A criticizing boss? A distracting office romance? A cliquey-group of coworkers? It might seem like career-busting problems, but these uncomfortable work situations are no big deal–if you handle them right.
Well that was awkward. You're just trying to do your job. Climb up the ladder. Be the next Sophia Amoruso or Sheryl Sandberg. And your office seems to have more drama than The Hills reboot (we imagine).
But, truth is, according to workplace conflict managers, most awkward work situations start with ourselves, and how we respond to situations. Not to say, of course, that everything rests on your shoulders, but how we handle those moments determines our role in them.
We connected with Sarah Jenner, executive director of Mindful Employer Canada, a not-for-profit in Waterdown, Ont., that offers Mindful Leader certification program to help companies deal internally with day-to-day issues, performance management, conflict resolution, workplace mental health and more. Here, she offers her advice on handling those awkward work situations, so we can get on with our jobs.
A Nasty Co-Worker
She says things out loud you can't even imagine people thinking, let alone saying in a professional setting. She rolls her eyes. She's aggressive and gossipy. You don't want to think about what she says behind your back. And when you actually need something from her, she is very snippy. How do you work with someone who is not willing to work with you?
Working with a catty person is never fun, but being the bigger person, no matter how tough it may be, is the best way to handle them. "You never want to bully a bully," says Jenner. Confront the situations as they happen, and be respectful in how you do it. "You never know what's happening behind the scenes or at home that's causing them not to be their best selves."
Approach them with curiosity instead of accusation. Mention that you noticed their behaviours, like eye-rolling or groaning. Say, "That doesn't seem like you—is something going on?" They may share with you, or maybe not, but either way, they will be more aware of their behaviour.
Two coworkers are getting it on—and being distracting
Their casual flirting was irritating in the beginning and you're at your limits with their attempts to hide their relationship. You know when they're happy and when they're fighting because it affects the whole office vibe.
This might seem like juicy gossip, but if it's interfering with your job—or their jobs—it's serious. Approach the couple (individually or together) if the relationship is having a negative effect on the workplace. "Don't comment on their personalities," says Jenner. That will make them defensive, which is never helpful. "Keep it work-related. Say how it could be affecting performance." Discuss things like missed work days or if they've become withdrawn. They might not even notice what they're projecting, because they're so deeply involved in the relationship.
If you're a boss or a superior, you will want to find out about the office romance policies within your organization. "You would bring that policy to their attention," says Jenner. Tell them: "We have a policy in place, not only to protect you and your reputation at this organization but also to ensure that going forward you're as supported as you can be within your job role." Sometimes, when situations like this are no longer hidden, the honesty allows for a more open discussion, too.
Your manager criticizes and it never ends
You do everything right. You follow instructions to a T and your effort and your work never seems to be good enough. And often the negative feedback is provided in front of your coworkers.
We all want a boss who can mentor us, but ask yourself these questions: Is their feedback fair? Will it make your work look better? Can you learn something from their notes? Are they like this with the entire team? It can be tough not to be sensitive when your boss doesn't love everything you do, but maybe they're making you better at your job—or maybe they're picking on you.
If you feel targeted, you'll have to do what Jenner calls "coaching up," when you have to manage your manager. Have a meeting with your boss about a situation and tell them about how it could affect your performance. "Going forward you could be apprehensive about sharing ideas, thoughts and critiques about on-going projects or policies and procedures," says Jenner. "Tell them that going forward, if they have feedback to share with you, do so one-on-one." Explain that it'll give you the chance to ask questions and better understand exactly what it is they're looking for, so you're meeting the expectations of the role. And that is what every boss wants from their employees.
Is it you? Is it them? You just can seem to fit
The office is cliquey. You sometimes feel made fun of. You don't feel like this is where you're meant to be even though it's your dream job or a necessary step in your career.
"That is really about office culture and insecurities," says Jenner. At a new job, it's completely natural to feel like you don't quite fit the mould in the beginning.
But if it's more than that, and you truly feel a disconnect with co-workers, then suggest team-building activities so you can create a comfort level where you can start to have conversations about work life and get to know your coworkers better. Have a lunch get-together or a skill-building session. Furthermore, check out Building Stronger Teams from the Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. "It offers activities for leaders and teams to help build resilience and emotional intelligence, so they can communicate in a healthy way," says Jenner.
However, if the situation is more about your values and ethics than getting to know each other better, and you don't fit in because of who you are and a contradiction with the organization's core values, you have to ask yourself if this is the job for you. That could be anything from a vegan lifestyle clashing with a business based on animal products or trying to move ahead as a woman in a sexist office culture. It might be worth searching for another job that better matches your core values. In this case, be smart about transitioning out of the job. Network. Use LinkedIn to connect with people in jobs you want to have. Find out about their trajectory and how you could mimic it.
You keep screwing up, and you don't know what to do
You made a mistake. And then you made another one. Your error cost the company some money. You made a bunch of mistakes in a row, and you feel ashamed. You're scared if you talk about it, you'll lose your job.
This isn't as big of a deal as you might think. Jenner encourages workplaces to be open about mistakes because that leads to talks about solutions. You don't have to be proud of your mistakes, but you do have to own them and prevent them from snowballing.
Jenner advises implementing "mistake meetings," which some companies call "learning development meetings." "The idea is that the team leader or the manager comes forward about mistakes they've made and shares what they did to address that mistake." It provides the team an opportunity discuss solutions and helps to create an understanding environment—a safe space where mistakes can be made and fixed collectively. "It can relieve so much anxiety in coworkers and in the team," she says.