transcript of “What’s Wrong with Being Chilly at Work?”

This is a transcript of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “What’s Wrong with Being Chilly at Work?

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question is from someone who’s wondering – what’s so wrong with being chilly with people at work?

Caller 1: I’ve been reading your blog and listening to your podcast for a while. There are a number of times you describe certain things as coming off as “chilly” in some of your answers. It clicked for me while reading your response to the letter writer who didn’t want to interact with small children brought into their office, since I’ve experienced the same thing in my office. I completely ignore it any time someone brings in their small children or grandchildren for a visit (fortunately I’ve never been pushed to interact with them).

It made me realize I have a chilly personality in general. I generally don’t talk about anything not related to work, and return the topic to work as quickly as possible when asked about something not work related. I don’t go out of my way to greet coworkers (I’ll return “good morning”, but find it a pointless ritual – “Why yes, it is in fact morning, how very observant you are,” is what I think every time it happens). I opt out of most social events. I often wear over the ear headphones while I work (they’re not noise cancelling, but I’ve let people believe that they are). The only coworkers I’d say I have warm relationships are those I work closely with, or have in the past.

My question is what, if anything, is wrong with being chilly? It seems like a good, efficient way to get along. My experience is necessary interactions occur, but those coworkers whose work doesn’t affect mine are unlikely to bother me with pointless BS. The way I see it is that I come to work to do work, not to socialize. I can fake it in social situations, but it takes time and energy I’d rather put towards getting work done.

Some background information in case it’s relevant: I’m a man in my very late 20s (I turn 30 in a few months). This job is my first professional job, and I’ve been here for about four and a half years. The field is accounting, for a large corporation, in a major metropolitan city in the Midwest. I do my job well, and I’ve always gotten good feedback on my work. I’m definitely more analytical than a people person (surprised?), and tend to be introverted.

Alison: I love this question! It’s super logical. What is wrong with being chilly? I totally see how it seems more efficient to you – you’re there to focus on your work, you don’t want to be distracted by chit chat, and what’s wrong with that?

You can live your work life the way you described. But there are downsides to doing it, and I would just want you to be aware of what the downsides are, so that if you choose to stay chilly, you’re making a deliberate decision with full awareness of the trade-offs.

The biggest thing is that when you do have warm, friendly relationships with your colleagues, your life at work is often much easier, in a ton of different ways. For example, when you need a work favor from someone, you’re more likely to get it if you have a good relationship with them. I’m not talking about just asking someone to do their job because anyone reasonably conscientious will of course do that. I’m talking about the kind of thing where you need someone to really help you out and do you a favor, something that they’re not obligated to do. Like, let’s say that you or a client messed something up and you need help at the end of the day when everyone’s leaving. The person who can help you is a lot more likely to delay their dinner plans and stay late to help you if you have made the effort to build a warm, friendly relationship. Or to say, “yeah, we normally need 3 days lead time on this, but let me push yours through faster since I know you really need it.” Or all sort of other favors – stuff that is going above and beyond what they have to do, just because you’ve been a nice person to them.

Another way it can make your life easier is that you’re more likely to hear information that isn’t public yet but could affect you in a way that you would want to know about, because people have informal channels of trading information, and they don’t tend to do it with people they don’t know well. When you have relationships with the people you work with, you’re more likely to hear things – everything from “hey, that job that you’re interested in is about to open up and they’re only going to interview internal candidates so speak up; if you’re interested, you should let them know” or “they’re cutting the reserved parking in half next year so you should buy an annual pass now if you want to make sure that you keep a spot.” Or even just stuff like “Bob used to work with the new manager who’s coming in and he said it helps to do X, Y, and Z to get off on the right foot with her.” There’s all kinds of not-quite-official information that gets passed around, and you will generally get left out of that if you’re not building relationships with people.

It can also benefit you in more formal ways, because when people know and like you, you’re more likely to come to mind when they’re thinking of someone to lead a project, or for a bunch of other potential professional opportunities. And it’s not that they’d never think of you without that relationship, just based on your skills, but when they’ve had a chance to get to know you, they’re more likely to have a wider feel for the kinds of things that you’d be interested in and good at, and what you might bring to a given assignment, which is always more than just your resume but if you don’t have a relationship with them, they might just know you as basically your resume.

