update: my coworker misinterprets all my facial expressions

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker misinterpreted all of their facial expressions? Here’s the update.

I took your advice and the advice of others, and basically looked at the issue from a different perspective. When I wrote to you, I was feeling a little burned out and, frankly, a little depressed because this wasn’t a coworker; I’m the manager and this is one of my team members. (I didn’t want to admit that when I wrote to you — I’ve been a manager for years and this one person was unlike anyone I had worked with previously.) But I had only been with the organization about a year at that point and was struggling with this one person. With a small team, it was getting difficult to bring the whole team together and feel like I wasn’t always on the outs with this one person (who shares her negativity about many things with the people around her).

I needed the advice because I just got too far into my own head on this and couldn’t get past thinking I could somehow fix things if I could fix myself. When I read your response, I got some much-needed perspective! I realized that it wasn’t really about what I was doing because it’s really about this person and how she perceives things. She had previously told me that she had past trauma from family situations, so I believe this impacts how she moves through the world (and this was suggested by one of the commenters). Things did come to a head at one point and I went to my boss and said I wanted a meeting with him, the staff member, myself, and our HR rep. The staff member then didn’t want that — they said they “weren’t ready,” but I pushed on it because I wanted to get to the bottom of things. That conversation actually really helped because it not only brought some of this out into the open, but with HR sitting there, it was easy to see that this one staff member was making a lot of perceptions and assumptions that didn’t match reality. In fact, at one point, the HR rep told the staff member flat out that her perception didn’t seem to match the reality of any of the situations she brought up. And I was able to state that “my face is just my face,” in front of other people to back me up.

Has this staff member gotten better? Yes, for a while and it seemed like we were on a pretty positive trajectory. However, she is very passive-aggressive and seems to have a general negativity about a lot of stuff (not me specifically — work in general). I anticipate that at some point, things may come to a head again with her. But, I have a running list of documentation so if there needs to be another meeting with HR, it will likely go the same way the previous one did. It’s not up to me to completely change myself. I know I’m a good manager and I can do my best to work with her, but her own happiness is up to her.

The one thing that really changed my perspective on a lot of things was that I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago. I’ve been getting treatment (caught it early and small, so surgery and radiation — which I’ll be finished with soon). But actually, that completely changed my way of thinking about life in general. I have let go of self-examining myself so much, have stopped letting this person take up so much time/space in my head, and have gotten much better about work-life balance. I have mentioned to a family member that cancer was the big “smack upside the head” to get me to realize how good my life is — and this has made it easy to let go of a lot of things that used to bother me. Including this staff member. I can’t change her, but I can change how I react to her and how much I let her bother me. As a good friend at work told me, “Sometimes, you need to just tie whatever it is to a balloon and let it go.” Yes, there are times when “Let it Go” from Frozen goes through my head … I do that a lot now and I’m happier for it.

Again, I really appreciate your advice and the advice from other readers. I had gotten way too far into my head on this and couldn’t get any perspective. Looking back, I was being really hard on myself and thinking I was the problem and if I just tried hard enough, I’d win this person over. But the reality is: I’m fine as I am and other people I work with think I’m just fine, and that made it easier to let a lot of this go with the one person who seemed determined to be unhappy.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Too Many Birds*

    Well done, LW! And all best wishes to you with your treatment. Wishing you continued peace and healing!

  2. BellStell*

    Sending you good vibes for healing from the breast cancer, OP, and in general for an improved new year in 2024 on the work front.

  3. Managercanuck*

    “Sometimes, you need to just tie whatever it is to a balloon and let it go.”

    I love this expression so much.

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      My dad and I still quote to each other, from the tv show, Dharma and Greg, “put it in a bubble and blow it away.”

  4. Observer*

    But the reality is: I’m fine as I am and other people I work with think I’m just fine, and that made it easier to let a lot of this go with the one person who seemed determined to be unhappy.

    This is one of the most satisfying updates. No fireworks, but a really, really key change for the better.

    I feel bad for this person, but I am so glad that you’re no longer making yourself miserable over her, and that you’re not letting her make you miserable. Also, I’m glad to hear that your HR backed you up.

    1. ferrina*

      Yes! I’m so happy for LW! It’s impressive (in an unfortunate way) how one person can so thoroughly change your impression of yourself. I’m so glad LW was able to get that validation, and that HR was there to confirm that the staff member was attributing things that weren’t there.

  5. Mmm.*

    I read the original one, too, and I can’t imagine trying to stop talking with my hands!

