When a colleague drives you nuts


The following blog post is excerpted from my new book Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly.

Martin loved his new FitBit. And everyone in the office knew it. Co-workers adored Martin. He was friendly and outgoing and a dependable colleague. And in the past 12 months, Martin lost over 50 pounds and became very focused on his health. He had another 30 pounds to go to reach his goal weight and he was very motivated. The whole office was incredibly proud of him. And then he got a FitBit and began tracking his steps.

In his role as an account manager, he spent most of his workday on conference calls with clients and colleagues in other locations. Once he began  wearing his FitBit, he became  obsessed with getting as many steps in each day as he possibly could. He began taking his conference calls on his headset while walking around. If his work area had been all offices with closed doors, that might have been fine. But Martin worked in a sea of cubicles. As he walked up and down the cubicle hallways on his conference calls, he talked. Loudly. Coworkers were distracted as they tried to focus on their own work, amidst the sound of Martin’s roving voice.

While complaining to others and ruminating about the situation are tempting, neither one will change the situation for the better. In fact, both can do damage. Ruminating reinforces the frustration and anger you feel about the situation, causing you to unnecessarily relive it and reinforce it in your brain. Not helpful. Complaining to others not only marks you as a complainer, there’s also a good chance your negative comments will get back to Martin and do damage to the relationship.

What should one do, rather than ruminate or complain to others? Approach the situation head on, of course. Let’s start with how you might use the head on approach with Martin, the walking, talking FitBit fitness fanatic:

“Martin, I know your health is extremely important to you and you must be very proud of the progress you’ve made in taking better care of your body. Your FitBit is a new addition to the mix  . . . and as you take your “walk and talk” meetings, you come by my desk frequently talking rather loudly. It’s distracting to me and is interfering with my work. Can we schedule some time to talk about it and come up with another solution that works for both of us?”

What situations with colleagues drive you nuts? 

Check out my new book Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly for more case studies and specific techniques for addressing difficult situations. 

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    On a recent chilly Sunday afternoon, my eight-year-old daughter made her debut in sales.  She is selling Girl Scout cookies for the first time. On this particularly cold afternoon (it was 4 degrees above zero), she went around the neighborhood knocking on doors, while I stayed on the sidewalk pulling a sled brimming with her inventory.

    As someone who is in sales myself (all small business owners are!), I learned three important lessons about sales from her.

    1) “No” is meaningless.

    Countless times my daughter heard, “We don’t want any” or “We already bought from our granddaughter” or any number of other rejections. Those rejections didn’t mean anything to her. They didn’t discourage her or make her lose her interest in going to the next house. It was simply a “no.” Unlike many of the rest of us in sales, we quickly add all kinds of meaning to a “no” that doesn’t serve us. “I’m no good,” “Someone beat me to the sale,” “I’ll never make a sale.” None of those things crossed her mind.  She just went to the next house and knocked again.   

    2) There’s never a bad time to sell.

    It was four degrees outside. Four. And with a wind-chill that was far below that.

    She didn’t care.

    It was late on a Sunday afternoon and many people were out doing their weekend activities.

    She didn’t care.

    We got cold. Really, really cold. At one point I asked her if she was cold, thinking she would beg to go home. She looked at me and in her most snarky, eight-year-old voice, she said, “Ya think?” Ouch. She was cold. Very cold.

    She didn’t care.

    There were cookies to be sold, money to earn for her troop, and incentive prizes hanging in the balance.

    3) Knock on doors, even if the house is dark.

    As the afternoon wore on and the sun began to sink behind the treetops, my daughter continued to ring doorbells and knock on doors. She didn’t care if the house was dark, if it looked like nobody was home. She knocked anyway.  And once in a while, someone came to the door and she made a sale, even from a dark house.   How many times do the rest of us in sales assume that no one is home, or that they aren’t interested?  She made no assumptions and continued to close sales, even from dark houses.


    Our lessons in life and in business sometimes come from unusual places. Sometimes they are right under our noses.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some sales calls to make.

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    Journal page

    Every year around this time, I unplug for a few hours to take stock of my accomplishments during the past year and capture my dreams, wishes and intentions for the coming year. Based loosely on a process shared by architect Sarah Susanka, I journey through the past year, take stock of the present and throw my anchor forward and capture my desires and longings for the year ahead on paper.
    It’s a three part process so I split it up over the course of three days. A journal to use just for this process and a couple of hours a day for those three days are all you need. Consider it your strategic planning for your life for the year. Make some time for it this year and then make it an annual process.