And another way that relationships pay off are your network. When you’re looking for a job in the future, it really helps to have people who like you and are motivated to help you and give you job leads or references or suggest useful people to talk to or vouch for you to someone they know who has an opening. And again, it’s not that they’d never do that for you without the relationship, but you’re going to get way more of it when the relationship is there.

Now, those are all pretty self-interested reasons. And there’s nothing wrong with self-interest. But there’s also the fact that when you get to know people you work with, you’re in a better position to help them too. You might be able to connect them with the perfect job lead one day, or help them out when they really need last-minute help but won’t bother you if they don’t know you well enough to ask you to stay late to help them fix something. So it positions you to be a better colleague in a lot of ways. And frankly, it can also just make work more emotionally fulfilling. Not that you need to populate your office with a bunch of best friends, because you don’t, and there can be real downsides to doing that. So I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m talking about – I’m not talking about coming in and having an hour of deep conversation with people every day, or sharing intimate details of your life. I’m just talking about being warm, and acknowledging them as fellow humans (which is what “good morning” is about, by the way), and finding points of connection.

And frankly, just liking the people you work with – being able to grab lunch with someone on a particularly weird or slow or stressful day, or being able to talk about something funny that just happened in a meeting, or just having camaraderie with people who know all the characters and stresses of your work life in a way people outside of work will never fully get – there can be real value in that. And that part might not resonate with you, and that’s okay. If it doesn’t, just focus on all the other reasons I gave, but you might be surprised by how much more enjoyable it can make getting up and going to work.

So you asked what’s wrong with being chilly. And the answer is the lack of all the stuff I just discussed.

Caller 2: I have two employees; let’s call them Doofus and Diligent. To be totally fair, both employees show up on time, interact pleasantly with coworkers and patrons, and do whatever is asked of them competently. We work in a library and just like every other library in America, our circulation is down. We can blame a decent economy, the internet, or changing times but my job is still to raise circulation. I expect my employees to help me with this task. Diligent has come up with some amazing ways to engage the public, he enthusiastically embraces other people’s ideas and carries them out, and he presents new ideas that are well thought out without taking offense if they are just not the right time. Doofus recognizes that our library needs to grow but refuses to believe it is possible. He is involved with a federal program that will pay some or all of his student loans if he works for a non-profit for 10 years. His eye is on that prize and he has no idea what he wants to do once it is achieved. I inherited both of these employees. Should I expend time and energy trying to inspire Doofus to love what libraries do? Or maybe the better question is, do I worry about developing Doofus when I have a Diligent? I feel like my job as their manager is to help them grow in skills and confidence, but Doofus has stated that he’s perfectly comfortable where he’s at. Aside from zero ambition or future thinking, he’s not a bad employee. I just feel like I’m not being fair to him if I don’t try to help develop those intangible qualities. Do we have an obligation of fairness in development to our employees? I really appreciate your take on this.

Alison: So I’m going to argue something which may surprise you, which is that at its core, a manager’s job really isn’t to develop employees’ skills and confidence. A manager’s job is to get results in their realm. Now, very often, getting results in your team’s work will mean helping your employees develop their skills. That’s something that, most of the time, a good manager is going to do. But you’re doing it not because developing people is the end you’re aiming for; you’re doing it because it’s in service of your organization’s ability to meet its goals and get great results. Developing people can help them get better results, and it can help you attract and retain good people. So it’s a very worthy thing to do. But ultimately, it is a means to an end. And I know that sounds cold and calculating, and I don’t mean it to be – I just want to be very realistic and clear-eyed about WHY you put energy into developing people.

So when you have a situation like yours, where someone isn’t really interested in developing his skills and trying new ways of doing things, and taking initiative, and so forth, it’s not your job to invest major energy in trying to bring those things out in him. To be clear, I would try at first, but once it’s becomes clear to you that it’s an uphill battle and that’s not something he’s interested in doing, you’re not obligated to keep investing that energy in him.

