When your behavior is misinterpreted - intentions versus perceptions

From a reader in the United Kingdom…
Dear Joan:
I was confronted by a staff member recently. She had asked me to carry out a task, but I was busy at the time and told her I would attend to it. I also questioned the need for a specific job and she explained why it was necessary. I later finished my first job, thanked the midwife involved (I'll call her "Jane") and said "People like you make the job better." Unknown to me, this other person, I'll call her "Sally" overheard me, followed me into the supplies room and asked me why I had such a bad attitude, and said that I'm never helpful, I never talk to patients, or to other midwives (I'm a female doctor.) She went on in that vein for a while and I basically replied that she needed to be more specific, and that if she or anyone had a problem with me, it was better dealt with in a calm professional manner, not in an outburst.  
She said she would not "name names" but people were tired of my bad attitude. She then walked away. Later, I called aside two other midwives separately - one of whom was "Jane” and asked if my behavior had angered them, or been cause for concern. Both said no. Jane said I was pretty quiet but that did not mean I was arrogant or difficult, but others may have viewed me that way.
I am quiet, but then I'm shy and not very good at the easy social chitchat others use for building friendships. I have never had any queries regarding my professional conduct with staff or patients. I do have friends here - midwives, doctors, etc., who I get on with extremely well. I may not be able to talk with patients about their new dog/house/car but I am professional, courteous and appropriately sympathetic. Jane suggested I become more outgoing and smile more but I'm wary of appearing insincere. I would rather be myself.
I have considered discussing Sally's comments with the Supervisor of Midwives but I'm afraid of stirring up trouble and resentment and alienating even more people. I feel upset and kind of violated about being verbally attacked and the notion that some people are saying stuff behind my back, but I do not know what to do. I have worked in the hospital for three months and I'm a foreigner. Your reply and comments will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
Your colleague used poor judgment when she accosted you in the supply room. However, she may have done you a favor by calling to your attention the behavior that is being misinterpreted. When I coach executives, we often get into the “intentions versus perceptions” conversation.  Inevitably, their intentions are often noble or at least neutral, but when others view it through their own personal lens, their perception of the executive’s behavior is quite different. For example, one executive frequently used disclaimers in an effort to be polite and humble, as in, “This idea may not work but…” but others interpreted his comments as weak and lacking conviction.
Shy and quiet individuals often tell me that their behavior is mistaken as judgmental or arrogant, which your colleague Jane may have been hinting at. She was probably filling you in on what some people think in an indirect way by telling you, “being quiet doesn’t mean you are arrogant or difficult, but others may view you that way.”
If a colleague has a need for approval and social interaction, which it appears Sally does, one could speculate that she felt brushed off when she asked you to do the task. Then she may have felt that you were interrogating her and questioning her competence when you asked her to explain why you should do it. The final straw appears to have been when you singled out her peer, Jane, for a compliment in front of Sally, which Sally may have taken as an intentional snub. Ah, yes…innocent intentions but negative perceptions.
“But I can’t be a mind-reader!” you are probably thinking. “It’s not my problem if Sally and others view my behavior negatively.” While that may be true, a little self-awareness and a little attention to other’s needs would make your work life a lot smoother.
Start by developing a “Third Eye.” It may sound like a bad science fiction movie but it really works to create personal awareness.  The Third Eye is your ability to watch yourself interact with others. It takes a little practice but with time, you should be able to not only interact with someone but also have that objective eye recording what is happening, almost like an objective video of the exchange. Once you start paying attention to the other person’s body language, tone and choice of words, you will start adjusting during the conversation.
One person I coached started noticing the subtle subtext of the meetings he attended. He said, “In the past, I was so busy just focusing on the agenda we were discussing, I had no idea there were so many subtle cues I was just plain missing. Now, I watch eyes, posture, the tone of a question, and I’m having much more success making my points without ticking other people off.”
While I understand that you don’t want to seem manipulative or come off as insincere, there are a few things you can do that will go a long way toward more harmonious work relationships. One of the most important is to recognize the efforts of others, even small things. As you develop your third eye, you will begin to notice when someone works through their break to help you out, or handles a tough patient with tact and restraint. Don’t just say, “Thanks.” Tell the person what you are thanking them for. “Thanks for working through your break…you probably really needed one today but I really appreciate the help.”
I agree that complaining to someone’s supervisor only makes the situation worse and confirms the person’s view of you. The more you value the contributions of those around you, the more your reputation will change from having a “bad attitude” to someone people enjoy working with. Who knows—without faking it, you may even catch yourself smiling.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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