    Step 1: The year in review

    Write down all of your accomplishments since January 1. Every single thing you created, instigated or facilitated. The wonderful dinner party you threw in February? Yep. The impromptu ski vacation you snagged for cheap in March? Got it. The promotion you got in May? Cha-ching! Teaching your niece to parasail in July? Absolutely. Managing the household, kids and finances single-handedly while your spouse was in Asia for a month in August? An exhausted yes. And the time you channeled Martha Stewart in October and cranked out terrific Halloween costumes for the kids? Without a doubt.
    We often don’t take enough time to celebrate our successes. This is your time to revel in all you created, made happen and otherwise kicked-butt at in the past year.

    Step 2: The radical present

    With all you’ve accomplished clearly visible in the rearview mirror, connect deeply with your current state. What are the concerns and interests that have the most significance for you right now? What music, art, books or movies are you moved by currently? What are you resisting or reluctant to do? Are there any things you are trying to force into existence? And what synchronicities have you noticed recently?
    Connecting deeply to our present state, or “getting current” as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way names it, prepares you for creating your wishes and dreams for the coming year, Step 3.

    Step 3: The year in advance

    What do you want in your life in the coming year? In all areas of your life – work, family, personal relationships, fun, home/environment – what do you want to have happen? Take each area individually and explore for yourself what your heart desires. From changing jobs to being more present with your children to hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with your best friend from grade school, write them all down. Explore the contours of your dreams for the coming year.
    The more you allow yourself to play in this exercise, the more you will connect with what you are yearning to make happen in your life. And when you allow yourself to think about it, you start the amazing process of bring it into being.
    The best part of this exercise comes a year from now. Once you’ve completed this process, put the journal away until next year. Then, start the process with a leisurely read of the past year’s entry. You will come away amazed and inspired by what transformed in your life in the past year.

    Do you have other end-of-year rituals? Please let me know in the comments. 

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    With September and a new school year right around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to think about habits at home.

    When you come in the door from work, what are the first few things you do?  Do you complain to your spouse about your boss?  Do put on your running shoes and get some exercise?  Or do you hug your kids or your dog?

    For the next few days, pay close attention to the predictable patterns that play out when you get home from work. Do they support you in creating a life that you love, both inside and outside of work?  Or are your “at home” habits derailing you?

    In this “back to school” season, you may find the perfect opportunity to change your habits. Even if you don’t have kids or they are done with school or not yet entered school, there is change in the air every September. Let it buoy you along as you make positive changes to your at home habits, creating a life you love to live, both at work and at home.

    What habits support you at home?

    Let me know in the comments below.

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    Habits most often come about accidentally.  We try something and it works: we get a reward. The next time that same cue triggers us, we implement the same routine and get the same reward. Rinse and repeat numerous times (some say 21 is the magic number) and a habit is born.

    But what if you recognize a habit that you have and you don’t like it. Can you change it?  Or swap it out with a different habit?

    Researchers agree that yes, we can change a habit, and they have some specific insights on how to do so.

    If you’ve read my recent blog posts, you’ll recall that a habit is includes a trigger or a cue that prompts a specific set of behaviors (a routine) and it ends in a reward. The stronger the craving for the reward, the easier the habit develops.  And the harder it is to break.

    Researchers now know that the cue triggers our brain to have a craving for the reward, and it’s not likely that the cues are going to go away. And our brain certainly doesn’t want to let go of the reward. What’s left to change? The routine, or the specific behaviors that we take when the cue shows up.

    Here’s a before and after comparison of the habit change. Let’s say the habit I’m trying to change is to stop gossiping with my coworkers.


    Cue: A natural lull in my work (a slight moment of boredom).

    Routine: Get up from desk, walk over to Roxanne’s office, get the latest gossip, go back to my desk.

    Reward: Distraction and a change of scenery to cure the boredom and reset my attention span.


    Cue: A natural lull in my work (a slight moment of boredom).

    Routine: Get up from desk, take the stairs to the main level, go out the back door, take a short walk, go back to my desk.  (Or, if it truly is social interaction I crave, go to Alex’s desk for a short visit . . . she rarely gossips and always has interesting anecdotes.)

    Reward: Distraction and a change of scenery to cure the boredom and reset my attention span.


