How to approach a surly colleague

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Q: I work in a great company.  Most of my co-workers are smart, approachable and just really good people.  We have one long-term employee though who I think is a problem.  I don’t want to be a complainer but honestly everyone avoids him.  He is terse, grumpy but he is also smart and experienced.  I am not sure I want to take on the responsibility of approaching him but he does seem to respect my work and sometimes even compliments me.  Any thoughts on how to approach him and give him some honest feedback?  I am afraid to introduce him to new employees because he is SO negative. 

A: I think we have all worked with this temperament before.  You are exactly right.  Colleagues begin to avoid those with difficult or negative work styles.  I admire you for being able to see the good in him.  Since he has shared compliments with you and seems to respect your work, you might be in a good position to approach him which will hopefully yield a behavior change.

I consulted Nancy Capistran, CEO and Executive Coach at Capistran Leadership and author of Open Your Eyes and LEAD.  Capistran offers this advice: “Mr. Grumpy may not realize how he is being perceived. Often times those that ‘show up’ as disgruntled do not comprehend the negative impact they have on others or the ripple effect of toxicity that they spread to everyone around them. Since he does seem to respect you, you may have the magic to have a professional heart-to-heart conversation with him. Preparation is key with these types of conversations.  Having the courage to script and deliver the best words to meet him where he is, could be a value-add to all those that are feeling the reverberation of his testy habits.  Often times people don’t realize the error of their ways.  Once there is awareness, he has a choice of how he wants to show up going forward.  If he chooses to adjust his words and actions – that’s great.  Genuine kind words can often cut through challenges especially when they are combined with an expanded awareness of the issues.”

I would suggest approaching him in a private space, maybe an office or conference room.  Share that he has tremendous valuable experience.  However, there are some days that you feel reluctant approaching him, because you’re unsure how he will respond.  If you can provide a concrete example, that can be helpful.  As an example: “John, remember a few weeks ago I introduced you to Tamara, one of our new employees?  You were a bit gruff and you didn’t leave a great first impression.  Often, I am uneasy about introducing you to others. At times I find myself feeling unsettled interacting with you.”  If John is smart, he will hopefully become more aware of how his actions impact his work relationships.  In these types of conversations how and when you approach John is as important as what you say to him.  John should be grateful to you, for your willingness to share this feedback with him.

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