I read your column on an employee who is too emotional. I have a similar problem, with some big differences. I don’t know why everyone says it is women who tend to be too emotional. I have a male colleague who is constantly melting down.
I’m not sure where he got the idea that everything he says or does should be met with 100% enthusiasm and support, but whenever he gets any kind of critique or has an idea that gets turned down, he just loses it. Anytime he is treated as anything less than a total star, his response is anger. And when he gets angry, he refuses to respond to emails and drops any number of balls that others depend on his catching so they can move forward. When I or any of several other team members have brought up this ridiculous behavior to our team lead, she acts as if she’s powerless.
I’ve kind of figured out how to work around him, which sometimes means doing tasks he should be doing. My biggest frustration is that he sits next to me, so I hear about his perceived injustices all day long. I also have to listen to him whining to his wife on the phone. I can’t fathom how she puts up with it.
It is a miracle that I haven’t told him to suck it up and stop griping. I am so sick of it I am actively looking for another job, even though I really like my company, my team, and my job. I would really like to stay but I don’t know how much longer I can keep myself from doing or saying something I regret.
How do I get this guy to grow up and stop acting like a big whiny baby?
Sick to Death of a Colleague
Dear Sick to Death of a Colleague
Oh dear. This is a pickle indeed. It would be tragic for you to leave your job because of one annoying colleague. So right now, let’s think about just lowering the level of your frustration. It sounds as if you are almost looking for reasons to hate Big Whiny Baby (BWB) by letting his conversations into your consciousness—so first you need to tune him out. Get an excellent pair of headphones to wear so you can listen to music and put your attention on your work.
Then you’ll need a longer-term plan. I see a few possibilities here:
Option 1: Start with Yourself
This is your safest bet, because this is where you have the most control. Something about this person has triggered you and there might be some value in asking yourself what exactly is at the root of that. The more you can own the size—and frankly, the emotional quality (sorry)—of your reaction to BWB, the less of an impact his shenanigans will have on you. Maybe he reminds you of an annoying sibling. Maybe you take on too much and resent others who shirk. Maybe you grew up in a family where complaining was forbidden. What is it that has you lighting up instead of shaking your head and chuckling at the absurdity of BWB?
Once you pinpoint the source of your reaction, you can manage it. Choose to decide that you just don’t care enough to try to fix the situation. Tune BWB out; ignore him completely. Let this all just roll off your back and get on with things that really matter to you.
One crazy thought here: you might consider showing some true compassion to BWB by asking him if he would allow you to help him manage his frustration and take things less personally. This would be a sort of spiritual development program for you that would require you to somehow shelve your judgment and put yourself in service to him. I think this is a long shot, but I’ll add more on this topic as a part two, next week.
Option 2: Take a Stand with Your Manager
Go to your team lead and clearly lay out the extent of your frustration, focusing on BWB’s inability to do his job which forces you to work around him or sometimes even do his job. Make it clear that if you have to tolerate the situation much longer, you will be looking elsewhere for opportunities—but do not, under any circumstances, pull that card unless you truly intend to follow through.
If your direct supervisor refuses to do anything (it really is her job) or is simply incapable of doing anything, you might go up a level—but, of course, this is tricky. It could be a political faux pas in your company’s culture, or it could damage the relationship between you and your supervisor (although it sounds like you have already lost respect for her). However, if you do end up leaving, the reason would probably come out in the exit interview, so either way it will be a bit of a ding for her. It all depends on your level of relationship with your boss’s boss and your confidence that your own excellent work carries enough weight to make this feasible.
Option 3: Make a Direct Request of Your Coworker
Have a wildly uncomfortable but courageous conversation with BWB. If this option seems doable, use these guidelines:
- Ask if you can share your observations about what it is like to work with him, and ask if you can be frank.
- Keep your tone neutral. Stay, calm, cool and collected.
- Start all of your sentence steps with “I” vs. “you,” which can seem accusatory
- Stick with direct observations of his behavior and how they impact you; e.g., when he allows his emotions to distract him, it keeps him from completing critical tasks that you depend on; when he complains to you or to his wife on the phone, you get frustrated because it distracts you from your work.
- Make clear requests for how he might change his behaviors—but only the ones that directly affect you.
- Frame it that you find your working relationship with him suffering and that you are asking for changes to make it go more smoothly.
- Be sure to keep your judgment about gender or maturity out of it.
- Prepare by practicing clear statements that you simply repeat.
- Fall for his attempts to get you to say more.
- Reveal that “everybody feels the same way.”
- Let yourself get dragged into an argument—it will not go well.
Make your observations and/or requests and then clam up. You can literally say, “I have shared my requests with you and I am not saying anything else about it. I hope we can find a smoother way of working together.” And walk away. BWB will almost certainly want to turn it into another drama about him, so be stoic and strong.
As I write this, it is feeling like a terrible idea, because this would be an example of advanced boundary setting. If you don’t think you can keep your wits about you and stay composed, it probably won’t go as planned. I am not even sure that I would be able to do this—not that I am some boundary black belt, but I have been managing people for 30+ years and have raised four kids, so I do have some experience. It will help if you are first able to defuse your own anger and your attachment to your appraisal of BWB (which I guess I must share, since I keep calling him BWB). Either way, do not attempt it off the cuff. Only try it if you can prepare extensively.
The argument for this approach is that sometimes people have no idea whatsoever of the impact their behavior has on others. It sounds like BWB lives in his own little world and gets caught up in his own drama and is oblivious. Possibly a little straight talk will be a gift to him. Possibly not. There really is no way of knowing. Part of me even wonders if things could shift by you simply saying what you want to say: “Oh stop complaining; no one wants to hear it; suck it up, bub,” and be done with it. It’s not really mean, just straight and to the point. Clearly, his wife isn’t going to do this.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that finding a way to shift your own attitude about this situation seems, at the very least, the best first step. Water off a duck’s back. This won’t be the last coworker who drives you mad. It’s just part of life, so learning to let people be who they are without letting it bug you will be a skill that will serve you well.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.