I would ask yourself whether he’s the right person for the job. Do you want to have someone in his job who doesn’t embrace new ideas and who doesn’t operate with much of a sense of possibility? It’s possible that for the type of work that he does, that’s completely fine and that he’s still able to perform at an excellent level without those things. But for a lot of jobs, those things would really hold him back from performing at the level that you want. So that would be the question I’d focus on: Is he bringing to the job what you need him to bring? If he’s not, it’s okay to have that conversation with him – to say, “Hey, what I need from this role is someone who will help me come up with ideas to raise circulation, someone who will generate ideas themselves or at least enthusiastically carry out other people’s ideas. You’ve said you don’t believe that it’s possible for our library to grow, and we need to figure out if you can change that mindset or not – because to succeed in this job, you do have to come at it differently.”

That’s not exactly what you were asking me, I realize. But it’s an important piece of this. Back to your question, it IS okay to invest your development energies in the place where you’ve seen that they’ll pay off the most. And that might mean that your enthusiastic employee gets the bulk of your investment that way. I would just be very clear with the less enthusiastic one about why that is, so that he’s not drawing his own conclusions about what’s going on and thinking that you’re being unfair or that you don’t like him. You want to be very transparent with him about what’s happening.

Caller 3: Hi, Alison. Firstly, I can’t begin to thank you enough for your words of wisdom. I was thrusted into a management role at a young age and never got the right training. So your podcast gives me a great guideline on so many relevant topics.

So here’s my dilemma: I work as a manager in a really small nonprofit, about six full-time employees, that’s based in California. I have been working with the organization for about three and a half years. Somehow, over these years, our CEO and my direct boss has taken on a very paternal role in my life. I’m about his daughter’s age, and turns out he grew up near where my parents used to live. There are a lot of parallels.

When I took the job, I thought it would be a two-year option that would help me broaden my career. Last year (about the 2.5 year mark), my fiancé and I decided to quit our jobs and then move to New York where he had a job lined up. It was a personal decision that I wholeheartedly felt was the right one. I gave my boss a six-week notice, which I think is fair considering the nature of nonprofits, especially this one. He didn’t take it well. He tuned into his fatherly persona and somehow convinced me to give him another four weeks (a total of 10-11 weeks notice). When I left, I signed a contract that when I returned from traveling abroad that I could help them remotely, from New York. Because I didn’t have a job lined up, this seemed like a short-term blessing.

It’s now one year since I gave him my original notice and I am interviewing with other organizations in my area and I even have an offer on the table. This short-term remote work is really tough for me. I want to tell him I’m leaving, and I guess I have to, but I’m concerned he will talk me out of it again by tapping into his paternal role. How would I best navigate this situation?

Alison: The good news here is, this is 100% entirely within your control. He can’t make you stay. And I know it feels like maybe he can, because he kind of did that last time – but you’ve got to remember that last time you capitulated and agreed to do that. And I totally get it. I come from nonprofits too, and I know there’s an ethos that if you care about the mission, you’ll make these kinds of sacrifices – and that if you don’t, you’re somehow letting down the cause. I’m here to tell you that is BS, and it’s really damaging because it keeps people in bad situations for too long. It also lets them be manipulated into doing things they don’t want to do and that aren’t in their best interests. And it’s really, really common in nonprofits.

Actually, even in for-profit businesses, I get a ton of letters from people who let themselves be talked out of quitting, or talked into giving way notice at real inconvenience to themselves, or people who reluctantly agree to do contract work after they go. People have a lot of trouble making a clean break so you have a lot of company in this boat.

