Companies & Industries

Excuse Me for Doing My Job


When you rise in an organization, the bad vibes can rise off other employees like steam in a Turkish bath. Liz Ryan tells you how to deal with it

The very first time I got promoted, the stakes weren't high. There were four customer service reps (average age: 20) in the department. Two people weren't interested in the newly created supervisor position, and my only rival for the job fell asleep at her desk on a regular basis. So I got the nod, a fifty-cent-an-hour raise, and the cold shoulder from my sleepy rival, whom I was now supervising.

My manager sent me off to a supervisory-training course where I sat like a stone, too shy to ask any questions until the very last session. I finally murmured, "How do you deal with a co-worker who's resentful because I got promoted?" The instructor didn't have an answer for that one. But it happens—all the time. If you're a person who sets career goals and achieves them, trust me, it will happen to you.

Perhaps you've already been a victim of the "how dare you!" effect. That's the iciness directed your way when you do or get something that others feel you had no right to. As wonderful as it feels to be awarded a promotion or a plum assignment, there are people who will like you a little less (or even a lot less) as a result.

Don't Feel Guilty

Any time you step out of the crowd and take on a bigger role at work, you run the risk of failing in a public way. There is another risk too, which is more immediate: Your interpersonal relationships at work might become a lot more complicated, which can make it tough for you to do your job.

For some people, the idea of being less well-liked is worse than the thought of failing. After all, we work closely with our teammates, and it's fun to be part of the group. It's easy to wonder if any promotion is worth creating ill-wishers, or at the very least, less-than-fervent-well-wishers?

My answer is: Yes, it is worth it. Think about it this way. If you work hard and support your teammates, then you can't feel guilty about getting what you want and have worked hard for. Now, if you had gotten promotions and other perks by stepping over your workmates, you'd have to live with that. But if you're in the majority of people who succeed professionally through hard work and with attention to the needs of your teammates, then you've earned whatever accolades you get.

Yes, when something good happens for you, the bad vibes can rise off the other employees like steam in a Turkish bath. The resentment is almost tangible. As the lucky/deserving honoree, you can't say to your teammates, "Get over it." What they feel is genuine, and you are the last person from whom they want any advice.

Yet it's uncomfortable to work among people whose eyes say: "If you got hit by a taxi, I wouldn't cancel my appointment at the dog groomer." At times like this, you want to say: "Excuse me for doing my job!"

More To Leadership Than Being Liked

If one of your colleagues (call him Jack) turns cool to you after you're recognized, what you should remember is that he is angry, and that if he wants to direct his anger toward anyone, it should be the boss, not you. This is about him, not you, and you can't help his feelings or be responsible for his mood. What you can do is be as warm and professional as possible.

If you're the sort who wants everyone on the team to like you, you may be uncomfortable for a while. But you may also benefit by acknowledging this truth: The higher you go in any organization, the more detractors you'll accumulate. It's just about inevitable. If you are true to yourself and speak your mind, not every person in the organization will like you. But that's not a bad thing. There's more to leadership than being universally liked.

If Jack has an issue to discuss with you, he needs to say so. It won't help your relationship with him in the long term for you to grovel and apologize for your good—and well-deserved—fortune. Now should you start a conversation with: "It seems as though you're upset with me, Jack"? We often have the idea that when someone is acting out at work that the right thing to do is to ask: "Is everything O.K.?" "Are you upset?" "Did I do something?" etc.

Avoid Being an Enabler

That's not appropriate in this case because he should communicate his issue if he wants you to address it. The nonverbal attitude is passive-aggressive behavior, and you don't want to reward that by addressing it as a two-way communication issue.

But you also want to give the person time to get over his issue, rather than slamming him for it right away. Now, if he pushes the poutiness so far that he won't answer your questions or won't participate in a group meeting, then you respond to that visible problem. If you acknowledge the sulkiness in itself, you're enabling and even rewarding an inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.

Of course, you shouldn't gloat, but neither should you adopt an air of bewilderment or false humility about your promotion. That reads as phony, and you won't garner any respect for that. You wanted the promotion, you worked for it, and you got it. You'll do a great job.

There's a downside to everything in life, and the downside to rising in the organization is that certain insecure people will hate your guts. The good news is that, over time, you stop worrying about who likes you and who doesn't because you've got other things to worry about.

If Resentful Jack is now under your leadership, I'd give him a few weeks to cool off, after which it's business as usual in your new organization. Sucking up the occasional disappointment is a prerequisite for business advancement, and true leaders revel in other people's successes, they don't begrudge them. There might be a leadership lesson for you to share with Jack when the timing is better.

No one ever said climbing the ladder was easy or always fun. Sure, the rewards are greater, but so are the challenges and responsibilities. Dealing with pouty co-workers shouldn't have to be one of them.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at www.businessweek.com/managing/. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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