Office Aide Q & A: Cubism, Grouchiness, Public Humiliation, and More!
Question from Learning to Be a Low Talker: My cube problem is not that it's too loud in the halls, but that it's not loud enough. It's like a library in here and I sometimes don't feel comfortable making phone calls for work or when my fiancée calls because of how quiet it is and feeling like I'm talking to loud. So I find myself whispering into the phone to where the person on the other end of the phone keeps asking me to speak up. I feel like an idiot.
–Learning to Be a Low Talker
Dear Low Talker:What? I couldn’t hear you over the typing of my keys….note to self….type more softly.
I feel your pain. Super quiet offices give me the creeps—it reminds me of working in a morgue. Personally, I enjoy a high energy and robust workplace. Then again, I tend to be a loud person. (I was even once shushed at a dinner party.) If you enjoy your job, then there is nothing to really do but accept the quiet culture. I wouldn’t whisper on the phone—except when you are making personal phone calls, because, lets face it, technically, you shouldn’t be making personal phone calls at work—I would try to use a normal tone of voice when making legit business calls. Who knows, maybe others are just waiting for someone else in the office to make some noise so they can call their fiancées.
However, if you find the silence is crushing your spirit then it wouldn’t hurt to find a new job in a more sound friendly organization. Cause your odds of single-handedly changing the culture are pretty slim.
On The-Not-Much-You-Can-Do-About-It-But-Suck-It-Up Meter: 9.
Question from a New Cubist: Need some "cube" survival tips. Due to an internal re-org and floor move, I now find myself in a cube after two years in a private office. And I am having a hard time getting used to the noise -- can hear everything my cube mates do -- and activity. My work requires the ability to concentrate and create products that are not conducive to interruptions. Help!
–New to the Cube Life
Dear New Cubist: Here’s what you do: suck it up. At least for now. You could try using white noise machines, earphones, etc. to block out the noise—but doing so might send a message that you are a weenie who is unable to roll with the punches. If your company has gone through a reorganization, then there are probably larger issues facing your leadership than your preference for a private office. Ride out this storm with as much grace and forced resiliency as you can muster. (After all, some of that noise might be the snickering of your colleagues watching you flounder about in the lowly cube farm.)
My guess is you will get used to the noise pretty quickly once you stop resisting it and stop mourning your private office. As far as interruptions go, learn to be tactful when people interrupt you. If after a month or so your work really does suffer—then go to your boss to discuss. But be sure to come with some solutions. You might consider pitching a telework schedule or some other creative solution. But above all, use this opportunity to truly appreciate how the other half works—you might absorb some valuable information that helps you get back to the elite side of life.
On The-Not-Much-You-Can-Do-About-It-But-Suck-It-Up Meter: 6
Question from Grouchy in Sunny CA: I'd like some advice on how to deal with a co-worker who is frequently grouchy.
We are part of a project team, and we report directly to the company president. We are of equal rank, though from different fields, and must peer-review all our work. This woman is superb at what she does and very hard-working -- but a lot of the time she is either snappish or withdrawn. She never actually comes out and says, "You're stupid" or "I'm smarter than you," but her irritation seems evident from her body language -- scowling, hunching her shoulders, rolling her eyes, sighing loudly, or having an edge to her voice.
Nearly everyone she's worked with has felt her wrath and condescension –even the executives. I'd like to know whether I should call her on her brusque manner -- e.g. "when you speak to me that way I feel reprimanded" -- or just let it go, since tone of voice is notoriously difficult to pin down.
–Grouchy in Sunny CA
Dear Grouchy in Sunny CA: Really? Tone of voice is notoriously difficult to pin down? In what universe is snappy rudeness difficult to identify? Can you tell what tone of voice I’m using now—even though you can’t even really “hear” me????
Clearly you are dealing with someone who is either very un-self aware, very unhappy, very emotionally unintelligent, socially inept or just plain mean. And lucky for you, handling this situation doesn’t require you to turn your office into a therapy center. It just requires you to choose an intervention strategy that works for you.
