Melting icy coworkers


Suppose you suspect that a manager or colleague is holding a grudge against you for no explicable reason. Perhaps this person seems to, for example, behave coldly or chronically irritated with you, avoid you and/or does not assign you desirable projects. How can you improve the relationship?

First, re-evaluate: Consider whether your manager/colleague is really snubbing you, or is indiscriminately cranky, aloof or social inept with everyone, is shy, or is coping with personal problems. Also, consider whether you may have inadvertently harmed your relationship with him by, for example, being standoffish because you’re consciously or unconsciously intimated or you’re shy.

But if your re-evaluation does confirm your suspicions about a grudge, try to improve your relationship by being friendly without mentioning your grudge suspicions: Engage him in chitchat, occasionally sincerely compliment him, or ask him to coffee or lunch.

If that approach fails, consider — if appropriate — gently and gingerly directly addressing the problem by initiating a calm, diplomatic conversation about it with your manager/colleague. Some tips:

  • If after contemplation, you’ve identified a specific way you may have alienated your manager/colleague, prepare a compelling, nonoffensive explanation and/or apology that you can, if necessary, deliver when you later meet with him.
  • Meet when he isn’t stressed or hurried. Before starting the discussion, double-check with him that it’s a good time to talk.
  • Keep the meeting cordial. Maintain eye contact and a friendly face. Stay unresentful and nonhostile.
  • Consider opening your discussion by saying, “I sense there may be some tension between us. I’d like to improve things. Can we discuss this situation so we may resolve it?” Or, “Perhaps we’ve had a misunderstanding. Is there a problem that I’m unaware of? If so, can we talk to clear it up?” Mention that by doing so, you’ll be able to work together more efficiently.
  • Your manager/colleague may ask you what you mean. Consider elaborating by saying, “I get the feeling that you don’t feel as comfortable with me as you might. Is there any truth to this? Have I inadvertently done something that bothered you?”
  • If your manager/colleague responds by accusing you of making a mistake you didn’t make, reply by calmly stating your case. Also say, “I hope that this clears the air so we can put this behind us and work together in a positive way.”
  • Alternatively, if your manager/colleague responds by citing a mistake you did make, explain that it was an inadvertent, one-off situation; apologize; offer solutions; identify extenuating circumstances; and pledge to work to regain his trust. If the cited mistake surprises you and you’re unprepared to discuss it impromptu, consider saying so and suggest discussing it later, after you’ve gathered your thoughts and reviewed your notes.
  • Don’t interrupt your manager/colleague; let him tell his side of the story before you tell yours — and, if necessary, ask for the same courtesy. Also, don’t respond to accusations with accusations.
  • If your manager/colleague denies that there is any tension between you, express relief and say that you would like to continue working together on a positive note. Also, mention that you would invite any follow-up discussions in the future.

And heed the trite but true saying, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” You are sure to improve relationships with coworkers by helping them — even if necessary tasks are menial — when they’re in a bind.

Also, you may obtain free, confidential trouble-shooting advice from a mental health professional from your agency’s Employee Assistance

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Email your career questions to and view her blog at


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