I had a conversation with a friend recently who was completely demoralized by unprofessional and inappropriate feedback on her performance from her boss and an outside business advisor. She loves her work, and she loves her company, and prior to this episode, she loved working with her boss. She was utterly devastated by being blamed for a lack of results in the business.
She admits she’s not perfect but actually feels like her work has been outstanding and that the lack of performance is squarely on the shoulders of her boss. She mentioned feeling trapped. Now mind you, this is an exceptional person who is a very high-performance contributor to this business. Our conversation got me to thinking, why do we let people box us in, and blame us for their lack of acumen and strong work in the workplace? What can be done about it? The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what you would expect. Speak up and advocate for yourself when you are in a dysfunctional work relationship. It’s never easy, but it is always essential.
Mental Strength – When we have the ability to control our emotions and remain in control, we increase our chances of success. I reminded my friend that she had received months of positive feedback from customers, co-workers, and even from the boss herself. One bad meeting needn’t wipe out years of solid performance. I encouraged her to continue believing in herself and to summon the strength to schedule a conversation with the boss where she calmly and professionally could address the situation. I also encouraged her to let her boss know how disappointed she was in the message and the tone of the meeting she had endured. I reminded her that she can only be a victim of someone else’s behavior when she accepts it. Rather than being blamed for poor performance, she should likely be congratulated for a number of strong accomplishments.
Your Labels Don’t Fit Me – When someone else tries to define our contribution or lack of contribution and that conversation is one-sided and hurtful, it is not helpful to re-establishing positive results. For this reason, I recommend that we resist being labeled unless the label fits. In the words of the great Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, “When he tried to hang that sign on me, I said ’take it down!’”. Labels are often inappropriate, and I reject them when they don’t fit. It is difficult to find your center and your voice when you are being criticized, but that is when it becomes most important. When your manager tells you that you’re the problem, and you disagree, it is a good time to find your courage and engage in the conversation. You MUST make a business case that you are not the problem, and here’s why. Easy to say, and difficult to do, but essential! The best way I know to handle that is by sticking to facts and avoiding opinions and being very open and transparent. With luck, when you’re right, you’re right, and sticking to your beliefs and values will carry the day.
She Still Says I’m The Problem – Sometimes after the conversation, your manager will still maintain that your performance is the problem. If she’s right, then you should change your behavior, your choices and your performance immediately. But what if you’re really NOT the problem? Then, you need to have a candid conversation with yourself. Do you have other options? Do you love your job enough to endure a leader with a warped sense of reality and a penchant to blame the wrong parties? I remember a time in my career when I was working for the wrong person or the wrong company. It would have been easy to swallow my pride and continue working for a paycheck since I had five mouths to feed. Yet, I decided that compromising my principles was NOT an option and that I owed it to myself to find a better opportunity. Doing so opened the door to the best opportunity of my life. Could the same thing happen for you if you stick to your guns? Of course, it could. You’ll never know until you stand your ground.
Believe – Occasionally the leader of a company or a department can be misinformed or misunderstand a situation. In standing up for yourself when it’s justified, you correct a wrong and replace it with a right. You don’t need permission; you only need to choose whether you would rather stand up for yourself or to let someone else impose his or her reality upon you. I recommend that you choose to show your true colors and tell your story. Proudly stand behind your behavior, your choices, and your performance. Believe in yourself and don’t take inappropriate blame or criticism lying down.
What If It Is Me? – There is always the possibility that your manager is right and you are the owner of the problem and perhaps the cause. The best way to get to that is to look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. Alternatively, you could speak with someone who has no stake in the game and who you trust to give it to you straight. If you can find an objective party to weigh in with their assessment, and you trust them to be honest with you about the situation, having an outside assessment can be invaluable. If it turns out that the criticism is warranted, admit it quickly, and immediately go to work on mounting a recovery effort to make up for your mistake.
Don’t Take It Personally – Remember that many things will happen in business that will seem personal at the time but upon reflection, may reveal themselves to have been business all along. Don’t fall into the trap of interpreting every piece of constructive criticism as if it is a personal attack. Sometimes in business, hard conversations need to be conducted. It’s not always a picnic in business, but when conversations cross over from business appropriate to a personal attack, then it’s time to speak up and articulate your value with precision and courage.
Recognize that mistakes happen in business every day. Sometimes you will be wrongly accused. Eventually, it happens to just about everyone. Deal with it effectively. Such a moment calls for some honest reflection and a decisive response. If you are being falsely maligned, or you are being assigned blame that is unwarranted, then this is a very good time to stand your ground. This is a perfect time to have a frank and professional conversation where you politely disagree and state your case without anger or emotion. If you won’t speak up for yourself when you’re challenged, who will? Find your strength and find your voice and enter into a dialog where you honestly state facts and don’t accept inaccurate criticism. It takes guts and grit to stare down criticism, but when that criticism is unwarranted, there is no better time to stand and be counted. If your choices are to stand up and be counted by sticking up for yourself, or to slink off to the penalty box and serve 2 minutes for someone else’s penalty, I choose sticking up for yourself every time.
Michael is an Executive Development Coach and a Business Advisor to award-winning mid-sized companies around the United States, primarily from the high technology industry and primarily fast-growth companies. Michael provides business advisory services and one on one coaching to C-Suite Executives and their Leadership Teams. Michael has taken a special interest in helping fast-growth companies to develop their emerging leaders into the leaders who will help them to achieve their next generation of outstanding results. If you’d like more information about helping your company become the next Fast-Growth award-winning company, send Michael an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.