Oops!: When You Insult Your Coworker

When you insult your coworkerYou know how it can feel OK for you to complain about your brother or sister or cousin or friend or whomever, but you get upset and protective if you hear anyone else do it. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it is certainly a thing! There is an unspoken feeling of having earned the right to be critical by how close you are to the person or situation you are complaining about.

The same is true at work. Beware of falling into a trap where you try to join in a gripe-fest, but manage to upset the people griping.

One of my previous jobs required me to track and document publications and other items gathered from hundreds of different places. It was an attempt at a “library of best practices” from different sources. I was astonished at the low-tech approach for tracking and managing these items. One of my coworkers kept referring to a database they used to track the items. However, when she showed me the database I was stunned since it was actually an Excel spreadsheet. While I could do many cool things with the spreadsheet – I couldn’t quickly do the more advanced things that I would expect to do with a database.

I was new in the position, and trying to get a handle on how I would move forward with this project. My coworker, who was handing off this task to me, kept complaining about what a mess it was. She rattled off a list of complaints and I quickly absorbed her frustration. How could I improve the situation?

Without thinking it through, I joined in the complaining. Then I said the fatal words…”It’s not even a database! It’s a spreadsheet.” Her whole tone changed, and she went off on how the spreadsheet IS a database and how much it helps. Turns out she is the one who created the spreadsheet in the first place. Oops! You’d have thought I insulted her child. In a sense, I did.

It took me a long time to recover from that misstep. She didn’t trust me and felt that I was judging her work.

Beware of criticizing work tools or projects, particularly when you don’t know the whole history. You can suggest ways to improve them or ask about different approaches, but do this carefully and positively! There is a difference between saying “This spreadsheet stinks.” and “It would be awesome if we could do advanced searching and reporting. Can I investigate ways that we could do that?”

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