A reader of mine sent me this email:
How do I handle it when my coworker wants me to be a sounding board for all of the office problems? This has become a terrible problem for me and has increased my anxiety at work. There are two coworkers that camp out in my office and won’t STFU about their issues with their boss. I would really love your take on this.”
Sound familiar? If you work with a group of human beings, it should, especially if you are in HR. One of the reasons I like my work is that I get to help people sort through and find solutions to their job problems. I mean, me and my best friend FaceTime each other regularly to discuss the latest Iyanla Vanzant episode and how we can incorporate “HELLoH! What is all this craziment!” or “Let’s call a thing, a thing, people!” into everyday conversation. It’s interesting, it’s entertaining, hell, it’s even a little fun.
But at some point, when a real-life issue comes across your desk at work, the “I’m not a counselor, but I play one on TV” fun is over. Self-help phrases will only get you so far. At some point, you need to take a little action, especially if a co-worker’s behavior is beginning to cause you anxiety at work.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years to help shut down a disenfranchised co-worker:
- Determine if you are an “empath.” An empath is simply someone who shows high levels of empathy. Empathy is when we reach our hearts out to others, put ourselves in their shoes, and in many ways relate to, and feel, the same feelings they do. If you are an empath, it is very easy for you to take on the problems and moods of those around you. In the case of a venting, angry co-worker, this can be bad. If you realize your office has become ground-zero for office vent sessions, self-reflect for a bit and see if your levels of empathy are high. This may help you craft solutions to remove yourself from the “office counselor” role.
- Determine if the complainers are not “empaths.” You see, non-empaths have a way of knowing exactly who the empaths are and then making a beeline to them. Those with high levels of empathy find it difficult to set boundaries, which is exactly what some chronic complainers (in some cases, manipulators) want.
- Assume good intent. Most people at work aren’t going to be the manipulators described above. The reason they keep doing annoying things is that they have no clue it is a problem! Then they are embarrassed when they find out too late that it was. Learn how to solve this in tip 4.
- Set boundaries quickly. We train people on how they can treat us. For example, let’s say you have a friend who cusses around your kids, which you’re not a fan of. You kindly ask them to chill with the cursing around your babies. The next day, however, they let the cuss words fly around your kids again. You are now faced with a choice: to ignore or not to ignore that they broke a boundary with you.
So, it’s time for me to “call a thing, a thing” (thank you Iyanla!) with you. If you choose to avoid reminding your friend of your cussing issue, likely because it is uncomfortable, you have inadvertently trained them that cussing around the kiddos is OK. And the longer you chose to ignore this the more they think it is OK, and the more frustrated you will feel. That’s a lose-lose. The better choice is to tackle the issue head-on quickly so the habit can be curbed when it is a minor annoyance and not a big ol’ problem.
- Guide them to talk to someone who can actually fix the problem. At some point ask the person venting what changes they would like to see happen. If you are not the person with the authority to make those changes, help your co-worker figure out who is. A great place to start is by identifying what this person’s best-case-scenario is and who would be the person who they should go to for help.
- Be sure you aren’t contributing to the fun that can be gossip. We’ve all done it. It feels good to get things off your chest, especially if you feel you haven’t been heard through other outlets. Again, it’s time to self-reflect. Are you a willing participant in your co-workers bitch-fest? If so, there is no better time than the present to stop.
- When you disengage, make the decision about your need to change, not your co-worker’s annoying habit. We really only have control of ourselves. In sensitive situations like these, if you have to disengage from uncomfortable vent-sessions, relate the decision to change from your point of view.
For example, try something like, “I hear what you are saying, and I can’t say I necessarily disagree with your take. Also, after some self-reflection, I am going to have to remove myself from this conversation about our boss (be specific). I’ve realized that by focusing on this negative, I am being distracted from my work and it’s making me feel exhausted. Also, continuing to vent on this isn’t solving the problem”.
If you use this approach, you aren’t blaming them, saying they are wrong or bad. You are owning your role in this and your solution. If they come to vent the next day, just remind them that for your well-being you need to focus on work, not your boss.
If you keep calm, set boundaries, and assume good intent, chances are high that even Iyanla Vanzant will be proud of your course correction.
Dawn Burke, VP of Talent Consulting at Kinetix and founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker, and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/recruiting/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, with past gigs including a foundational role as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at DawnHBurke.com and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.
Most importantly: She is addicted to TV, knows most of the lyrics to Hamilton and West Side Story, loves to cry at movies (check out Cinema Paradiso for a cry fest!), thinks wine, a wheel of Brie and Milk Duds make a well-balanced dinner, and sings in her car daily. Her husband and cat are the Yin to her Yang.