaving a contact number is the responsible thing to do.

On the other hand, expecting you to field trivial questions or remain tethered to your phone would not be at all reasonable. So the real issue is not whether your boss should be able to call you, but how often he attempts to do so.

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