Way back when I was a project manager, there was a programmer in another department who complained about anything and everything. She was a crabby, moaning, groaning, nails-on-the-blackboard whiner. In my limited contact with her, I came to think of her as Ms. MoanGroan. People talked about her behind her back, but they avoided her except to the extent their jobs necessitated contact with her. No one likes to be around someone whose every utterance is a complaint.
I wondered back then, and I still wonder today, if Ms. MoanGroan might have changed her behavior if someone had had the nerve to ask her to stop complaining. For example, someone might have bluntly told her, “We’d enjoy being with you more if you’d cut back on the grousing and nit-picking.” Or maybe humor would have helped: “This department has been officially declared a complaint-free zone.”
Most people’s preference when confronted with irritating people is to steer clear. That’s understandable. The problem is that by not doing anything to discourage Ms. MoanGroan’s grumbling and griping, they were giving her implicit approval to continue doing it. By not saying “No,” everyone around her was in effect saying ”yes.”
Who knows what causes such behavior? Maybe she was just an unhappy person. Maybe the only way she could be happy was by being unhappy. It could be (though it’s hard to imagine) that this was her way of getting attention; maybe she was someone who preferred the wrath of others to being ignored. Some people don’t realize how they’re coming across— they just plain don’t know any better. But whether the cause of a colleague’s troublesome behavior is a miserable childhood, life experiences, or anything else, it’s in no one’s job description to be her shrink. (Of course, her manager could have, and should have, taken the initiative to confront her about her behavior, but he didn’t. A topic for a future column, perhaps.)
Still, although most people are reluctant to take action in situations like this, asking (or demanding) that a person discontinue inappropriate behavior sometimes works. In particular, I’m recalling Sue, one of the participants in a seminar I gave for Sue’s team several years ago. Sue was petite and soft spoken, not at all the sort of person you can imagine anyone trying to intimidate.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened. As Sue described during the seminar, one day during the team’s weekly project review meeting, in marched a high-level customer manager who was known for being pushy, impatient, and verbally abusive. The manager loudly berated Sue for some perceived misdeed and marched out.
Sue was upset. More than that, she was angry. The behavior this manager exhibited is now known as bullying. That term wasn’t in use back then, but that’s exactly what it was. And such behavior was the norm for this manager. Yet, everyone in this team viewed the manager as being at too high a level to risk offending; thus, they had refrained from taking any action. But that was about to change.
Sue thought about the situation overnight and concluded that doing nothing was out of the question. The next day, nervous though she felt, she went to the manager’s office and explained that being treated that way was humiliating. She said that if there was a problem, she’d address it, but that a public attack was the wrong means to that end. “Please do not ever again disrespect me like that,” she told the manager.
Sue had little hope that doing this would make a difference. But it did. To her amazement, the manager not only began to treat Sue with respect, but also became more reasonable and less belligerent with everyone in the department. By daring to say “stop,” Sue had accomplished what no one else had dared to do.
After the seminar, I began telling people about Sue’s experience. In response, several of them described similar experiences of their own. Some of these experiences were with peers. Some were with executives. A few, like Sue’s, were with customers. Many of the people confronted not only apologized, but subsequently became a source of support.
Obviously, confronting negative, inappropriate, or troublesome behavior doesn’t always transform it into something positive. Nor is it risk-free. Still, in the case of Ms. MoanGroan—remember her? The complainer extraordinaire?—there wasn’t much to lose by trying. I wish someone had dared to step forward, because sometimes, simply saying “I don’t like it. Please stop” is all it takes to stop the aggravating behavior. But no one did.
If you face a similar situation and want to try to discourage someone’s off-putting behavior, think carefully about how you’ll do it. While discussing with one particular team how they might deal with a customer much like Ms. MoanGroan, one team member suggested they try a personal approach. He proposed that they find ways to compliment the customer and comment on mementos and family photos in the customer’s office. I urged caution. A little such attention might help; a lot, maybe not. Imagine, after all, if all ten members of the team, one by one, wandered into the customer’s office the next week, gushing, “Oh, what beautiful grandchildren you have!”
Whatever approach you select to reverse problem behavior, do it in moderation and consider how it might backfire before you proceed. Then again, Sue didn’t analyze the pros and cons before confronting the manager who had mistreated her. She did what she felt she had to do— and it worked. Her experience remains a lesson for me, and perhaps for you as well.