Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I recently had a very strange situation at our office. Could I ask how you might handle the following situation?
Let's say you call a co-worker on his or her extension during office hours. You think you are talking with someone who is a friend, and you whisper something about another co-worker. Your comments are, at best, not uplifting. You mention the person by name.
The person you have called informs you that you have actually called the person that you have just said something ugly about. So, you deny that you said what you said.
More specifically, I received the call. The woman on the other end said, "Her very existence annoys the *#!$ out of me." I said, "Who?" She said, "Did you not see your email?" I said, "Whose?" She said, "Jane's!" I said, "This IS Jane." She said, "Oh, I thought you were [name]." I said, "Obviously. If I have offended you in some way, I hope we can discuss it at some point." She said, "Oh, no. I was talking about something else."
We have a small team, and I don't want to make a big fuss, but there is obviously a problem of which I'm not aware.
Ugh, that had to be upsetting.
I'm a big believer in being straightforward. I'd just talk to her -- in person -- and say, "Hey, I know that was really awkward and you hadn't intended to call me. But since now it's out there, can we talk about what I'm doing that's aggravating you? If it's something I can change, I'd like to. I figure we all annoy people at times without realizing it, and I'd appreciate the chance to see if there's something I could do differently."
If she again denies saying what she clearly said, then I'd say, "Look, I understand feeling awkward about this, but if you do ever want to talk to me, I'm open to hearing it."
Then you drop it. That's all you can really do. You'll have taken the high road and acted like an adult, and if she doesn't want to join you there, well, so be it. Either way, she's probably mortified, and not everyone has it in them to be straightforward about this stuff, especially when you throw in the added challenge of her mortification on top of it.
But as for you, here's the thing: We're all annoying other people in some way, especially in the workplace. We often don't know precisely how, but it's a safe bet that every single one of us does things that irritate others. You just got a glimpse of it that you normally wouldn't get (and from someone particularly waspish).
If you feel like delving more into it on your own, you can take it as an opportunity to look at your relations with your co-workers, particularly this one. Are there things you're doing that might be legitimately annoying that you could/should change? Or is this woman just spiteful, petty, or a fountain of negativity? Use what you know about her and what you know about yourself to draw your own conclusions, if she won't talk to you about it. (The email you had just sent her right before the phone call probably provides some clues, as it seems to have triggered the call.)
Maybe you'll ultimately determine that she's just an jerk. Or maybe you'll spot things that co-workers might have legitimate reasons to want you to do differently. Either way, you can use this as a chance to get a bit more insight into workplace dynamics that all of you play a role in.
Plus, you now have a really good story to tell people in the future.
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