When “fine” means just the opposite

We’ve all seen it, heard it and experienced it. It can happen with friends, spouses, significant others and associates. You ask an innocuous question such as, “How are you?” expecting a perfunctory response of “great” or “OK.” Instead, you receive the dreaded, drier-than-burnt-toast reply of “fine.” Instantly, you know that if looks and words could kill, your obituary would be read by all in the morning paper.

What should you do if you are the recipient of a negative rejoinder? Your first thought might be, two can play this game, as you grunt hmmm and respond in kind with a pregnant pause punctuated by a darted glance as you do an abrupt about-face and utter sarcastically, “I see.” This may be the most satisfying knee-jerk reaction. If you’re the boss, however, it’s time to pause and seek an alternative that will get to the bottom of what’s gnawing at the aggressor.

Ignoring the cascading effect of two or three days of the silent treatment is not only an exercise in futility, but it also can set a negative precedent for others on your team to emulate when faced with similar circumstances.

Being the adult in the room requires bringing the matter to a head by sincerely saying something along the lines of a conciliatory, “It seems that I may have done something that’s troubling you, can we take a moment to privately discuss?” Most times this will nip an escalating, futile situation in the bud.

When someone is unhappy, it can spread faster than the malaria epidemic in the Panama Canal. One moment everyone on the team is harmoniously working together, than suddenly other people start noticing this cold shoulder attitude and, without even realizing it, start taking sides.

Guilt or innocence is immaterial. All that really matters is bringing to the surface what the issue is, dealing with it and clearing the air. This models professional behavior and will become an example of how you want grown-ups to play in your sandbox. There is nothing worse than petty politics and wasting energy and emotion on a matter that does not rise to a level that justifies more than taking a childlike timeout for five minutes of pouting, and then moving on.

Many elements contribute to creating a hostile work environment, which can wreak havoc on an organization. The old saying, “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” is the foundation of associates working together on a common cause to reach objectives. Every company has a unique culture. Some are notorious for fostering backstabbing, while the good ones are renowned for their camaraderie and teamwork.

Acquiescing by letting employees go to radio silence for a perceived transgression, big or small, is a bad reflection on top management who permit such nonsense. Clearing the air typically produces a cathartic effect and a work environment where the spoken word “fine” is acknowledged with a quick smile and friendly nod.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide. Today, as founder/CEO of Max-Ventures, his firm invests in and consults for retail businesses.