    So while we cannot easily change the whole habit, we can systematically run different routines until we find one that gives us the same reward.

    What workplace habits would you like to change?

    Let me know in the comments below.

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    Ty was a participant in one of my leadership development classes. In our session on effective meetings, I’d shared research on how much more efficient meetings could be if people refrained from attempts to “multi-task” while in the meeting. The buzzes and beeps from our smartphones, tablets and laptops are addictive. We crave the distraction and the potential reward that comes with an exciting or important text message, social media alert or email.

    So Ty set out to curb his craving for distraction.

    It was harder than he thought.

    “I keep looking at my phone to see if there are any new messages,” Ty told me, “I have it silenced, not even on vibrate, and I am so addicted I keep looking.  I can hardly last 10 minutes!”

    I empathized. I’d been there myself a couple of years ago when I broke up with email. It is simple, but it certainly isn’t easy.

    I explained to Ty that his smartphone habit was based on the repeated and predictable pattern of Cue –> Routine –> Reward.

    The cue was his boredom.

    When his mind would drift, whether in a meeting or doing independent work at his desk, that was his cue to reach for his phone. Maybe a juicy reward (interesting message) just arrived.

    What makes the smartphone habit stick is the craving for the reward.

    We all want the kudos email from a customer, the confirmation of a new project with your best client, or a note from your sweetheart.

    But more often it is a notice that the cable bill is due, Amazon would like you to rate your recent purchase or Target alerts you to a sale curtains.

    Ty’s anticipation for a reward, in fact his craving for a reward, was what made the habit stick.

    Once he understood that the craving for the reward was driving his behavior, he understood, and he relaxed a bit. “I get a little hit of that craving when I’m just looking at my phone on my desk, trying to will myself not to look at it,” he said. “I’m going to leave it in my pocket or put it in my desk drawer when I need to concentrate so that I’m not triggering the craving just by looking at it.”

    When I last spoke with Ty, he was making good progress on delaying the reward. He’d decided that kicking the smartphone habit altogether wasn’t in the cards for him, but he could at least delay the eventual reward . . . be it a text from his sweetie or a sale on curtains.

    What strong cues draw you in?

    Share yours below and I’ll reply with some tips to curb them.

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    Cue Routine Reward

    Passed over for a promotion yet again, Sandra came to me frustrated and angry.  After we talked for a bit, I asked her how her morning at the office started each day. She explained that she came into the office each morning, head down and aiming straight for her office. She made little eye contact with others and usually had no specific interactions with people apart from the occasional “Excuse me” or “Third floor, please,” in the elevator.

    Sandra spent the first 45 minutes of her day catching up on email. With colleagues in other time zones (and local colleagues who seemed to work around the clock), email felt like the bane of Sandra’s existence. If she could at least get her inbox to a manageable size before the day of meetings and project work began, she felt a sense of accomplishment. It was good to start the day ahead of the game, she thought.

    Shortly after she started working for her current employer, Sandra felt continuously behind on her work, especially email. She resolved one day, years ago, to get caught up one morning. She came in with absolute focus, spoke to no one on the way to her desk, and churned through several hundred emails before coming up for air. When she was done, she felt a rush of accomplishment. And she began to repeat the pattern.

    What Sandra didn’t realize was that this habit of “head’s down” approach first thing in the day was impeding her relationships with her co-workers, even the ones she worked the most closely with.  In the absence of even a smile or a quick hello, people thought of Sandra as aloof and standoffish, hardly material for a promotion.

    Sandra’s pattern follows the routine researchers at MIT have discovered when it comes to habit: it starts with a cue or a trigger.  For Sandra, that was hundreds of unread and unanswered emails in her inbox. Prompted by the cue, she implemented a routine: a head’s down approach to clearing her inbox, complete with the absolute focus while walking to her desk. And finally, reward. For Sandra, the reward was the sense of accomplishment she felt heading off to her first meeting with her inbox at zero.

    Cue –> Routine –> Reward.

    Those are the makings of a habit.

    Left unchecked, our repeated behaviors develop into habits with no conscious effort on our part.

    Or habits can be deliberately designed to support who you are and what you want to create for yourself professionally.

    What do your habits say about you?

    Let me know in the comments below.

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    Ever wish you could just sit back, relax and let change wash over you? What if I told you that one of the most powerful techniques Olympic athletes, blockbuster actors and top sales performers use to seal the deal on their success was readily available for you to use, too?

