Sunday 2 February 2014

Handling unfair criticism from your manager. Remember to listen, then think and only then react constructively!

“Don't think for a minute that bad publicity and endless criticism don't leave their claw marks on everyone concerned. Your friends try to cheer you up by saying lightly, "I suppose you get used to it, and ignore it." You try. You try damned hard. But you never get used to it. It always wounds and hurts.” - Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story

The above quote is a reality. Your friends might advise you to "take it on the chin" but nevertheless it requires tremendous effort and maturity to handle unfair criticism.Rather than give a generic write-up I am using a true yet unfortunate event from the real world to help you make sense of handling unfair criticism from your manager. The situation is offered in good faith and my request is that you focus on the principle being outlined.

I had a discussion with a people manager ("Joe") who was seeking guidance from me on an unfortunate situation where one of his direct reports ("Unknown") had spoken ill of him directly to his manager ("Devi"). Joe outlined that he was called in by a visibly agitated Devi who proceeded to tear into him. She outlined that Unknown had approached her and outlined how Joe had used bad language when discussing how Unknown had handled an assignment. The discussion that emanated between Joe and Devi was intense and placed Joe on the back-foot. Devi would not divulge the name of the individual who had given the feedback, whereas Joe ended was arguing that she should divulge the name of Unknown. This ultimately led to Devi cutting the discussion 
short and telling Joe that he must shape up or he would found himself shipped out from his leadership position. Devi's assessment was that Joe was not living up to the standards expected of him by the organisation.

Joe was visibly upset and agitated while outlining the event to me and I could sense that he was hurt. Joe felt that there was some political agenda involved as there was an ongoing discussion on him being moved into another assignment. Joe admitted that he had lost his cool during the discussion and told Devi that he might be a people manager but ultimately he was also an employee and that he was aware of his rights as an employee. He felt that Devi not revealing the individual’s name was indicative of a conspiracy and unfair but importantly placing him in bad light. It was clear that Joe had left the meeting with Devi under a dark cloud.

Joe asked me whether he should seek advice from an external person to understanding his rights. I knew that this was a delicate situation but rather than I pontificate I felt that the way forward should be decided by Joe himself. I then had the following conversation with him.

Deepak – “What would you want to achieve or take away from this discussion with me?”

Joe – “I want to know whether I should file a HR complaint against Devi for accusing me without giving me a chance or opportunity to explain. I am sure this is being done to ensure that I don’t get the next assignment.”

Deepak – “Has Devi in the past ever complained or raised a concern on how you behaved or handled subordinates?”

Joe – “No. This was the first time that this has happened. I am going to wring the neck of Unknown, that lying twit!”

Deepak – “Joe, I need you to focus on the issue. Wringing the neck of unknown is of no consequence at this point! Let’s go back to your point about filing an HR complaint against Devi. What do you think that will achieve?”

Joe – “That will teach Devi a lesson. I am not going to let her walk over me! If she can react to lies and falsehoods from Unknown then she is a bad manager. She should have been fair and given me an opportunity to explain rather than pass judgement in such a cavalier manner!”

Deepak – “OK. Clearly you are hurt that an assessment or judgement was passed about you without you being given an opportunity to explain. Can I ask you a simple question?”

Joe – “Of course you can.”

Deepak – “If you were Devi how would you have reacted to Unknown's complaint against you?"

Joe – “I would have called my subordinate in and told him to explain to me what was going on in a calm manner.”

Deepak – “Ok so assuming that she was shocked and surprised from Unknown's revelation. Is it possible that her reaction was because she was not expecting this at all from you? And her first reaction was the wrong one?”

Joe – “What do you mean not expecting this from me? Of course, this is not me. I have been a people manager for eight years and this is the first time that a manager of mine has told me to mind my language and manners with subordinates!”

Deepak – “Ok. So you were surprised by her reaction. If so then surely, you can see that she is reacting to something that she did not expect from your or about you? For one second, let us assume that she was caught by surprise and genuinely did not know how else to handle this situation. How could you have calmed the situation down and ensured that you managed to give her your point of view?”

Joe – “Calm her down! Why should I calm her down. She took off like a rocket and forgot that I an an employee also. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander so I gave it back to her!"

Deepak – “I repeat my question. Could you have calmed things down and ensured that you managed to share your point of view?”

Joe – “What is this? Of course I could have stayed calm but do you understand what it means to be accused of something like this! I am livid that you are asking me to stay calm when my reputation is at stake!”

Deepak – “Ok, so you left the meeting with your reputation intact because you handled the situation very well?”

Joe – “Hmm…I guess I did not”.

Deepak – “So knowing that your reputation still lies in 'tatters', why don’t you think of a better way to have handled this with her? Perhaps, you need another meeting with her? Right?”

Joe – “Ok. So I am man enough to sit down with her again and work this through.”

Deepak – “What do you think needs to be said or done here to ensure that she feels comfortable about your leadership skills? Making amends is now part of the agenda. Remember you want to keep your reputation intact but more importantly need to assess whether you do need to escalate this into an HR issue?”

Joe – “Fine. I get the point that I need to meet her again and state my point of view.”

