Question: I work in an industry that is youth oriented and freelance driven. Creative professionals in this field tend to get work through positive word of mouth. I was once in the creative area but have moved into a more executive role.
I got a call from a colleague who wanted advice about hiring a mutual friend. This mutual friend does excellent work but, as my colleague had heard, has become bitter and jaded. He spends a lot of time complaining that these “youngsters don’t know what they are doing” and that he has to “do their job for them.”
He’s not wrong: The clients have always been young and, yes, sometimes you have to hold their hand. But it’s like no client meets his standards. He wasn’t always this way — I just think a bad gig really warped his perception. I told the colleague my friend is really talented, and he was hired. The colleague who hired him is cautiously optimistic.
Should I talk to my creative friend about his attitude? He is talented and we go way back. But I’m loath to say anything that will reveal to him that his rep is taking a hit across the industry.
Answer: When someone is sitting in his living room flipping lit matches over his shoulder, a friend should let him know he’s in danger of burning his house down.
But you don’t have to hit him with the fire hose of truth, e.g., “Everyone thinks you’re a jerk, and no one wants to work with you.” That’s harsh and likely to trigger defensiveness. Plus, when confidence curdles into arrogance, the most likely cause is burnout. So use what you know to draw him into a conversation about what’s going on, preferably over lunch or coffee.
When he inevitably spits some venom about the inept whippersnappers surrounding him, that’s your opportunity: “I know clients can be frustrating, but I’ve been hearing an unusual amount of negativity from you lately. Is everything OK?”
Sometimes seeing one’s own reflection in a friend’s reaction is a useful wake-up call. Perhaps you’ll then be able to nudge him into a more uplifting conversation about exploring new paths, as you did.
What if he insists that everyone else’s incompetence, not his attitude, is the problem? I’m not a fan of sharing gossip with its targets, but this might be where you have to douse him with a controlled stream of truth: “You should know I’ve been asked my opinion about working with you, because word is that you don’t seem to think much of your clients. I know your work is excellent, and I tell people that, but I’m concerned that your frustration is costing you connections.”
Of course, you’re not his career coach. If he’s content to keep flipping matches, all you can do is offer honest, supportive referrals and hope someone thinks his reputed surliness is a small price to pay for excellent work.
Karla Miller writes about work dramas and traumas for the Washington Post.