Coworker Once Friendly Now Distant

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a coworker’s distant behavior.

I’m working in a small company with around 8 employees including me. I have an issue with a co-worker who seems to be distancing herself from me for no apparent reason. We used to talk but we hardly converse nowadays.

When I addressed my concerns, she came up with a “talk less, listen more” excuse, which I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Ironically, she’s still in her cheerful personality when she talks to others, but gave me the cold shoulder when I tried to converse with her.

We had a strong interpersonal relationship, liked teasing and doing everything together; hence her current attitude is making me suffocated, plus sitting directly beside me makes things worse. I tried ignoring it but I can’t help but think what’s troubling her because I’m always her first point of contact, be it work related or personal matters. This situation is affecting my work badly. Is there any way I can tackle this issue?

Cheers, Uncomfortable & Troubled

Dear Uncomfortable & Troubled:

Thank you for sharing your distress about feeling distant from your coworker. Apparently things are different from what they were in the past. Your attempt to discuss with her why she doesn’t converse as you used to resulted in a turn off of “talk less and listen more.” Because the two of you are physically assigned to desks or work stations close to each other,  her current “talk less and listen more” has caused you to feel something is wrong. This is so painful that it is affecting your work.

Of course from a far distance, there is no way of knowing what has happened and is going on within your small company. Therefore, without more details, my comments might not be more than generic suggestions, but hopefully some of them will provide you a way to interpret and re-frame what you call as “a co-worker’s sudden weird behavior.” Since I don’t know your co-worker’s name, I’ll name her Gloria, so as not to have to say co-worker over and over.

Here then are several things to consider:

  1. How does she see you? You see her “sudden weird behavior” but how does she describe yo? One clue is in her comment to “talk less and listen more” another clue is her cold shoulder toward you but cheerful  talk with others. Apparently she has come to the conclusion that your talk too much. Possibly she thinks your talk is me, me, me. Or possibly she thinks you interrupt and don’t really listen to her ideas. Or possibly she simply finds you have a need to chatter, chatter, chatter. Or possibly the subjects that obsess you are overly centered on insignificant matters or the revers of that they are too intellectual. Or possibly you have offended her by being too nosy or demeaning her values. I can’t imagine how Gloria sees you.  Her talk less listen more is short change for suggesting you should look in the mirror. What might that look say about how you are seen by others in your small company? How do you see yourself—as cheerful as you note’s cheers signature? As needing assurance you are OK or better than the rest? As a busy body? As sloppy or as a neat-nick? As a complainer or laid back? These possibilities aren’t meant to cause you to be overly introspective, but to suggest you shouldn’t fear to look in the mirror and to ask how you might be seen as a valued member of your 8 member company.
  2. Take her advice. Talk less and listen more. Be your cheerful self in a greeting but then get to work. That’s what you are hired to do, not to talk with co-workers. Forget about the word weird. You haven’t mentioned even one behavior that is weird.
  3. Re-farame the way you see your work. Focus on your assignments and on the good of the company. In your mind pretend what you would do if you owned the company. How might you cut wasted supplies, time, energy and duplication? What would you do to make work there more pleasant? Are there things the owners do that make coming to work fun? And to feel that your ideas matter? There are many sites describing what makes a company successful. Visit them such Susan Heathfield’s Human Resources newsletter and the Greater Good Science Center greater@berkeley.edu . I predict that you will find coming to work exciting if you list ways to improve productivity, serve internal and external customers better, improve performance and make your company more money.  Look up Great Places To Work For. Study what your company does. Learn it from toe to head. Join an association of companies like yours. This will get you to thinking about your job as more than a job—possibly a career that makes a contribution.
  4. Get a life beyond your workplace. Visit TED TALKS. Rather than dwelling on the sudden weird behavior of your co-worker, take advantage of the many events sponsored by your library, church and clubs. Sing in a choir. Take yoga or Zumba dancing.

I know that these suggestions are more than you expected or want, but I hope they help you obsess less on not being liked by Gloria. I recently sent a New Year’s Greeting to about 50 employees requesting that they sent me a paragraph or two describing one specific incident that made them feel good about their jobs. Here’s one from Kara who directs Habitat for Humanity for East Central Ohio. Note that she found helping a caller see his life a bit more differently was what made her day meaningful: At Habitat for Humanity, we have a group of regular volunteers called “The Habitat Crew.” Most of these volunteers are retired men and women who have decided to move on to their next stages in life. Some were former carpenters, while others were chemists, teachers, or many other professions. Folks join the Habitat Crew by either knowing another Crew member, learning about it while they were volunteering with a group, or by me (or my coworkers) reaching out to them. Personally, my goal in my job, and quite frankly in my life, is to help others feel wanted, useful, and not left out. I believe the Habitat Crew is a wonderful vehicle for that and one of the most fulfilling moments I have had so far is a simple phone conversation…

We received a donation right before Christmas with a note that this person, we will call him Dan, wanted to find out more information about Habitat for Humanity. I noted from his letter that he was retired and decided to give him a call to see if he would like to join the Habitat Crew too. At first, Dan was skeptical about my call because I think he didn’t believe that I was calling just to chat, not to ask for money. He questioned me about where his donation was going, what Habitat’s plans for the future were, my department at work, and pretty much every single thing he could think of. I answered as best I could and just barely mentioned the opportunity to join the Habitat Crew. While he didn’t really respond to my appeal, Dan mentioned to me how wonderful it was that I took so much time (over an hour) talking with him, helping him understand, and making him feel important again. He was struggling with the end of his career and a loneliness from that. I don’t know if he will ever join the Habitat Crew, but I do know that God put me in the right place at the right time to be what this man needed to feel connected again-even if for just an hour or so. While this phone conversation stuck in my head, I have had many instances at work where these men and women really reach out to our staff because the work they are doing keeps them young, involved, loved, and feeling like they have a purpose. My time with them in invaluable to me and it is what I feel best about at work.

Here’s another. This one from Brandon who is employed by Bradley Stone,  a company founded  over 20 years ago that serves the greater Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown markets with fabrication and installation services of natural stone (granite, marble, limestone, soapstone) and quartz countertops. I am responding to this e-mail today for a few reasons. First, you were one of my favorite professors. Second, I believe I truly apply what I learned in your classroom to my job as a salesperson for a company, Bradley Stone, on a day-to-day basis. And thirdly, an instance like the one you have requested just happened to me yesterday.

I took a phone call from a potential customer. Typical calls last 1-3 minutes. This particular conversation lasted an entire 22 minutes. I explained numerous aspects of our business and the process of a typical granite installation project. The reason I am proud of this particular call is, numerous times throughout the conversation the customer stopped and would say, “Wow, I really like the way you talk.” Also, “How old are you? Only 26!? You sound very professional young man.”  This customer was so blown away by a simple phone call he came to our warehouse today just to meet me face to face. After our short consultation I earned his business and potentially other future business from his referrals to friends.

At the end of our meeting he said, “It’s good to know there is still hope for our younger generation.” This made me feel really good and gave me a nice confidence boost to begin the New Year. Again, it was great to hear from you Dr. Gorden and I wish you a very Happy New Year.

So I challenge you to see this “weird behavior” as an opportunity to re-frame how you see yourself and your work. See it as an adventure in creative coping with distress. Think beyond this unhappy behavior by adding value to your life and to your small company. Send me one significant incident that has made you feel good about your job. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Tell me how my closing signature sentence can apply to your company and little circle of the world. If any of these thoughts ring true,  I welcome hearing how they affect you.

William Gorden