“I’m just joking around”

Question: In my job I feel like there’s a culture of gossip, disrespect, and put-downs. Sometimes it’s played off as “just a joke,” but to me it’s not very funny. I don’t want to be the boring, super-serious co-worker, but I don’t want to put up with unfunny put-downs either. What do I do? Thanks, Jackie.

Answer: Firstly, if you refrain from gossip and from making jokes at the expense of others, you’re no longer contributing to that issue. As for respect, it is possible, though perhaps scary, to meet others with honesty, transparency, and with respect, even if their actions strike you as “disrespectful.” In other words you don’t have to wait for the other person to lead with respect, you can take a leadership role and go first, without getting caught up on whether they “deserve” your respect or not.

For example:

Your co-worker: “Jackie’s going to be the weakest link on this project…”

You: “I’m starting to get the feeling that you have very little respect for me and my work. If that’s true I’d love to find out from you what it would take for us start building a respectful working relationship. Is that something you would be wiling to discuss?”

Your co-worker: “Don’t be so serious, I’m just joking around.”

You: “I’ve heard you say that before, and yet when I hear you say “Jackie’s being the weakest link again” I can’t shake the feeling that you have a genuine grievance. So I’d like to check now, is there anything at all about the way I work that you don’t like?”

This is an invitation to the other person to step into a position of greater integrity, which they will probably actually prefer, even though it may be scary for them to do it. Of course, you’re inviting criticism, but guess what, if the criticism is already there it’s better to get it out in the open so you can do something about it.

You probably won’t fix a situation like this in three quick exchanges, it will take persistence, so here are a few more ideas…

Your co-worker: “No, like I said, I’m just kidding around.”

You: “OK. Well if anything about how I work starts to bother you would you be willing to let me know immediately.”

Your co-worker: “Er…..sure.”

or you could try….

You: “I’m still finding it hard to believe that there’s nothing I do that bothers you, when I think about the comments you’ve made. It would help me to shake that idea if you could tell me about something I’ve done that was of benefit to you.”

This is not fishing for compliments. You’re actually continuing to do a reality check, treating the other person with respect, and seeking a deeper understanding about your working relationship with them.

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