    I have a lot of trauma (even diagnosrd PTSD!) that makes it easy for me to misinterpret facial expressions negatively. I can’t imagine ever doing with this employee did, though. I step back, examine the situation, and see if my gut seems correct or not. I’m glad you’re documenting. Someone who makes these kinds of leaps out loud and is passive aggressive is not someone I’d want to work with.

  6. ariel*

    Struggling with a coworker issue that is a bit like this – your perspective came at a very useful time for me, OP, so thank you! Best of luck with your cancer treatment, may your recovery be swift and smooth.

  7. MusicWithRocksIn*

    That person sounds exhausting to work with, people who can take offense at every little thing are so draining. I hope the OP checked with other people she works with closely to make sure she isn’t making her coworkers tip toe around her all the time.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      We had one of these in the first and second quarters this year. They were just so, so draining to try and work with. They went off on leave for a surgery – and never came back. They have a new job now, and I hope they are happier there than they were with us. I just can’t imagine the energy they were expending being angry about everything.

  8. Pita Chips*

    Best wishes for smooth treatment and recovery. Please don’t push yourself too hard as you improve.

  9. BellStell*

    A comment about facial expressions can be so hurtful when they make a mountain out of their interpretation based on their own issues. Perhaps I am just thinking? Perhaps if the missing stair would do his work maybe I would smile more? Perhaps my medical issues are causing me a bit of pain and I have to be in the office? Maybe if you managed the team, did not flit all over the world and never follow up on anything maybe I would be happier too? Am glad things are better and am glad OP you are documenting it all. This is key.

    1. M2RB*

      Perhaps my medical issues are causing me a bit of pain and I have to be in the office?

      This is me all over. I scowl or squint when I concentrate, and I’m often in pain (chronic nerve pain). I’ve had to tell people when I start new jobs, “This is just my concentration face, you can disregard! How can I help you?” when I see they want to ask a question but seem hesitant because said concentration face. Once I’ve been at a job for a while and have a better understanding of the environment, I’ll start filling people in about chronic pain condition and if I don’t seem like my normal self, that’s probably it, just ignore my demeanor and carry on like normal. With women my age and younger, depending on the work relationship, I will straight up tell them that I just have RBF and am actually in a fine mood, it’s just my face.

  10. Coverage Associate*

    I see the original comments mentioned childhood trauma. My experience with my spouse and my in-laws, backed up by some research, is there’s cultural variation too. In particular, in free societies, “a smile means friendship to everyone.” But in the Soviet Union, things got twisted so that smiles came to mean someone pretending friendship.

    My spouse is a Soviet refugee, and I had to teach him to smile on purpose in the way that Americans do when, eg, meeting someone new or entering a party. I see a lot of photos out of Ukraine where it would be a smiley situation in the West (leaving the hospital, thanks for expensive equipment, etc) and half the people smile and half don’t. And I have read about surveys to back up my observations.

    1. Endangered Gummies*

      Very interesting, Coverage Associate! Thanks for sharing.
      Cultural differences are just fascinating. I’ll admit having been thrown off balance the times people didn’t smile back at me. It left me wondering for the rest of the night/week/year what I’d done wrong, so I’ll keep this in mind for the future.

    2. bamcheeks*

      There was a really good article a while back about how AI was giving everyone big, modern-day-American, perfect-dentistry smiles in cultural and historical contexts where that’s truly bizarre. So fascinating!

    3. allathian*

      I’m in Finland, and granted that our experience of being a part of the Russian empire was from before the Soviet era (we won our independence in 1917 when the Russian military was busy dealing with the revolution at home), a similar attitude exists here, although it’s less intense. People tend to smile a bit when they meet, but big smiles showing your teeth are less typical here than in the US. The cultural stereotype is that Americans are insincere because they smile so much. I know that’s not true, but the thanks to that stereotype, Americans who come here to work often learn that they have to (or as women are allowed to) smile less to be taken seriously. There’s also a notable difference between seasons, in summer most people are much more open and willing to smile, even at strangers, but in winter Jason Bourne could pass unremarked on the street (Matt Damon has some Finnish ancestry, and he’s never looked more Finnish than in his role as Jason Bourne).

    4. Beacon of Nope*

      Raises an interesting question – how would a smile have been received before the Soviet Union?

  11. AK*

    “I know I’m a good manager and I can do my best to work with her, but her own happiness is up to her.”

