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Don’t let pouting employee hurt staff morale

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Question: “One of my employees, 'Kristen' used to confide in me frequently about her personal life, but lately she’s stopped sharing any information at all. Although she assures me that nothing is wrong, she still doesn’t talk to me. She’s also stopped chatting with her coworkers, and she doesn’t smile and laugh like she used to. My other employees told me that she got upset when she overheard someone talking about her. Now I’ve learned from human resources that Kristen has inquired about a lateral transfer to another department.  I don’t want her to leave, but I also don’t want her attitude to infect the rest of my staff. Do you have any suggestions for getting her to open up?” — Puzzled Manager

Answer:  As a manager, you first must separate what is your business from what is not. You should definitely be concerned that Kristen seems upset, but you should not pressure her to share personal information.  To find out what’s bothering her, the best approach is to demonstrate concern without being pushy or accusatory.

For example: “Kristen, you and I have always had a good relationship, and I care about how you feel at work.  I can tell something is bothering you, and that troubles me. You’re a valuable member of our department, and I want you to be happy here. What seems to be the matter?”  

Then stop talking and give Kristen time to collect her thoughts.  If she still denies that anything is wrong, you might probe a bit further: “I did hear that a colleague may have said something hurtful or inappropriate. Is that part of the problem?”

If Kristen opens up, that’s great.  But if she still prefers to keep her own counsel, there’s not much you can do. Despite your curiosity, avoid the temptation to discuss her behavior with other staff members.  Kristen may return to normal after pouting for awhile, but if she remains sulky, a transfer might actually be the best solution.

For tips on handling passive-aggressive communicators, see How to Deal with Pouters & Sulkers

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