Was My Colleague’s Comment an Insult?

Question: I am a project manager at a small, extremely busy advertising firm. One of our clients has direct communication with the creative director, completely bypassing me. This coworker posted conflicting information about a very large project. I asked him about the scope and due date and he told me to “just sit tight”. To me that is something you say to an anxious 8 year old child and not to a coworker who is just trying to do their job. This person regularly makes off-color comments but this response was directed specifically to me. Thoughts?

Answer: The overall tone and context of any comment makes a difference in how it is interpreted. The feelings and attitudes of the recipient about the person who made the comment matters even more. That it especially true in this case. Unless the comment was said in anger or said with a sarcastic put-down tone, it doesn’t seem to me to be offensive, but apparently it seemed that way to you.

Usually telling someone to just sit tight is a way to say “I know you want to know this right now, but be patient and I promise I’ll get it to you as soon as I can.”  Perhaps he felt your tone of voice as you asked about it, implied extreme concern and he was trying to reassure you. Or, he may have realized that he provided conflicting information and felt foolish about it, so he brushed off your questions in the best way he could think of at the time.

It would have been offensive for him to say something like, “Don’t get your knickers twisted.” Or, “Keep your garters on Gertie”, or “Don’t get you’re a** chapped.” Or, “Calm down and just sit tight and I’ll tell you what you need to know when I think it’s time for you to know it.”

Whatever way he meant to say it, it sounded to you as though he was talking down to you or being obnoxiously soothing. You have the options of talking to him about it and letting him know why you were concerned,  or disliking it but moving forward in spite of it. You could also dislike it and let your resentment show, but that’s not a good option. I’m not in your situation and don’t have a full sense of everything that has gone on, leading up to this. Nevertheless, my general thought is that you should let this pass and focus on keeping  lines of communication open so you can find out what you need to know, as soon as possible, on every  project with which the CD becomes involved. Apparently there is only one client who goes directly to him and in the rest of the projects you are the main point of contact.

It sounds as though having this one client allowed to go straight to the CD is a tender point with you. I can understand the frustration of not being part of discussions until you get told  the scope of work and due date—things about which you have more knowledge than the CD. You may never be able to alter that arrangement, but perhaps you can at least have a discussion with the CD about your need to know sooner rather than later. He should know it—and probably does know it. He probably enjoys being considered the special person who works with that client. If there is someone you report to who is empathetic about the situation, perhaps he or she could be part of an effort to make sure the CD gives you needed information directly, before making statements that conflict with other projects or that don’t seem logical for some other reason.  

This has probably been building up over time, so anything he says or does that seems demeaning takes on a double emphasis. Unfortunately, it will probably happen again with that specific client and this CD. Then one day something will happen that will change things and this will just become a memory of something you had to work through and seem gracious while doing it. I hope that happens for you!

Best wishes to you. If you have time and wish to do so, let us know what  happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.