Strategy One: Suck-It-Up. Clearly one option is to just let it roll off your back. This is a fine option and probably the most diplomatic one. It would make you a really big and gracious person. But it ain’t much fun is it?
Degree of Difficulty: 7
Degree of Fun: 0
Strategy Two: Feedback. As you rightly suggested, is the standard feedback protocol of saying “when you…I feel…” The problem with that protocol is that, well, it doesn’t really work all that great. (And finding the exact right language to use can be extremely difficult) I know, I know, we organizational consultants teach this protocol all the time but quite honestly, I don’t love it. And lets be real—she has probably heard it before and has either disregarded it or is unable to self reflect on her emotional intelligence. (Which is really what we are talking about here, aren’t we?) On the other hand, should she ever open the door for feedback—be sure to walk right through. Tell her how you experience her without judgment.
Degree of Difficulty:8
Degree of Fun:1
Strategy Three: Immediate Intervention. Instead, lets try what I like to call the Immediate Intervention Approach. (Or in layman’s terms: calling people on their crap.) When she snaps or is grouchy—call her on it right then and there. But here is the trick—do it only with questions. And you must use a concerned and truly empathetic tone of voice. Here are some examples:
“Wow, you sound really angry, is something wrong?”
"Are you frustrated with our process? Your tone of voice seems very agitated. Is there something you need from me?
“Oh, it looks like from the vein popping out on your neck that you might have a different opinion—I’d love to hear it. “
“I’m sensing from your tone of voice/furrowed eyebrow/flames coming from your mouth that you don’t approve. What do you think needs to happen?
“What’s with the snappiness? Is there something you are trying to tell me?”
Okay, so some of these are a little smart-alecky--but you get the idea. The Key to this intervention is sincerity and non-judgment. You have to be truly curious as to why she is snapping at you. You have to be able to pause the action to call attention to what you are seeing and hearing. Calling people out gently but firmly—right in the moment—helps them immediately see how their behavior is being experienced. It might also open the door for a feedback conversation down the line. After she hears you inquire on her behavior numerous times, she will probably pull you aside and ask why you keep thinking she is so angry. That is when she will be most open to feedback. That is when you get to say, “When you….I feel…”
Degree of Difficulty: 4
Degree of Fun: 8
Question from Humiliated at Work: My supervisor found a small error on a report I was preparing for a client. (I used an incorrect label for a financial table). When she caught it she flipped out and claimed it was “ a huge, inexcusable mistake." I work in a cube farm, so everyone heard her yelling at me. What can I do to better this situation? I said something like "sorry" but what can I do to redeem myself. I work in the kind of environment where once someone makes a mistake, people don't want to work with you anymore. And everyone else on the floor hearing this is not helping. What can I do?
–Humiliated at Work
Dear Humiliated at Work: Which situation are you trying to better? The “huge inexcusable mistake?” The public humiliation? A boss that is prone to hyperbole and exaggeration? The culture of unrelenting perfection and condemnation for those who may be less than superhuman?
And to whom do you want to redeem yourself?
Mistakes happen. If your organization is really so harsh on those who make them—then you’re going to have to develop very thick skin and/or become very, very careful. (Personally, I’m not a big fan of the public humiliation culture—but that is a whole other issue.) If you need to redeem yourself to your boss—then own up to the mistake. Say, “Thank you for catching my mistake on the X report. I am upset that I didn’t catch it myself. I will not make that mistake again.” Your supervisor’s job is to supervise your work and manage your development. Taking ownership of your mistakes in a very straightforward manner is the best you can do. You then continue to redeem yourself by doing excellent work.
As for the rest of the cube farmers—there is not really much you can do except to continue to hold your head high, do excellent work, and don’t babble on about your mistake. Whether they admit it or not—they’ve all been there.
And by the way, are you sure this is the right organization for you?