Observing the Office Grouch

Monday, November 10th marked the 45th anniversary of ‘Sesame Street’. I grew up watching the show. I’m not so grown up that I didn’t smile when I saw my favourite characters in the news coverage of the anniversary.

Many of the lessons Sesame Street taught us about how to get along with the people in our neighborhood actually still serve us well in the workplace.

Consider Oscar the Grouch, for example. Okay, he’s a Muppet, not a person. But his traits aren’t too different from some of the curmudgeonly colleagues I’ve worked with. When I think about those colleagues, I realize how much I’ve learned from them. And how valuable they can be to an organization.



  1. A healthy dose of skepticism isn’t necessarily badGrouches counterbalance shiny, happy tendencies from creative can-do types by asking tough questions and making astute observations. They speak from experience.
  2. Grouches have high standards. They expect you to meet those standards. Your work product will be better for it.
  3. They will offer recognition or appreciation only when it’s genuinely deserved. I’ve had some tough customers; their vote of confidence is all the more meaningful because I know I’ve earned it.
  4. They force you to be organized and prepared. Ever worked with someone who gives you “the look” from his desk while you quake in the doorway and stammer out a question? I’d bet you have. I’d also bet that you organized your thoughts so you’d take up as little time as possible and then scram.
  5. You must respect their garbage can. Err….I mean office. The office grouch prefers to deal with colleagues on his or her turf. And if you’re invited in, for Pete’s sake, don’t move anything around.

Law firms and legal organizations can be full of people who take themselves and their work seriously. Understandably so, given the scale of risk that lawyers manage on behalf of their clients.

It’s scary, though, to approach a colleague who seems perpetually serious, grouchy, prickly, misanthropic or all of the above. Associates and staff can feel especially intimidated if the grouch in question has some power over their careers. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that your colleague might be gruff or unfriendly, but probably isn’t set on making your life miserable. Find a way to work together. You might just enjoy it.

PS: This blog post is really about appreciating nice curmudgeons, not dealing with difficult contrarians, genuinely disrespectful coworkers or abusive bullies who cause workplace issues worthy of a completely separate post.