Navigating Workplace Dynamics: Dealing with Perceived Hostility in Co-workers’ Responses

Minh Reigen
3 min readNov 23, 2023
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

In the intricate dance of workplace communication, the feeling of having asked a seemingly “stupid” question in a public setting is a familiar chord that resonates with professionals across various fields. Whether you’re in an office or out in the field, there’s a shared experience of feeling like a clown, a performer inadvertently entertaining the audience with unintentional comedic moments. Free laughs, anyone?

The phrase “asking questions is hard” reverberates through the corridors of both my co-workers’ conversations and my internal dialogue. This struggle intensifies just before mustering the courage to pose a question at work especially in the team channels where everyone else can see. The team’s culture becomes a decisive factor, creating either a secure and supportive atmosphere or one that amplifies nerves.

Yet, the challenge transcends individual insecurities; it intertwines with the fabric of team culture. Reflecting on remote work experiences, I’ve encountered instances where questions or comments in the team Slack channel triggered a sense of being a pathetic egoistic clown, a fraud cashing a paycheck while feeling inadequate in my purported expertise. Engaging with seemingly “robotic” co-workers, akin to a “mean” version of chatGPT, further escalated my insecurity in seeking clarification.

In these moments, the teachings of the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) book I have been reading became a beacon. (I’m also on a journey to become a better parent myself.) Identifying relationship problems hinges on recognizing whose problem it truly is. In the case of perceived “robotic” responses, the issue lies not in the co-worker’s manner but in my perception, shaped by past experiences interpreting their responses as cold and unfeeling — and their sole purpose is to prove me wrong in front of other co-workers!

The two key facets of this predicament are equally crucial. First, team culture plays a pivotal role in fostering an environment where questions are embraced, eliminating the fear of asking perceived “stupid” questions. Second, personal interpretation of co-workers’ responses requires introspection to determine whose problem it truly is. “Mean” replies may not be intended as such, and the impact on feelings often stems from personal judgments.

Addressing the issue involves establishing clear boundaries and discerning whether it’s a personal challenge or if it pertains to others. If you find it necessary to address the matter, engage in open communication with your co-worker. Presenting facts, outlining the impact, and expressing your feelings without making it overly personal can help clarify any confusion in the relationship. The objective isn’t to change your co-worker but rather to regain control over your own emotions. This process facilitates effective internal communication, enabling you to anticipate and respond with clarity when similar situations arise in the future.

In conclusion, workplace incidents where questions are perceived negatively are inevitable. Avoiding team communication channels isn’t the solution. Instead, we should practice leaving initial negative thoughts behind and discerning whose problem it is. It’s a lifelong learning process, requiring patience and practice. The team culture is a factor often beyond one’s control, and addressing issues with managers or team leads may be necessary. In the end, if all else fails, considering leaving the team might be the best solution for personal growth. Wishing you a fulfilling journey of personal development!