Being upfront and straightforward is frowned upon in many cultures, especially when people have something unfavorable to say. There are issues that are taboo in practically every community. Forbidden topics are frequently concerning things that people believe are embarrassing or harmful. As a result, when something disturbs us about another person, giving them the truth is usually the last thing on our minds.

Undercover Operators 

In these work relationships the undercover operator has a hidden agenda that shuts down your relationship. The undercover operator may not even be aware of what’s bothering him about you, but you get hints that something is awry. 

The undercover operator may be the co-worker who is always smiling at you and telling you how much he loves working with you. Perhaps you have lunch and share ideas. But something seems wrong: You get this funny, creepy feeling that this person isn’t really your friend. 

Or, you may have a boss who is unfriendly, even though she doesn’t find fault with your work. You see her smile and chat with other employees, but never with you. You know she has something against you, but you don’t know what it is. 

This tendency toward secretiveness creates hidden agendas, where people act one way, but feel another. Undercover operators imagine that if they tell someone what’s bothering them, some kind of disaster will occur. They’ve been so indoctrinated against coming right out with things that they keep secrets as a matter of course. Their refusal to be direct creates hurt, bafflement and confusion in their subordinates and co-workers. 

If your intuition is telling you something is wrong, don’t ignore it. The only way to find out what the undercover operator is really thinking is to ask him. 

  • Suggested statement: “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m sensing that something is wrong between us. I’m willing to hear what it’s about. 

At this point the undercover operator will probably vehemently deny any hidden agenda. However, unless the undercover operator is a very good actor, he will let something slip. You will get some idea of what the problem is, even though the other person won’t admit it. 

  • Add a few possibilities: “Are you upset that I got the promotion and you didn’t?” “Do you want my job?” “Are you afraid that I’ll get to head up the new department over you?” 

When someone overacts, you know you’ve hit a nerve. 

  • Other helpful tactics: 
  • Don’t assume others view the world the way you do. 

Ask yourself: “What does this person need?” Example: credit, inclusion, friendship, etc. 

  • Try to view the situation from other perspectives. 

Ask yourself: “What could possibly bother another person here?” Don’t make it an accusation instead of a question, as in, “Nothing I’ve done could possibly bother anybody. Something is bothering the person if they’re using a hidden agenda. 

  • Ask probing questions. 

Look for telltale signs of discomfort. Signs include overreactions, embarrassment, blushing, stuttering and nervous mannerisms. 

Learning the competencies to navigate cringe moment conversations can give us confidence in navigating challenging work relationships and behaviors in the workplace. 

The Passive-Aggressive Boss 

If you’re unlucky enough to work for a passive-aggressive boss – and many of us are – the trick is to be extremely cautious. Don’t presume anything or take anything for granted. Be ultra-correct. Carefully stay within the guidelines and rules; being creative and adventurous could give her an opportunity to stab you in the back. Get everything in writing. The favorite sentence of the passive-aggressive: “I never said that.” 

If you don’t know your boss well, study her. To avoid her trigger points, do a lot of careful negotiating around anything important. Again, make no assumptions; write down what you agree on, and run that agreement by her before you leave. Example: “Just to be sure I’ve got it all straight . . .” 

What If YOU Are the Difficult Person? 

Be open to the idea that the difficult person in these work relationships may be you. You may want to change someone at work – most of us do. People aren’t going to change their basic personalities. If you want the situation to change, you’re the one who is going to have to change – by learning to work with the other person’s personality and behavioral style. 

Most people in today’s corporate world were taught by those who had come through the Industrial Age in America which emphasized a control-oriented leadership style. 

Managers could control people who worked on an assembly line by standing over them and bossing them all day. But today, nine out of ten companies are in the information and service business, rather than manufacturing. You can’t control people in the service and information business. Many times, they’re not even physically close to you; they’re at a different facility or on a different floor. Their job may be so technical you may not really understand what they’re doing. 

The key to managing today is to support rather than control employees. When you support employees, not only do you get better work and more cooperation, you also get more of their creative ideas and potential. 

A major hurdle for most managers is that they are trained to see things in terms of getting results. If the results aren’t immediately forthcoming, their attitude may be, “Get out of my way and let me do it.” Often, managers don’t get the help they want because no one has told the staff what to do and when assignments are due. It is also possible no one tried to find out what the staff needs to give their best. To make matters worse, staffers who are angry because of the way they’re treated by management may do just enough not to be fired. These executives don’t realize that the only way to get results is through people. 

Whether we are the problem, work under a passive aggressive boss, or are an undercover operator, we all need to continue to develop ourselves in order to deal effectively with work relationships. Start putting some of the tips you’ve learned in this article to use. You’ll begin the process of maturation. Stick with it, even if it makes you feel uneasy at first. It’s not simple to have “Cringe Moment Conversations,” but it’s well worth it. With practice, it will become easier. You’ll discover that you’ve been obtaining the outcomes you’ve been looking for all along.

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