So you’re sitting in a meeting when your boss starts telling you off. In front of everyone, he is clearly angry that you dropped the ball on a file. He complains that the company will probably lose this client. You’re caught off guard because, you’re pretty sure the criticism is unfounded. In fact, although you never divulged it to him, the contact at the client’s is your cousin.
Being criticized is hard enough to stay calm, cool and collected. But in front of our colleagues, and when we are “sure” it’s groundless, we absolutely have to contain our baser instincts. We must take a deep breath and quickly evaluate the circumstances and the character of the person who is launching the criticisms our way. Are they known as a bully; have they shown signs of not liking you? Or is this out of character?
Sometimes, when caught off guard, we turn red and do nothing. We may not want to draw attention to ourselves, or worse, we want to avoid throwing gas on the fire.
Although not reacting in the moment is better than “over-reacting”, this must not be the only response to criticism. Courageous conversations will be needed to move forward and to become clear on where you stand.
Let’s say you “have to say something” right now.
If this is an out of character accusation or it was an unusual reaction from this person, simply say, “I don’t seem to have the same information as you do. Can we talk about this more concretely after this group meeting, in your office?” Chances are really good, if they are a fair person, they will immediately agree to meet afterwards to sort out what is frustrating them or what they heard. They may regret the outburst and you just gave them a gracious out.
However, if the boss is a known bully and you know that the criticism was not appropriate, here are 5 things you should do:
1-Stay calm and do your best to depersonalize it
Start taking notes as though it’s not about you and let them finish their tirade. My background is in crisis intervention and I learned that when people are that upset, it is never about me. I learned to emotionally detach, even though they were shouting “You did this, you did that…”
My trick is to just write down what they are saying word for word treating it like it is a bunch of symptoms of someone who is not well. Trigger both your compassion and your curiosity for their symptoms. And write it down to sort it out later. Oh yeah, and breathe!!
2- Challenge a specific behavior
If he is attacking you as a person, calmly and firmly name the behavior and ask for it to stop. Start by naming the actual behavior and what you expect instead. Square your shoulders, take a deep breath while firmly and calmly stating the obvious. Here are a couple of examples:
“When you call me stupid, that personal attack does not help me understand what went wrong. Do not call me names.”
“When you shout at me, I cannot even hear what you need from me. I speak to you with respect and expect the same treatment.”
3- Make an appointment to speak privately with him.
Say something like this: “We are both reasonable people who want the best for this company. I’m available to meet with you later today to discuss this.” Offer 2 times, while giving yourself enough time to call your cousin. If he seems to want to continue criticizing you, turn it into a discussion of when you will both sit down. If he is saying he is too busy after the meeting, and you know that he likes an audience, remind him that it is very important to save this client.
4- Take stock of what your value is and what is happening.
Before you go to that meeting, figure out what is your superpower with this person. Even if they are your boss, they are reliant on you for something. Work at protecting your self-confidence. Check in with your support network: in and out of work. (If you don’t have a support network: it’s time to DEVELOP ONE! Pronto!)
Do not let another person’s under-managed anger take up residence in your brain or self-image. Besides being a protective factor for your mental wellness, staying confident, calm and curious will dis-empower him and has a good chance of earning his respect. Bullies go after weak people.
5- Prepare well for the meeting
Gather all the information about the complaint, being sure to look for what you might have missed. Never assume that he is completely wrong and you are completely right. When we are trying to solve complaints, we have to be like an archaeologist! For instance, he may have gone golfing with your cousin’s boss and have information you don’t know about.
Assume the best and go in prepared to dialogue in a rational discourse. In the corporate world, that is the professional approach and the best course of action. Be ready to admit that you may have misinterpreted something or missed something. Ask your boss for what he would recommend you do. Listen respectfully and (yup) write it down.
Whatever the reason that your boss unfairly criticized you, you can be darn sure something is triggering him. Insecurity. Fears around his own job. A fight at home. (This is more often than people think.) Do not flatter him falsely, but be sure to treat him with respect. In a perfect world, if he is successful at his job, it would be great if you would turn him into an ally and mentor. But only if you can truly respect him.
Curiosity and compassion are your 2 best weapons to protect yourself and to find common ground with even the most difficult people. Be very curious about what just happened and keep a record of it.
If unfair behaviour is recurrent, he is creating a toxic environment. There will come a time to review whether you need to include HR or start looking for a better work environment.