But you’ve got to remember, this is 100% your decision. Your boss may try to pressure you to stay because it would be good for him and good for the organization, but you get to say no to that! And you’re not letting anyone down, you’re not letting down your organization or it’s mission. It’s just a normal part of doing business. People leave jobs and usually they make a clear break and that’s just how it goes. You have to really believe that, because otherwise you won’t stand up to the pressure. It helps to go into the conversation knowing that he’s going to pressure you, and being armed with some language that you’ll use when that happens. So I would be prepared with sentences like “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve realized I need to move on” and “You know I’ve really enjoyed working with you, but I’ve accepted another offer and I’m committed to leaving by (date).” And if he really pressures you, then you just say, “Hey, I appreciate it, but I want to be up-front with you that my decision is final and this time I can’t change it.” And then immediately say something like, “Let’s talk about what the transition of my work should look like.” So that you’re moving forward rather than staying mired in this one spot in the conversation, the question of will you or won’t you.

Now, you mentioned that he gets paternal with you, and I wonder if that means that part of his pressure will be stuff like telling you that you’re making the wrong decision for yourself or that it’ll be fine if you just give them another couple of months, or that kind of thing If he goes into that kind of mode, just be prepared for it and just resolve to hold firm. You really don’t need to say anything other than, “No, I can’t do that.” Truly – you don’t need anything else. You just need to be determined that you won’t change your mind. Also, be prepared for him to propose just giving you LESS work, but still keeping you around, because he might figure that’s a way to get you to agree. Don’t be tempted to give into that either, because when you get this other job, you’re going to want to focus fully on it, and you should have a clean break from this one.

But really, the main thing is to know is this is your call and he can’t make you change it. That doesn’t mean he won’t try, and actually years ago, early in my career, I quit my job and the head of the organization locked me in her office – literally locked me in there – for two hours while she tried to change my mind. It was very odd – she kept playing good cop and then bad cop, all by herself. If that happened now, I wouldn’t have stayed for the whole two hours – I would have gotten up pretty soon into it and said, “I really appreciate you trying to find a way to make it work, but I’m given the decision a lot of thought and this is the right decision for me,” and then gotten up, unlocked the door, and left. But I was 25 at the time, and didn’t think to do that.

That is just to say, there are high-pressure bosses out there! But they can’t make you stay at a job – you’re not an indentured servant, and you get to do what’s right for you.

Caller 4: My team is currently in a huge time crunch due to an upcoming product launch. We have a new coworker who joined shortly before this huge time crunch and, to be honest, I had concerns about her work ethic from the start that I was trying to ignore but I can’t do it anymore. She is almost never her desk, and when she is present, she won’t even pretend to log in and work. She has not offered even one option for our projects that we’ve been working on for weeks now. Meanwhile, to give you an idea of how busy we are, one of my coworkers actually gave up bereavement time, missed his grandmother’s funeral, in order to come and help ease our workload. And meanwhile my manager keeps showing up at my desk and asking me to save the day by coming up with these magnificent answers. I know she makes more money than me due to her prior role and the way internal transfers work in my company, and I’m finding it more and more difficult to keep myself at an even keel. I’m just getting aggravated seeing the lack of work on her part. I’m trying to remind myself that life isn’t really fair. How do I get my mind off of this before I start showing my frustration in front of my colleagues?

Alison: I think you have three options here. The first one is, I wonder if you have you tried directly assigning work to this coworker. That may or may not make sense in your context, but if you’re all working on the same project, it might be perfectly fine to say to her, “Hey, Jane, could you do X and Y by this Friday?” Or “Jane, I’m swamped. Can you help me with X? I can show you exactly what needs to be done.” It might be interesting to see what happens when someone directly pulls her in like that.

The second option is to say something directly to your boss. A lot of people are trained to think that they’re never supposed to complain about a coworker to their manager, but you’re allowed to raise issues that are directly affecting you – and if you’re having to pick up extra work because of her, that gives you standing to say something. You could say something to your manager like, “I’m working a ton of extra hours right now, which I understand is part of the deal leading up to the product launch. But I’m wondering if Jane can share some of the load. My sense is that she hasn’t taken on as much of the work as the rest of us and she has a lot of capacity, and I’d love to be able to shift some of this over to her. Is that something we could do?”