    Yes!!!! Trust yourself and trust that the rest of your team sees this for what it is.Being a manager can be isolating. And weird. And hard. I used to manage a team of 10 and “Sally” was very similar to this person you’re describing. She was very draining to manage and really deflated our team meetings. I asked the rest of my team members for feedback in 1:1s about how I could improve our meetings and how I was coming across. One of them told me, “I’m just going to come out and say it. You have the patience of a saint and we all have no idea what Sally’s deal is but it’s clearly about her and not you or the rest of the team.” And then we shifted to some constructive feedback that made our team meetings more effective which caused others to be more engaged so there was less room for Sally’s negativity.

    Be kind to yourself and remember that managers are people too!

  12. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

    OP, I alsogot a cancer diagnosis and had a huge wakeup call to no longer sweat the small stuff. Luckily I am going on 2 years NED (No Evidence of Disease), but that lesson has really stuck with me, and it’s ironically improved my life greatly.

  13. Ms. Murchison*

    The extra information about their roles is interesting. As I re-read the original email, I wondered how using Alison’s example language would go down if the LW had been a subordinate of the person criticizing their face. If I said that to my ex-boss who always misunderstood my facial expressions, she would have accused me of insubordination.

    1. annonie*

      Well yeah, language for your manager is frequently different than language for your peer. The original letter said they were coworkers.

  14. JaneDough(not)*

    LW, I’m urging you to rethink this: “the one person who seemed determined to be unhappy.”

    I’ve encountered some unhappy people in my long-ish life, and not one of them was “determined to be unhappy.” Rather, they were so misshapen from family-of-origin dysfunction that there was a limit to how much they could improve (via therapy + myriad types of self-help). You sound like a compassionate person, and I’m encouraging you to rethink how you view those who are struggling.

    Also, I want to check on “I’m fine as I am”: In this case it sounds pretty clear that the problem arose from the employee’s misperception — but please don’t assume that a future employee who isn’t a good match is solely responsible for the mismatch. Yes, employees need to make an effort to fit in with the culture of the team and the co. — and, good bosses understand that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t useful.

    Best wishes for continued management success and good health.

    1. MassChick*

      This comment seems unnecessarily pedantic and finger-wagging towards the OP.
      The LW probably used the phrase as a shorthand for “not my problem anymore”. And given all their efforts to address the issue and their subsequent medical diagnosis, I would not “rethink” if I were them.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, I agree. Regardless of the reason for the employee’s unhappiness, the LW isn’t responsible for it. Feedback from other reports, peers, and management seems to make it pretty clear that in this case, the LW isn’t to blame, even partially, for the employee’s problems.

        The takeaway from here may be that if an employee seems unhappy, it may be worth talking with others before deciding that it’s your fault.

    2. Emmy Noether*

      I’ve met this kind of person. It doesn’t mean they’re doing it consciously or on purpose. I’m sure they’d rather be happy in the abstract, but some people do seek unhappiness in a way (often due to family of origin stuff, as you say). It’s what they’re used to, they don’t feel safe being happy and enthousiastic, etc. It’s similar to seeking unavailable people for relationships and other self-destructive behaviors. They’re not always self-aware enough to try to improve. It’s a sad situation, but it’s not possible as a coworker or even manager to save them from themselves.

    3. Username Lost to Time*

      Hopping on to say that being less negative is a learnable, teachable skill. From the context, LW is likely using “determined to be unhappy” as a catchall for the persistent negative comments, passive-aggressive behaviors, and negative interpretations of workplace events.

      The path that worked best for me was realizing that there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with me and that there are ways I can take ownership/have autonomy regarding getting my needs met in a bumpy and unpredictable world. Being hypervigilant of what other people are doing and what they think about me will not make the world smooth and problem-free.

    4. Critical Rolls*

      LW has been thoughtful and aware through this whole process, to the point where she gave this person’s unfounded negative reactions far too much weight. She does not need to be scolded to do the things she is already doing.

  15. Sara without an H*

    Hi, LW — I’m a breast cancer survivor (5+ years out with No Evidence of Disease). You’re right, a cancer diagnosis really changes your perspective. Please accept my sincere good wishes for your recovery. Jedi hugs, and here’s to a happier future.

  16. Emi*

    I think the fact that OP is a manager, not a colleague, is a key pretty big deal here. As a colleague, if I think a coworker is “sneering” at me, whatever. But if I think my boss is sneering at me and doesn’t like me, you better believe I’m going to be reading into every facial expression to see if I might be getting canned next week. I feel like this detail was left out in order to get sympathetic responses, when, in fact, the added power dynamic changes things pretty significantly and I don’t blame the subordinate for being paranoid.

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