Analyze This

One Snarls, The Other Doesn't

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

An executive at one of our key client companies frightens everyone: She seems to be in constant battles. I’ve been avoiding her. But since she awards the contract each year for the service we provide, I want to tell her about some of our new offerings–without becoming a cowering yes-person (which is apparently how others deal with her). What do you recommend? – Anonymous, Los Angeles

It’s understandable that you want to steer clear of this client out of a natural desire to protect yourself. But as you point out, it’s in your best interest to work with her.

Here’s something to think about: One of the most underutilized weapons in the arsenal against bullies is telling them the truth about the way they make you feel. This executive’s intimidating style is likely a kind of armor, a personality trait she’s developed to keep everyone at a distance, protecting her from feelings of vulnerability and intimacy.

Paradoxically, labeling that behavior as scary and admitting that you are afraid can defuse even the biggest bullies. It makes them self-conscious and (if you’re lucky) a bit apologetic–emotions that represent progress in the case of such people.

What do you think would happen if you said, “Lady Macbeth (or whatever her name is), you may not realize this, but lots of people, including me, are afraid to talk to you because you tend to jump all over an idea before hearing it out. I’ve got some new services I’d like to tell you about, but I’ve been reluctant to do so even though you’re one of our best customers”?

Hearing the truth about what her behavior evokes in you may even provide this executive with a self-revelatory moment. If not, it’s at least likely to give you a window of opportunity to convey your message until the wall goes up again.

I have a female co-worker who’s a little too friendly. Usually, I can ignore it, but the situation is starting to get uncomfortable. – Anonymous, Houston

There must be an epidemic of avoidance going on. Just as the previous questioner’s instinct was to sidestep the bullying client, you’re ignoring the seductive colleague. And that may be part of the problem: Even the language of your question – “a little too friendly” – suggests this. If your reaction to her is as vague as your description, she may think that you’re giving her a green, or at least a yellow, light. Unless you want to stay uncomfortable, you’re going to have to have a real conversation with her. Start with something like, “I could be misinterpreting things, but….” And take it from there, clearing up any ambiguity while making sure she knows you like working with her.