The third option, if that doesn’t work, is to decline to pick up her slack. When your manager comes to you to save the day, you could say, “Well, if I do that, I’d need to push back X and Y” – as opposed to just saying, “Yes, I’ll do it all.” Or even, “If I do that, I won’t have time for X and Y. Is that something that Jane could handle while I work on this?” I do want to note that it’s possible that you’re in a situation where that just wouldn’t fly right now – if you’re in a major crunch for a product launch, the reality is that you might feel like you just have to do it all, and can’t decline without seeming really tone-deaf. If that’s the case, then you should talk to your manager after this is over and at that point say something like, “I want to talk about how work was distributed leading up to the launch. I was hoping to see Jane pitch in more, and I felt like I ended up with a disproportionate share of the work because she wasn’t around. Is there a way to ensure that doesn’t happen again?”

Ultimately, though, if your manager won’t manage the situation, there may not be much else you can do. But I would start with these steps and see where it gets you.

Caller 5: Hi Alison. My question is, is a lack of mentorship a good reason to move on? To add some context, I was given a massive opportunity to head up a new projects team at work. And I’ve been doing this role for almost a year. Prior to that I was in my role for two years in a more established area of the business. So far it’s been going well and I’ve delivered with praise. I’ve found it demanding and I have a lot of responsibility, and I’ve hired and built a team from the ground up, learnt on the job, and I am essentially shaping a role of my own. I’ve also become the advocate for the business for this area. My line manager is a senior director of the business and he is exceptionally busy. Furthermore, he doesn’t really understand what I do. And just to fill you, I work for the kind of business where we take someone and put them into a really new business area and see how that goes.

The problem is I am feeling as if I am not growing professionally to my full potential. And a year is a long time to feel that! Specifically, I feel I have a lack of mentorship and peers to sort of bounce ideas of it and nobody to learn from or with. At conferences, it’s now clear that my development is behind what is out there in the industry as well. And I basically feel that I am not experienced enough to head up such a team right now. I don’t find my role too challenging, but it’s more that I feel I could be better at it and deliver better if I were under the mentorship and direction of someone with more experience. Mostly I feel like I’m working in a silo on my own.

So here’s my question: is it ever a good reason to move on because you are lacking mentorship? I believe I really have the potential to be great in this field, but I need the support to get there. Would employers see this as an admission of “not being able to hack it”/ not good enough?

Alison: It is indeed a good enough reason to move on. That doesn’t mean that you should move on, but it can be really important to have mentorship and someone to bounce ideas off of and test things with, and just someone who gets what you do. And especially if you’re getting the sense that you’re not performing the way that you could if you had more support, that’s a huge reason to consider moving on.

But that doesn’t mean you have to – if you were in this situation and you were fine with it, if you felt like it was an exciting challenge – then great. But it doesn’t sound like feel that way. It sounds like you really don’t like it.

However, before you decide to move on, it’s worth exploring whether there are other ways to get that kind of mentorship from someone other than your boss from your boss. Could you build a relationship with people doing this work at a more senior level outside of your organization? Is there anyone at your current organization who isn’t your boss who gets what you do? I would look around and see if there are other options before you conclude this won’t work.

But if you do decide you’d rather more on, that’s totally okay. Andwhen you’re interviewing and employers ask why you’re leaving, you can say that you’re the only person at your company who does this type of work and you’ve realized that you really enjoy having mentors or peers to collaborate with. You can say that your work is very silo’d, and that you’re looking to work as part of a team. That answer is going to go over quite well with a lot of employers, who are looking for people who want to collaborate. And it’s also perfectly understandable. It’s not going to be a red flag or a sign that you couldn’t hack it – it’ll come across fine.

One other thing, though, is I would maybe find ways to test your belief that your development is behind where you feel like you should be or that you’re not experienced enough to be heading up this kind of team right now. Because it could be that your assessment of that is a little bit off, that you’re having a little bit of imposter syndrome and that maybe you are doing just fine. I don’t know if your boss is someone who you could talk to about that or if there are other people who you could bounce that off of and try to test it, but I would make sure before you do anything like moving on, I would make sure that your take is really grounded in what’s really happened as opposed to just worrying that maybe you’re not good enough.

That’s our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you can record it on the show voicemail by calling (855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, if you have a longer question, a question where you’d want to actually come on the show and talk with me, email it to

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