Attorney Ignores Coworkers

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about moods of aloofness:

I supervise an attorney who is very bright and good at what she does. However she has a pattern of feeling slighted by a co-employee and then going long stretches (up to a year or more) ignoring them, not acknowledging them in the hall, and making them and everyone around them uncomfortable. What can I do as her manager?

Signed, Supervising Silent Treatment

Dear Supervising Silent Treatment:

Incivility comes in different varieties; even in aloofness and failure to acknowledges that others are alive. You have observed this over long periods by this attorney you supervise. Since you don’t spell out how you have attempted to handle this, I must assume that you have bit your tongue in hopes that Ms. Aloof would get over her feeling of being slighted and that she would engage, at least minimally, in communicating with those she has ignored.

As her manager, you must take responsibility for incivility, and your question indicates that you want to. I’m sure you have considered a range of options, from candid confrontation to indirect approaches. I’ll contrast two:

1. Candid private consultation with Ms. A in a performance evaluation, problem-solving way. Performance appraisal of those you manage isn’t only an annual or semi-annual task. It is a task that occurs informally to re-enforce positive behavior and, when the matter is destructive, may be more formal. In this case, it is up to you to hold a mirror up to enable your bright and capable attorney to reflect on how she is coming across and how that adversely affects all of you in your work area.

It may be that she thinks her cold shoulder only hurts the one she feels who slighted her and she doesn’t realize that it clouds the climate of your workspace. I label this option as problem-solving rather than one of stating what she should and/or should not do, or else. You can approach such a meeting as a doctor might who helps a patient see and analyze symptoms and causes. In your situation it is the symptom of a hostile environment. And after such an examination, collaboratively prescribing possible remedies.

If the problem were violent outbursts rather than her silent aloofness, surely you, as her manager, would schedule a session and follow-up sessions to see that Ms. A got anger management therapy. Many companies have a three-step progressive discipline that begins with oral warning and ends with suspension or firing. The problem you must handle is akin to this in that first Ms. A should be made aware of the dysfunctional side of her cold shoulder and then should be monitored in a plan of corrective action.
2. Indirect collective action. I have consulted with a company over 18 months in company-wide team building and have trained managers and their natural work groups how to function effectively as teams. The most important guideline I suggest is for natural work groups to collaboratively hammer out do and don’t communications rules. The very effect of spelling out such rules is educative, such as turn-taking participation, listening respectfully, making it ok to argue about important matters, encouraging and expecting energetic participation, not gossiping about one another, making decisions by consensus, etc. The second most helpful concept of teamwork is establishing the habit of frequently asking and answering such questions as: What has worked well this past week? What have we been doing that deserves applause? Are we making each others’ jobs more effective and easier? What about our communicating might we do better?

You, as manager, would be seen then as facilitator-coach and those you manage would see themselves as members of your team. There are other options, but these two should start creative-constructive juices flowing. If you scan our archives you will see many Q&As on team building. Even if much of your attorney’s work is solo, inevitably the success of your firm is interdependent. In short, working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and I wish that for your operation.

Follow UP: I cannot thank you enough William. That is great advice. I definitely waited too long to address this. I struggled with it as I imagined her telling me that I cannot force her to say hello or acknowledge someone she passes in the hall. She is smart enough to do the bare communication (typically via email) when work functions overlap. You are correct when you note she works rather independently. I work for a large corporation , so the second option you note below would likely have to be run through corporate channels. Your first option, however, sounds like it could work well. I thank you for your time and insight.

Response: I wish you well in coaching Ms. A. You want the best for her and the others in your work group. To be sure you can’t force her to say hello or acknowledge others; however, in a civilized society, we have a greeting rule that means when we we meet others, we respond with a greeting, even to those we don’t like. Working independently doesn’t mean that one is not a part of a unit within a larger organizational system. Sometimes it helps to remind those who think they are flying solo that they are able to do that because of the many others who also are integral to that system.

Even Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, wrote a book he titled We. That overarching interdependent awareness is what I’ve tried to communicate by coining the word WEGO. Incidentally, our youngest daughter has just graduated from law school and is now preparing to take the next step which she says is to pass the test for the bar in NY City later this summer.Also I’ve cited below a post from my co-Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, who works within the system of law enforcement and was a US Marshal. She is experienced in interpersonal supervisory counseling, as you can tell if you’ve read some of her Q&As. But she also has a site of her own, and you might find this particular essay of some help. Our best to you. One conversation with Ms. A might not be a quick-fix; it might take some follow up.–How Long Are You Going To Feed The Baby Birds?

William Gorden