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Childish Behavior at Work

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Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband asked my help in a situation at his job and I’m turning it over to you, the experts!

Two newer coworkers have formed an alliance and seem to have bonded over nightly drinks at the local watering hole, which my husband does not participate in. One of them created a ruckus over a boxed lunch that was to be delivered to a subcontractor. He asked my husband to deliver it on his way somewhere, but the recipient declined the lunch. It was given to someone else. This coworker made assumptions that my husband didn’t try to give the lunch away and just ate it himself. He then e-mailed these assumptions to two supervisors and carbon copied my husband.

When my husband tried to work this out, the second coworker shouted at him and called him a liar and other unprintable things. He was also instructed to “stay three feet away from him at all times.” My husband strongly suspects alcohol abuse and is upset at the lack of resolution of this childish situation. He is worried about the effect that the e-mail had on his superiors and is also attempting to collaborate with these men as they do an important job.

Although this situation sounds to me like something from a playground, I realize that things like this happen regularly at jobs. I should also mention that upper management seems loathe to contend with any of this, so my husband does not have much in the way of support.

Thank you for your insight,

Bamboozled Spouse

A Dear Bamboozled,

It’s never easy to assess a complicated interaction from afar. Add to distance and time the fact that the story has now been passed on twice—first by your husband and then by you—and it only gets more difficult. This particular scenario has all of the earmarks of multiple causes. While it may be true that the two individuals in question have indeed formed an ill-intended alliance and alcoholism may be at play, I’m still left wondering what would set off such an outburst given the triviality of the originating event. I’m also interested by the statement that the bosses don’t want to get involved. Shouting and cursing usually get everyone’s attention.

I’ll start by assuming that your assessment is completely accurate and that your husband has played no role other than victim. Your husband needs to keep his distance from the two parties in question. When tempers and alcohol are involved, it’s safest to stay away if at all possible. In today’s world of violent outbursts at work, I’d be irresponsible to suggest otherwise. In addition, your husband’s boss needs to be informed in private along with the HR department. He needs to document the event as a means of protecting his reputation as well as to keep the company informed of inappropriate behavior.

Here’s my advice to your husband on reporting the behavior: When reporting the event, remain calm and stick with the facts. Your conclusions only make you look reactionary or possibly suspicious. For instance, you don’t know that the two coworkers have formed an alliance—that’s a conclusion. If you suspect that alcohol is at play, you have to report the facts—slurred speech, loss of balance, etc. When it comes to reporting the shouting match, the same is true: Don’t vilify the individual by offering hostile conclusions (“He was a maniac!”). Instead, write down the exact words as you recall them, including a description of tone and volume.

Now let me add one final piece. My experience in similar situations has taught me that in about one-half to two-thirds of cases like this, the people who end up being the targets have done things that started the ball rolling—or at least gave it momentum. While it’s true that eventually they end up being cut off socially or that people mysteriously overreact or “blow up” in their presence, when you talk to others about the situation they point to the victims and suggest that they may have initiated the problem. I’m acutely aware of the fact that sometimes we blame victims as a way of making the world seem more safe and sane for all of us and that doing so is completely unfair. This is a known psychological phenomenon and I don’t want any part of such thinking. However, I’m also aware that there are often two sides to a story.

Generally when I’m brought in to consult in similar circumstances, there are not complete victims or villains. Usually everyone involved has played a role. As the spouse, listen to your husband carefully and see if you can uncover something he may have done to cause the hostile reaction. Watch him in action in similar situations with friends or family. Is it possible that he’s unaware of something he’s doing?

For instance, I’ve watched people talk to colleagues about a problem, and when they reported the conversation to others afterward they appeared innocent. However, during the actual conversation their tone came off as patronizing or insulting. These people are terrific at having a surface appearance of innocence while simultaneously making people angry. Then they point to the anger and ask, “What’s wrong with them?” I was once asked to consult with an executive who was routinely judged as being arrogant. He knew what people thought of him but nobody ever told him what he actually did. I watched him in action until I saw him do things that appeared arrogant and then described this behavior in detail. He hadn’t intended it, so he needed an outside observer to point it out to him.

You get the idea. If the behaviors are subtle, seek them out and talk about them openly. If your husband is truly an innocent victim, treat him as such.

Thanks for submitting this question. I know I have equivocated a tad, but I’m merely trying to help you think through the event in its entirety. You husband is lucky to have a loved one who is looking out for him.

Kerry Patterson

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more