What Can I Do To Stop An Overtalkative Coworker?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an over-talkative coworker:

I recently accepted a new job as an assistant of a small department. Even though I applied for the top position, not the assistant position and am well qualified for it, they chose to move up an internal candidate and give me that candidate’s position. After working there for a few months, it is clear that my knowledge base is much wider than the other few in the department and I even have the credentials, work experience, and performance so far to clearly back it up. It is because of this that I feel that one of my coworkers (the one who was bumped up which opened my position) is threatened by me to some extent.

Now for the issue. Quite often, this specific coworker will repeat things that I have said to him, others, or in general and stretch them to make me look quite bad. For instance, this coworker and I are sitting in the office and another employee (call him Fred) walks in. Fred and I begin laughing with each other and even include said coworker in the conversation. When Fred is finished visiting and heading back to his office he says something to the effect of, “Well, I’m out of here; you guys smell funny!” My response may be, “Fine, I don’t really like you anyway!”

Now any and every mature adult has joking conversations like this and can understand that it is simply meant for humor. Said coworker however will repeat later to my boss, administration, or another random employee that “he told Fred that he doesn’t like him”, leaving out the premise of the conversation or the fact that it was humor between two friends. Needless to say, this makes me look extremely bad. And what really bothers me is, if he does this in my presence, what kinds of things is he saying while I’m not there?

What are my options? I am not looking to get him in trouble, and I have told him to stop repeating things and, even that if I felt that someone needed to know something I said, I would tell them myself. Said coworker however, seems to remain clueless that I was serious no matter how I express my dislike for his actions. Furthermore, I cannot remain silent while in his presence because 90% of my job is customer service.

Signed, Said Too Much

Dear Said Too Much:

Let’s suppose the coworker you refer to as “said person” is named Jack. You have informed Jack to not communicate information about you. Right? Yet you doubt that he understands that you mean what you say. Also you are stressed that he might misstate or misinterpret something that he has observed about you to others when you are present. If I understand correctly, you describe the context for Jack’s talking too much as a recent appointment to assistant to a small department and that coworker-Jack feels threatened by your competence.

In short you worry that Jack’s mouth has and will open to put you in a bad light. Consequently, you want to prevent any more of that. Is there a sure fix? Probably not. You’ve made a start. So toughen up and accept the fact that Jack might once again say too much. If he does that again in your presence, you can speak up for yourself, saying, “Jack, what really was said is ” _____.”

Next, you might request a time-out session with Jack to collaboratively talk about talk. That talk about talk should spell out do and don’t rules; rules about customer service conversation, rules about what is said in the presence of customers, rules about gossip, rules about assignments, rules about argument, rules about complaints, and possibly most importantly a rule about meeting to review the rules from time to time.

Realize that people fill time with talk as a way of saying they are in the know or simply that they want to be included. As you suggest in providing context for Jack’s inappropriate and possibly intentional badmouthing of you, his purpose might be seeking one-upmanship.

The three tensions ever-present beneath the surface in any working small department are: inclusion, power and liking. Focus on what’s on the surface; the jobs that require cooperation; is what you are paid to do and subsurface motivations only need to be surfaced if they distract from what doing quality work. Therefore, Jack-kind of problems, most likely will be annoying but not significant, when and if you can engage your small department in ways it can work as a team to deliver more effectively and efficiently high quality performance. Skull sessions and huddles should make task-talk important and good humor talk understood as lubricant that makes working together fun. Does this make sense? The principle here is that talk about talk is good. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, my signature sentence, suggests that talk about talk; what, when, and how; is an on-going conversation.

William Gorden