Deepak – “Hold on. What is your point of view? Is it enough to remind her that you did not behave that way or that Unknown is lying? Or perhaps you need to take a different tact in restoring her faith in you”

Joe – “I guess I cannot suggest that I be put head to head with Unknown? If I go into confrontation mode with Unknown then I am sure that I will come out on top but not sure whether I would feel any better about all this.”

Deepak – “So what do you think your conversation with Devi should look and feel like?”

Joe – “I guess I could go back and sit down with her and apologise for my earlier outburst? I am sure she will understand that I reacted as the accusation was serious enough to put me on the back-foot. I can also tell her about my relationship with other direct reports. Should I talk to HR about this also?”

Deepak – “Nobody can stop you from talking to HR but you have to make a call whether you want to seek informal guidance or formal intervention. If it is informal guidance then what is your assessment on HR’s understanding of you as a people manager from past interaction with them?”

Joe – “My HR Manager Sue is someone that I have worked with extensively and I am sure that she can be very helpful in making sense of this for me or even having a word with Devi about me. What do you suggest?"

Deepak – “If you believe that Sue is someone that you respect and feel can vouch for you as well as able to put Devi’s mind at ease then you should do so. Would you consider asking Sue to seek out the name of the direct report and perhaps have an informal chat with Unknown to understand the context? The reason I say this is that once in my career I had used an expletive during a conversation with a direct report and my subordinate was unhappy as they felt that I had used the expletive directly at them. Luckily for me I was able to close that immediately with the direct report rather than have them go to my manager or HR."

Joe – “I am not too sure whether having Sue speak to Devi would be of value but I do think that Sue speaking to Unknown to understand the context would be helpful. But I can see that Sue would have to speak to Devi to know which of my direct reports spoke ill about me. Right?"

Deepak – “Joe, your options are limited since your reaction post the meeting with Devi does not leave you with too many avenues to explore. The corporate world has its fair share of back-stabbers! I am assuming that this might be the case here but context is critical. Sue can help on that count. At the same time, I think you need to give some leeway to Devi and not confuse her message with her tone. She may have reacted more out of disappointment with the situation rather than just pass judgement on you. It could be genuine surprise on her part.”

Joe – “So if I understand you, the first meeting itself could have led to a better outcome if I had spend more time in understanding Devi’s frustration and giving her peace of mind about my relationship with my direct reports. Hey..would asking her to speak to Sue at that point itself helped?”

Deepak – “Joe, I think you already know the answer to that. I believe it would have given you a natural exit from that conversation and led to a better outcome than you storming out of the meeting talking about your rights as an employee, which by the way you still have but let us look at that further down the road. Hope that makes sense?"

Joe – “Yes it does. I feel a bit better now. I think the context is relevant and I also realise that as a people manager others expect more from me and I need to be careful in how I react to such situations in the future. Just that I was furious to learn that I could be accused of something like this!”

Deepak – “Joe, think about it this way. If Devi was convinced that you had done what Unknown said you did then she would have met you with HR or perhaps convinced the employee to put a complaint against you. She did not do that. Perhaps because she trusts you but at the same time did not expect the conversation with you to end the way it did! You better not wait for her to resolve this. You need to resolve this. Also start thinking that perhaps you may have also indulged in criticising Unknown in the same way that Devi has upset you it is possible that you upset that individual also?”

Joe – “Not sure why Unknown could not speak to me before speaking to Devi, but I guess that does not matter at this point. Good I spoke to you. I will immediately work on making amends and getting the necessary clarity. I will ask Devi and Sue if they want to work with Unknown directly or I meet unknown face to face.”

Deepak – “Can I ask what you might say or do when you meet Unknown face to face? I do agree that ultimately this needs to happen as this is a serious allegation but how you conduct yourself can either establish you or destroy you at this particular point in your career!”

Joe – “I had a feeling you would say that. Clearly confrontation is not warranted. It is in my interest to make sense of this and if this is a misunderstanding the make amends. If necessary, I am ok to apologise if something I said or did was misconstrued. I think I was too caught up with the allegation and focused on the fact that my manager was thinking less of me. Good we spoke.”

Deepak – “Yes. Good we spoke. You know what needs to be done so go and do it asap. Keep me updated on how things work out.”

The above scenario can be played out in many ways but the gist is that one needs to be aware that there is a need to moderate any reaction to a situation of this nature. In the end remember that unwarranted criticism is a recurring theme in the corporate world particularly as you move upwards in the hierarchy. My advice is that you learn to listen to the same. Don’t get defensive too early as this only makes your listening skills go to the back burner! I know this is difficult but the trick is in listening and asking clarifying questions (as needed). Your intent is to 'build' up to a response rather than rush into a 'response'.

People are capable of resolving misunderstandings and concerns but leave behind a bitter taste due to their initial negative reaction, sense of victimisation and failure to see the delicate balance being played out by managers like Devi. If no politics are involved then Devi is also on the back-foot as ultimately Joe’s direct report is part of her organisation. It is in her interest to get this matter sorted out. What Devi could have done is not in scope for this blog but I am keen on hearing any input or guidance on how Devi could have handled this. Also feel free to give any input or guidance on the possible variations on my conversation with Joe that could have helped.


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