    Good news!  It is.

    The secret?  The easiest way to shift your mindset is to visualize yourself having a growth mindset.  Visualization is the process of seeing in your mind’s eye the behavior you wish to have, in the moment you wish to have it.

    Sound woo-woo?  Esoteric?  Consider Michael Phelps who has earned 28 Olympic medals in swimming. His coach trained him to “watch a movie” in his mind of him winning every race. His coach told him to do the visualization (watch the movie) every night before he fell asleep and every morning upon waking. The more detailed, the better. Every stroke, every movement, in precise detail.

    How will it work for you? Imagine you’re at the start of your work day. See every challenge that comes your way as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Fill your “movie” with some of the more challenging scenes from a typical day: getting less-than-stellar feedback from your boss, learning a new software program, a difficult conversation with a colleague.  In each of the situations in your visualization, see yourself responding with a growth mindset: see yourself asking questions like, “What’s the most effective thing I can do right now? How can learn from this? And how can I improve based on what I now know?”

    Or, I’ll make it even easier for you:  Watch this guided meditation. I’ve narrated the movie for you. Review it at the start of your day, imagining your day lived through a growth mindset.

    After you’ve listened to it, share your thought in the comments below.

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    You know the difference between growth mindset and fixed mindset. You’ve been working on it. You can spot a fixed mindset a mile away.  And it bugs the heck out of you when you hear your colleague/spouse/best friend/child responding to life with a fixed mindset.

    Ever wish you could (quite literally) change their mind?

    Okay, so you can’t necessarily change their mind. But you can change their mindset.

    Here’s how:

    1) Look for an opportunity.  Find something they did well (project work, yard work, helping you with something).

    2) Show appreciation for their effort. It sounds like this: “Thank you for helping me host the client dinner/party/garage sale.  Your effort and help is noticed and appreciated.”

    Research on mindset shows that when people are praised for their effort they are subsequently more willing to take on more challenging tasks. On the other hand, those who are praised for their intelligence or their innate talent (i.e., “You’re so good at hosting client dinners/parties/garage sales.”), were less likely to perform well on more challenging tasks.  Moreover, those who were praised for their intelligence or innate talent were less likely to even want to take on more challenging tasks!

    3) Rinse and repeat. Continue to find opportunities to praise or show appreciation for a job well done.
    Show your appreciation for the effort, not the person’s intelligence or talent.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that you issue false praise or thank someone for meeting minimum expectations. Instead, look for the gems. They may be few and far between at first, but the more you cultivate them, the more they will emerge.

    The steps:

    1. Find an opportunity.
    2. Appreciate/praise the effort.
    3. Repeat.

    Give it a try and then share your results in the comments below.

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    Ever wish you could catch yourself in a moment of fixed mindset (see The Secret to Success) and do a 180-degree turn, flipping yourself into a growth mindset quickly?

    Our brains will fall back on what they know best until they are conditioned to respond differently. It is possible to retrain your brain to switch to a growth mindset. You can do so more quickly if you use a framework or pattern that you’re already familiar with. Remember the “Stop, drop and roll” technique you learned in elementary school, in case of a fire?  The process for shifting to a growth mindset I designed is built on that simple three-step process.

    1. Stop.  Monitor your thoughts (think: self-awareness) and listen for fixed-mindset thinking.  You’ll notice it because it includes absolutes like never, always, everybody and anybody.  It sounds like this: “Everybody else always loses weight/gets promoted/has a great relationship.” When you catch yourself in a fixed-mindset thought, the first thing to do is stop.

    2.  Drop.  Drop into a reflective state of mind. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself the question, “Is that thought true? 100% of the time?” Make a conscious effort to evaluate your thought pattern and ask yourself if it is the mindset that will serve you best. Hint: if it’s a fixed-mindset, it probably isn’t serving you.

    3.  Roll.  Imagine doing a somersault (or a roll in a kayak if that’s more your speed) and rolling out the other side with a different mindset. Roll yourself into a different state of mind by trying on a growth mindset thought. It might sound like this: “If I apply myself and learn some new techniques I can lose weight/get promoted/improve my relationship.”

    Everybody slips into a fixed mindset occasionally.  Even the most optimistic, growth-oriented people have moments where a fixed mindset stalls their progress.

    The next time you hear your self-talk going down a fixed mindset path, remember to stop, drop and roll.

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