Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Dealing with Resentment at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

In our hospital, we have a person who made a grave mistake during surgery. As the manager’s pet, she was not disciplined or reprimanded, but anyone else would have been fired on the spot. The rest of the staff noticed the special treatment given to this individual and are extremely resentful. How do I, as one of those staff members, interact with the offending person without letting my resentment show?

Resentful Coworker

Dear Resentful,

We studied this very problem in our research, Silence Kills, and found that 84 percent of healthcare professionals observe colleagues take dangerous shortcuts when working with patients and yet less than 10 percent speak up about their concerns.

I applaud you for raising your concerns. Nobody wants to work in an atmosphere of resentment that could compromise your paramount concern of patient safety. However, the situation you describe is complicated. There are many parties and probably many perspectives on the same set of facts. Let’s begin by examining your concerns.

1. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Think about what you want long-term for yourself, the other person, and for your relationship. This is what I learned from your question:

  • You want fairness and justice. You think your peer is “the manager’s pet,” receives “special treatment,” and perhaps should have been disciplined, reprimanded, or even fired.
  • You want to make sure your team provides patients with the safest, best care possible.
  • You want a positive set of relationships so people don’t feel resentment toward one another.

2. Master your stories. Each of these concerns is based on a set of facts and/or a series of incidents, including the mistake that happened during surgery. But different staff members, and your manager, may interpret these same facts in different ways. All of you are telling yourselves stories about what these facts mean.

Treat your story as a story, not as a fact. Your story should be your best, most honest interpretation of what the facts mean. But also look out for what we call “clever stories”—interpretations that let you off the hook for feeling resentful and letting your feelings show.

Interrogate your story with two questions: a) “Do I really have all the facts I need to be certain my story is true?” and b) “Is there any other story that could fit this same set of facts?” Let’s examine two of the stories you’re telling yourself:

Your story about fairness and justice: What are the facts or incidents that combine to make you tell yourself a story about injustice? How confident are you that your story is true? Here are a few questions to consider:

It sounds as if you are holding your peer accountable for not being disciplined. Shouldn’t that concern be with your manager more than with your peer?

I wonder whether you and your manager are telling yourselves different stories about the “grave mistake.” Your manager may not have witnessed the mistake and that may mean he/she has less information. On the other hand, your manager may have interviewed your colleague as well as others who were there and this information might be both important and confidential.

Your story about patient safety: Any time you have a concern about patient safety you need to deal with it. It’s one of those non-negotiables. However, before you have this crucial conversation, examine your story.

It would be easy to tell yourself the story that your manager is putting friendship above patient safety. That would be a very troubling conclusion. But is it true?

In the old days, errors were often blamed on whoever touched the patient last. Every error was considered “operator error.” Then the pendulum swung toward “system error.” Errors and near misses were seen as caused by faulty processes and procedures rather than individuals. Of course, sensible people demand both capable systems and capable individuals. Neither is sufficient by itself. Do you see how this interplay complicates the stories you and your manager tell about the very same incident?

I don’t have enough information to know whose story is closer to the truth. But I think there is a lot of room for people who value fairness, justice, and patient safety to disagree. Have this conversation with your manager, but don’t assume he or she has bad intentions.

3. Start with the facts, then tentatively share your story. Take the time to prepare for this conversation. Try writing it out as a script and then review it to make sure you:

  • Avoid accusations or any “hot” words or phrases.
  • Begin with your good intentions—what it is you really want. Explain that this conversation is about patient safety. That is your mutual purpose.
  • Start with the facts. These facts include the incidents you are fairly sure you and your manager will agree on. This is your common ground.
  • Tentatively tell your story. Draw the pattern these facts are forming for you. But remember, your manager may see the facts—and almost certainly sees the pattern—differently than you do. Be careful to be respectful of your manager’s story.
  • Stop so that your manager can share his or her perspective. Understand that some of the facts your manager has are likely to be confidential.

I also encourage you to review our latest study, The Silent Treatment, at or register for The Silent Treatment learning series to learn how to solve critical communication breakdowns and avoid dangerous mistakes in the hospital.


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6 thoughts on “Dealing with Resentment at Work”

  1. Peter Alfvin

    Thanks to both of you for the Q&A. I really find these exchanges helpful.

    One part of the response that caught my attention was the statement about holding a peer accountable for being disciplined being more of a management responsibility.

    In my experience, and from my understanding of the research, members of effective teams hold each other accountable rather than relying on the manager to exclusively or even primarily play this role. Is your experience/understanding different? If so, can you cite any supporting evidence?

    Thanks again for your great work.

    Pete Alfvin

  2. David Maxfield

    Hi Peter, I completely agree with your point: effective teams are ones where team members watch each others’ backs and hold each other accountable.

    My point was that “Resentful” seemed to be blaming his/her co-worker for not being punished by their manager. If my manager fails to hold my co-worker accountable, should I blame my co-worker for that? I don’t think so.

    Your point is still valid. If I think my co-worker needs to be held accountable for actions that could harm a patient. I can’t sit back and hope that our manager will solve the problem. I need to speak up.



  3. Luann Woneis

    One aspect I’d like to comment on is the phrase “she was not disciplined or reprimanded”. The writer may have direct knowledge of this, but as a general comment I’d like to ask, “are you sure?” I say this because I’ve been a manager with an employee who was not performing up to par. The situation and the critical nature of the non-performance was different – no one’s life or safety depended on it. But I had other employees who were very resentful at what they assumed was a lack of action on management’s part in dealing with the problem performer, when in fact many steps were being taken with the employee to, first, improve her performance and then ultimately to let her go. These actions all took quite a bit of time and weren’t visible to any of her peers, especially since her performance was not improving. So, again, while the situation I relate is definitely different, I just agree that the story being told may not reflect the facts. The management team could not disclose to her peers that the employee was being subject to disciplinary action, so it wasn’t until much later that folks finally understood the problem was being addressed. That was unfortunate because by then the ongoing resentment had been festering in silence and near-silence for quite some time.

  4. Barbara

    I find these exchanges extremely helpful, too. Just when I pour myself into the pot and settle down for some good stewing, your responses remove the emotion and bring back the logic. These examples remind me of my workplace and the stories I can create oh so skillfully. That’s when I get the book and training material out again to keep me grounded in reality. Your work is priceless! Thanks, Barbara

  5. Mike Nichols

    Regarding the Q&A: “How to Avoid Sugarcoating” the author has obviously never dealt with a seventeen year old child. Just try remaining calm when they think they own the house you paid for and is going to tell you what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.!! I have tried and tried but my emotions get the best of me every time; usually anger! I only yell and sometimes slam a door or something never ever get violent but I cannot remain calm when explaining to my son that this is my house and he will live by my rules or leave!

  6. grizzly bear mom

    Question: we are attempting to reform our 50 person OHRM office and I drafted several specific deliverables in the project charter such as develop a technical competency development office. Hold it and office directors for developing entry level, mid carrer and senior level development plans for employees by speciality area (training, recruiting, etc.) write competency models, assess competencies against them, develop indiviudal development plan policy and training, have employees write individiaul development plans, train employees where skills gap. Our exectuive champion deleted all the specific stuff and said things like train staff in consulting skills. How do I know whether she is trying to avoid the responsibility for really accomplishing work/upsetting the apple cart of holding anyone acocuntable for anything as in managements way, or if it is not appropriate for me to suggest these things at this time? Please respond before 0900 June 3rd because the charter is due then.

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